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.
The experience of reading “Thinking the Twentieth Century’’ is like sitting in on one of Judt’s classes, or better yet, like taking a guided tour through Judt’s mind with one of the few scholars capable of keeping up as an interlocutor. And it comes with its own reading list. Intrepid amateur scholars likely will dash off to find copies of Stefan Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday,’’ Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism,’’ and Heda Margolius Kovaly’s “Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968.’’
It is difficult to summarize this volume. Snyder leads the discussion, offering up topics for Judt to unpack and examine. One of this book’s many pleasures is the joy of eavesdropping on two exceedingly intelligent people shooting the breeze, offering observations like Snyder’s on the English Premier League: “English football clubs at this point are a bit like, you know, remote castles were a hundred and fifty years ago. If you’ve made a lot of money in Russia you buy one, because it makes you feel better about yourself.’’
Judt’s personality is a matter for the biographers, but as an intellectual, he was something of a Frankenstein’s monster, composed of brilliantly mismatched parts. A full-throated apologist for European-style socialism, Judt also bemoans the academic shift away from classical forms of history toward the “half-conscious academic charivari’’ of social history: “you merely replaced ‘workers’ with ‘women’; or students, or peasants, or blacks, or - eventually - gays, or indeed whichever group had sound reason to be dissatisfied with the present disposition of power and authority.’’
If “Thinking’’ can be said to have a centripetal focus, it is on the stark intellectual and personal choices faced by intellectuals in confronting the twin menaces of the 20th century: communism and fascism. History, as Clive James observes in “Cultural Amnesia,’’ is “the story of everything that needn’t have been like that,’’ and in revisiting the last century, it is good to be reminded that the triumph of liberalism and democracy was not only not a fait accompli; in fact, it was considered by most to be exceedingly unlikely.
Judt and Snyder contrast the pursuit of a clean, precise higher truth - the Marxist utopia, the 1,000-year Third Reich - with plain honesty. “[T]ruthfulness is ugly and complicated,’’ remarks Snyder, “whereas higher truth appears to be pure and beautiful.’’ Twentieth-century intellectuals, the two men argue, made the mistakes they made, embracing murderous dystopias of the left and right, because they failed to acknowledge that their picturesque dreams were rotting away from the inside.
There are also the bare bones of a Judt biography here, offering copious fodder for future historians, and juicy tidbits for everyone else. Judt offers a sampling of his reminiscences in each chapter, occasionally tiptoeing into territory covered by “The Memory Chalet.’’ He offers disarmingly honest snapshots of his childhood, youthful Zionist advocacy, and late-blooming fascination with Eastern European history. Judt hammers David Remnick, Leon Wieseltier, and other liberal hawks for their advocacy of the Iraq War. Conservative pundit David Brooks is excoriated for “know[ing], literally, nothing.’’ Judt’s brutal candor hits closer to home, as well; an ex-wife is depicted preferring to “read Newsweek in bed and chew pumpkin seeds’’ than hang out with expat Poles and talk Solidarity. It was Judt’s desire to pay equal heed to Eastern and Western Europe that gave birth to “Postwar’’: “My 1968, to be sure, had been very different than that of my Polish friends; my education now involved coming to understand those differences.’’
Judt, contemplating his death, is drawn to consider the function of writing history, comparing it to tossing “a letter into the ocean in the forlorn hope that it will be picked up.’’ And yet, for all his pessimism on the efficacy of knowledge, “for intellectuals to write and speak in the full knowledge of their limited influence is, at least on first sight, a curiously pointless undertaking. And yet, it’s the best that we could hope for.’’
Judt and Snyder struggle to come up with an adequate metaphor for the uses of history. The one that sticks relates, appropriately enough for this marvelous hodgepodge of a book, to home décor. “You and I are not the people who put the furniture in the room,’’ observes Judt, “we are just the people who label it. Our job is to say to someone: this is a large couch with a wooden frame - it is not a plastic table. If you think that it’s a plastic table, not only will you be making a category error, and not only will you hurt yourself every time you bump into it, you will use it in the wrong ways. You will live badly in this room, but you don’t have to live quite this badly in this room.’’Saul Austerlitz can be reached at email@example.com.