The Courage of Tony Judt

“We need to rediscover how to talk about change: how to imagine very different arrangements for ourselves…” Tony Judt

Over the years I have read many of the essays and reflections Tony Judt wrote for the New York Review of Books. Since I had no background or particular expertise in the issues he discussed, I never felt I could write about them. However, I admired the spirit in which they were written and especially the way he went about reasoning.

He kept asking questions, wanted you to take issue with him, wanted you to help him think through his ideas, to talk and argue with him. How could I not admire him, regardless of whatever view he held, a view that was always provisional anyway?

Tony Judt died last August. Since 2008, he had suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). He was quadriplegic and on a breathing machine. He couldn’t move, not even to scratch an inch. He couldn’t write and was only able to express his thoughts and feelings by means of a voice amplifier that sputtered out his gradually weakening voice. He wrote: “In effect, ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole.”

And yet, in spite of everything, he continued to “write” essays and four books including his last, Thinking the Twentieth Century, completed with the help of Timothy Snyder who engaged him in a series of conversations. In “Tony Judt: A Final Victory” his wife, Jennifer Homans, describes how he continued to work up until his last day. She writes:

“…ideas were everything. Tony had always cared more about ideas than anything—more than friends; more in some in some ways than himself. He believed—really believed—that they were bigger than he was. He wouldn’t survive, but they would.”

She speaks often of his need to think socially, to make human rather than monetary gain the goals of social policy. “Tony had always been a forthright critic of social injustice; now he had zero tolerance…zero tolerance for political deceptions and intellectual dishonesty.”

With moving sadness she continues, “…he had lost his students, his classrooms, his desk; he couldn’t travel or take a walk. He had lost, in other words, the places that had helped him think through his ideas.”

Similarly, “He wanted desperately to teach them [his two boys shown in the photo with his wife and medical assistant], to love them, to be with them into their adulthood. He had so much to tell them about where he had been, whom he had known, books he had read (and written), and what he had made of it all.”

I write about Judt briefly out profound admiration for his courage, for his stamina, for his struggle, a moment-to-moment struggle to keep going, to keep thinking and talking ideas, all the while growing weaker, paralyzed within his "bubble.”

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books Ian Buruma concludes his tribute: “Judt would have been the last to claim that he had all the answers. But he asked all the right questions. And for that we can only be grateful.”

And at the end of Ill Fares the Land, Judt says it isn’t enough to talk and write about ideas. “But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge. Philosophers, it was famously observed, have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.”


On Bookplates

Do you remember the days when you went to the library, found a book on the shelf, and when you open it up saw a colorful bookplate pasted inside the front cover? The bookplate always had some kind of drawing, perhaps a symbol, image, or flower and then the name of a person.

That was what always drew my attention. Who was this person? What was their interest in this book, this library and perhaps the book fund that was established in their honor? While I didn’t linger long over these questions, I did always notice the bookplate and spent a little time thinking about it.

Cynthia Haven’s recent blog, Bookplate Porn, brought this all back to me. She says she misses “those exquisite bookplates you used to run across when you peeked into the top-notch books in the finest libraries or secondhand bookstores.” Haven is at Stanford University and on her blog she posts a few from the Stanford Libraries.

Here is one I found in their library:

It is describes a book fund established to honor a person I have known for over 50 years. In fact, she is my wife.

I met her in that very same university library when we were both undergraduate students. She said she saw me reading a book with my legs propped up on a table in the main reading room and that I looked like an interesting person. Ever since, she has been super-cautious about judging a person on the basis of first impressions.

Here is a bookplate of another person with the very same last name at the Stanford Library.

As you can see, it is less elaborate, quite simple in design, not unlike the simplicity of the person for whom the bookplate was established. She was a person who was very familiar to me in my youth. In fact, she was my mother.

She gave me a set of my first and only bookplates that I duly pasted inside the cover of all the books of my youth. Whatever happened to that bookplate? Over the weekend I searched in vain for a book that had one, but found to my dismay, that I no longer have any from those days.

