Beginning in the winter of 2009, Timothy Snyder traveled weekly from Yale University, where he is a history professor, to visit his friend and mentor Tony Judt in New York. Judt had been diagnosed with ALS, from which he would die in 2010 at 62, and Snyder had proposed an unusual project: a sort of talking book in which he would guide a wide-ranging conversation across the landscape of 20th-century Europe and of Judt’s previous books, including the magisterial European history “Postwar.’’
Snyder and Judt’s project also became a closet memoir, its chapters tracing the outlines of Judt’s life, from his childhood in austere postwar Britain to serving as perhaps the preeminent don of 20th-century European history. Judt was famously controversial - take a gander at his 2003 New York Review of Books essay “Israel: The Alternative’’ for a sense of how provocative he could be. His career followed a natural expansion of scope from the minutiae of French intellectual history (expertly rendered in his 1998 book, “The Burden of Responsibility’’) to “Postwar,’’ which ranged across the length and breadth of Europe, covering the era from Hitler’s suicide to the rise of the European Union. Judt’s work after “Postwar’’ includes the essay collection “Reappraisals’’ (which did not include “Israel: The Alternative’’) and the pro-socialist stump speech of “Ill Fares the Land,’’ along with his 2010 memoir “The Memory Chalet.’’ He apparently had hoped to write a grand intellectual history of the 20th century as a follow-up to “Postwar,’’ but his illness halted those plans.