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  • Tony Judt’s Lost Classic February 20, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    tony judt

    Invisible books are, as long time readers of this blog will know, books that have never existed save in the imagination. Beach has offered, over the years, many such invisible titles, most dreamt up or taken from books (where there are shelves and shelves of these non-existent volumes). However, a new sub-category of invisible book has just emerged into Beach’s fevered mind. The book that authors plan but never actually get around to writing. Take here Tony Judt, the British historian who penned one of the great history books of the last generation Postwar. Judt began to plan Postwar in 1989 on a trip through Vienna. He started to research the book about three years later and finished the magnificent eight hundred pages in 2005 aged 57. He should have had several good years ahead of him, but his health had already showed signs of rockiness: in fact, Judt had been lucky to survive a bout of cancer in 2001-2002 and the world should be grateful it got Postwar. Judt would be struck down by a neurological illness in 2008, the name of which is too horrible to write here, and he finally died in 2010 after an almost unimaginably ghastly two years, in which he managed to dictate two books. Let’s go back though, now, to 2006. In that year Judt was still bathing in the afterglow of Postwar that had been almost universally welcomed as a ‘great’, an instant classic. When asked by Donald A. Yerxa, in an interview published February 2006, what his plans were Judt claimed flippantly that it was to play baseball. But, then, he talked  about two books he hoped to write. One of the two books does not sound that promising:

    …I would like to write a historical essay on the 20th-century intellectual condition—the ideas and intellectual exchanges, for good and ill, that shaped the 20th century.

    For what it is worth ‘a historical essay’ on the intellectual condition of the twentieth-century, let’s call it, The Twentieth-Century Intellectual, sounds a minor polemic: and Judt was not at his best with raw thinking. Did The Twentieth-Century Intellectual turn into his Ill Fares the Land, a rather desperate defence of social democracy?* Possibly. Or would it rather have been like his earlier works on French intellectual history: an account of the tiresome battles within the left that came down to one thing – can we possibly defend communism? Far more exciting was another book that Judt was imagining. Beach likes to think of it as The Inland Sea: the Contemporary Mediterranean.

    One is a book on the contemporary Mediterranean world. I don’t mean to pretend to be a modern Braudel, but it seems to me that the Mediterranean space is a sort of edge where languages, cultures, memories, religions, economies are all now going to meet in very uncomfortable ways. So I’d like to write a contemporary historical anthropology of the Mediterranean.

    Judt was likely thinking, I’ll have to learn Arab [he’d learnt Czech during ‘a midlife crisis’], with a research team it’ll take me ten years to put this book together. I’ll deal with Israel and Palestine, of course, Italy and Egypt, but also the forgotten countries, Albania and Tunisia, Lebanon and Greece. (Hell, as a really great historian Judt would have got ten pages on Monaco in.) My health’s not the best but I should make it to 60, 65. I’ll have two classic books by the time they lower me into the ground. And yet… At some point in 2008 Judt must have seen The Inland Sea slip away from him for ever, perhaps in a taxi coming back from the neurologist. Fair play to Judt though, the man kept planning and adjusting. This is a particularly moving comment from Thinking the Twentieth Century, conversations with Timothy Snyder, when Judt was already withering into truth: he was surely aware that he could never write this book either. He was already dictating his articles having lost the use of his hands.  Perhaps the reference to his sons is the key?

    What I am now thinking of writing is another book that [my sons] could read if the spirit so moved them: Locomotion, a history of trains. The time has come to write about more than just the things one understands; it is just as important if not more so to write about the things one cares about. I had already done a little of that sort of writing, but only with reference to people and ideas: topics I was paid, so to speak, to understand. It took me a little while to convince myself that anyone might be interested in what I had to say about railways. [love this]  What I wanted to write was a study of the coming of modern life through the medium of the history of the railway train. And not just modern life, but the fate of modern sociability and collective life in our over-privatized societies. The railway, after all, was a creator of sociability. The coming of the railways facilitated the emergence of what we have come to know as public life: public transport, public places, public access, public buildings and so on. The idea that people who were not obliged to travel in the company of others might choose to do so—if provision was made for status sensibility and physical comfort—was in itself revolutionary. The implications for the emergence of social class (and class distinctions), as well as for our sense of community across distance and time, were huge. It seemed to me that an account of the rise and fall (and, in Europe, the resurrection) of the railway might be an instructive way to think through what has gone wrong in countries like America and Great Britain.

    Judt did, if anyone is interested, write a few essays about ‘red’ railways in  New York papers/magazines. They can be found in the 2015 collection of essays When the Facts Change.  There is a remarkable comment about how Margaret Thatcher didn’t like riding the rails…

    Any other invisible libraries full of planned but unwritten works? Drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    * Wrong! In fact Tim Snyder writes in Thinking the Twentieth Century ‘I used [Judt’s] chapter outline [for the intellectual history] as the basis for the third round of questions.’ (xii)