My mother was a reader, a serious reader, who spent most of the day reading a book and pondering its meanings. She was a great admirer of the works of D. H. Lawrence, read everything he wrote, a fair amount of what others wrote about him, and eventually became something of a Lawrence scholar.

In time, she developed an exceptional collection on Lawrence. One day I asked her what she was going to do with it. She replied she would will it to the Stanford University Library. It did not take me more than a moment to say, let’s do it now.

And so together with my brother, we established the Shirley P. Katzev Book Fund at the Stanford Library that is largely, but no longer exclusively, devoted to books by or about D. H. Lawrence. The endowment has grown, the collection is now quite extensive, and we are told it is widely used by Lawrence and other literary scholars.

The culture of bookplates, like so many other tangible features of printed books, will soon disappear in the era of electronic books. No doubt, Cynthia Haven and countless others will then come to miss them even more.



The following passage occurs early in Olaf Olafsson’s new novel, Restoration.

“I live on a farm in the south of Tuscany. Chianciano, the nearest village, is twelve miles away, the railway station six. Our house stands on a hill with a view of the wide valley….I never want to leave.”

Instantly I am reminded of a passage at the outset of Iris Origo’s The War in Val d’Orca:

“We live on a large farm in southern Tuscany—twelve miles from the station and five from the nearest village. The country is wild and lonely: the climate harsh. Our house stands on a hillside, looking down over a wide and beautiful valley, beyond which rises Monte Amiata, wooded with chestnuts and beeches. Nearer by, on this side of the valley lies slopes of cultivated land: wheat, olives and vines but among them stay still stand some ridges of dust-couloured clay hillocks, the crete senesi—as bare and colourless as elephants’ backs, as mountains of the moon.”

Everything begins to sound very familiar. Like Origo, Alice Orsini in Restoration, was born into a wealthy English family, grew up in Florence, married an Italian, purchased a large farm in southern Tuscany, restored the main villa, San Martino, and outlying farmhouses, built a school, had an affair with a friend of her youth, and struggled to survive as World War II came to her bucolic estate.

What is one to make of these similarities? As I read the novel, they didn’t enter my mind much or intrude on the pleasure I had in reading it. I thought it was not much different than a film version of a novel about historical event or person.

However, after the novel ended, Olafsson writes this postscript: “While Alice Orsini undoubtedly shares similarities with Iris Origo, it is important to stress that the former is a purely fiction construct.” “Purely?” Come now, Olaf.

In countless respects Restoration draws heavily on Origo’s The War in Val d’Orca—its characters, their histories, the restoration of the villa and surrounding farm houses, and more than anything the way San Martino became a refuge for partisans and Allied soldiers during World War II.

The novel is also the story of another woman, Kirstin Jonsdottir, a young painter who lives in Rome. She befriends a Robert Marshall, an expert in art restoration, becomes his apprentice, quickly surpasses his ability and soon thereafter becomes his lover. However, when it becomes clear the married Marshall is not about to leave his wife and that he sells his restored paintings to the Nazis, Kirstin contrives an act of revenge.

Her technical skills enable her to create what appears to be an unknown work of Caravaggio. She tricks Marshall into believing she has restored a badly damaged but unknown work of this highly regarded painter. He sells the work to the Germans who bribe Alice to hide the work in a vault near her villa.

Many years later, the National Gallery in London acquires the fake Caravaggio and Kirstin, who is living in London then, is invited to its opening presentation. As David Levitt suggests in his review, by ending the story this way, Olaffson may be inviting the reader to wonder if originality is required to create a work of art.

Kirstin’s part-creation-part restoration is clearly a work of art and to a certain extent not original. Similarly Restoration is a work of art and yet not by any means original. But as is often asked lately, is anything truly original these days? Perhaps it is more a matter of the degree to which such works deviate from their sources. But then, other than outright plagiarism, does that really matter? It didn’t in my reading of the novel.


On Suffering

“The happy years are the lost, the wasted years; one must wait for suffering before one can work. And then the idea of the preliminary suffering becomes associated with the idea of work and one is afraid of each new literary undertaking because one thinks of the pain one will first have to endure in order to imagine it.” Proust

The problem of suffering in all its forms from the minor, almost trivial, to the severe and tragic continues to unsettle me. The life of the majority of human beings on this planet is difficult and largely harsh. As Ryszard Kapucinski put it, “For me this is the most important thing we are facing.”

I blogged about this topic in connection with Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl argued that without suffering, human life cannot be complete. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.

He claimed that a person’s character is revealed in their response to the inevitable suffering they experience, citing his experiences in Auschwitz for support. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

I was reminded of Frankl’s view once again in reading Francine Du Plessix Gray’s short biography of Simone Weil. Gray says Weil believed labor work is the truest road to self-knowledge. The suffering of the working class became the central theme of her life and, as Gray notes, “her strong tendency to cultivate her own.

Elsewhere, Weil wrote: “After my years in the factory…I was, as it were, broken in pieces, body and soul. That contact with affliction killed my youth. Until then…I knew quite well that there was a great deal of affliction in the world, I was obsessed with the idea, but I had not had prolonged and firsthand experience of it. As I worked in the factory…the affliction of others branded my flesh and my soul.”

I am not one who holds to the belief that suffering is essential for creative achievement or that it builds “character.” Neither did Somerset Maugham: “It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”

Must one suffer in order to work, to write beautifully and with wisdom? Are there not countless exceptions? Was the life that Tolstoy lived so grounded in suffering that he never could have written his masterpieces without this experience? The same applies to every artist, writer or composer.

To be sure there are several kinds of suffering: physical pain, psychic suffering, disease and hunger induced suffering. As far as I know, the effects of these various forms of suffering on personality and character development have yet to be investigated empirically.

While theories abound, they are usually based on the experience of a single individual or anecdotal accounts of others. Yet, if a widely applicable theory of the effects of suffering is possible (and I am not sure it is, given the diversity of forms it takes), I doubt this is the way it is going to be derived.

"We stand, as it were, on the shore, and see multitudes of our fellow beings struggling in the water, stretching forth their arms, sinking, drowning, and we are powerless to assist them." Felix Adler


On Living Alone

Providing you’re not in a state of longing, living in solitude can be its own powerful pleasure. Philip Roth

The trend is striking. The numbers speak clearly. According to Eric Klinenberg in his recent article in the Times, more people live alone now than at any previous time in history. In 1950 22% of American adults were single; today, it is almost 50%.

It is the same in some European countries—Sweden, 47%; Norway, 40%. In Germany, Netherlands, Britain and France, the percentage of households with only one occupant ranges from 34% to 39%. In every country cited in the numerous charts and tables in the article, the percent of adults who live alone increases with age.

Consider this graph of the metropolitan areas of this country:

No less striking is the Klinenberg’s claim about the social effects of solo life. It is widely believed that living alone gives rise to social isolation, loneliness and sense of alienation. After interviewing over 300 individuals, Klinenberg concludes that living alone encourages more, not less social interaction.

He cites data that single people are more likely than married couples “to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures.” He refers to a paper in the American Sociological Review that “showed that single seniors had the same number of friends and core discussion partners as their married peers and were more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors.”

Rilke wrote: “Embrace your solitude and love it…It is through this aloneness that you will find all your paths.”

Although I have a long and happy marriage, I have lived alone for many periods of my life. In many respects, I find it a congenial and refreshing change. My days are more my own, I can work longer periods and with less distraction than when I’m with my wife. There’s more time for ruminating, trying out new ideas, wasting time in a bookstore or library.

Yes, I go through periods of loneliness but they are short and disappear quickly as the “powerful pleasures” of solitude begin to take hold of me. In her book Fifty Days of Solitude, Doris Grumbach described this feeling:

“At first I found I missed another voice, not so much a voice responsive to my unexpressed thoughts as an independent one speaking its own words….There was a reward for this deprivation. The absence of other voices compelled me to listen more intently to the inner one. I became aware that the interior voice, so often before stifled or stilled entirely by what I thought others wanted to hear, or what I considered to be socially acceptable, grew gratifyingly louder, more insistent. It was not that it spoke great truths or made important observation. No. It simply reminded me that it was present, saying what I had not heard it say in quite this way before….What we yearned for were periods of solitude to renew our worn spirits.”

Like a teeter-totter, we oscillate back and forth between seeking solitude and, when that gives rises to a certain discontent, longing for companionship once again. It is often difficult to find a level center, one where independence and attachment are in balance. Eventually we yearn for solitude and then, in turn, for togetherness--the never-ending swaying of the teeter-totter.

I think I must be really weird to enjoy these periods of solitude so much. I used to wonder how many others would welcome an experience like this, at least how many other men? Now I am aware, how many others, both men and women, have come to prefer living along.

I often recall a passage in Martha Cooley’s The Archivist: “He set out to find…the source of beauty and elegance…something you do by yourself. Not with other people. Other people muddy the waters.”


Anita Brookner

Anitia Brookner died the other day. Brookner was an English art historian and novelist. I think I’ve read almost all of her many novels. As I say in reposting this blog, they are all pretty much the same.

At times they grow tedious, but she wrote well and her themes captured my interest. In 1984 she won the Booker Prize for her novel, Hotel du Lac--a tale of a lonely woman coming to terms with her solitary life during a visit to a hotel by a Swiss lake.

At the Hairdressers was her last novel and the first to be published as an e-book. It is the only one I wrote about on this blog. Her others were written before I started blogging. The following post was written four years ago.

we are all alone, that no reciprocity is to be sought between people formed by different outlooks, and not only outlooks but different environments, both mental and physical.
Anita Brookner

There are several firsts in Anita Brookner’s latest novel, At the Hairdressers. It is her first e-book; in fact, it is only available as Penguin Short e-book. It is her first novel after a lapse of several years. For a while, she was publishing a new novel each year like clockwork, most of which I read. Now they appear intermittently and since she is almost 84, I don’t imagine there will be many more.

It is also the first Kindle e-book I have read from start to finish. After many tedious criticisms of e-books in general, I have finally mastered the fine art of highlighting passages and then copying them into my commonplace book. As readers of this blog have been reminded all too often, these steps are essential to my way of reading.

At the Hairdressers is like all of Brookner’s previous novels. There is a lonely woman (occasionally a lonely man), usually educated and reasonably well off, emotionally reserved, and finished with their professional life. They long for friendship or perhaps a lover, a happiness that is never fulfilled, without hope or expectation that anything will happen to them other than yet another blank day.

Solitude is the familiar burden for Elizabeth Warner in At the Hairdressers. She lives in a basement flat in London and leaves the house only to go shopping and have her hair done. Her only “friends” are the people she sees on the streets, the market, or the women at her salon. Mostly, what the 80 year-old Elizabeth longs for is youth.

…a brooding and no doubt disagreeable old woman to whom memories of youth come unbidden, and unwelcome, now that youth is out of reach.

Sometimes the young do nothing for one’s dignity.

At the Hairdressers opens on this theme as Elizabeth recounts a dream. In it she recalls the small group of friends she had as a student in college, imagines what course their lives have taken, and how much she would enjoy seeing them again. Of course it was youth that was being celebrated.

When she chances upon one of these friends, she is immediately disappointed by the wide social gap between them and the comparative inadequacy and failures of her own life. She concludes that the dream only brought back feelings that are gone forever now.

Like most of the other books Brookner has written, this short novel is infused with inwardness, continual reflection by the protagonist of their life, their life unlived, and the only life that one can expect now.

I rather hope I shall die at the hairdresser's, for they are bound to know what to do. At least that is what I tell myself.

You have to like this kind of internal dialogue to enjoy Anita Brookner’s novels. And yet it spite of their repetitiveness, self-centeredness and absence of any action, I find it hard to put one down once I start. I may not read it all at once, but I do eventually finish, knowing full well that the next one, if there is to be one, will not be any different.