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Q&A

Tony Judt’s legacy, as edited by his wife

Dance historian Jennifer Homans on shaping her husband’s final book

Tony Judt

Before his death , from ALS, in 2010, Tony Judt had become one of the preeminent historians of Europe of our time. His numerous works included a monumental history of post-World War II Europe, “Postwar”; the essay collection “Reappraisals”; and the socialist manifesto “Ill Fares the Land.” He was also a provocative commentator on the post-9/11 security state and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most famously with his essay “Israel: The Alternative,” which controversially called for a single, binational state.

But Judt is no longer present to bear witness, or to argue for his new book of essays, “When the Facts Change,” edited by his widow, the dance historian Jennifer Homans. In the work collected here, Judt was making use of his encyclopedic knowledge of history to wage a lonely battle for liberalism. “Tony found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction,” Homans writes in the introduction. Today, Homans finds herself charged with the task of speaking for her late husband’s work—one writer standing in for another who has fallen silent.

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Judt and Homans are two historians of very different kinds, who arrived at the field by markedly distinct routes. Judt’s interest in the complexities of the 20th century emerged from a multifaceted identity: a Central European Jewish heritage, a British childhood, an adolescence that included a stint on an Israeli kibbutz, and an undying passion for the glories of French culture. Homans began as a dancer and transitioned to writing about dance, as a critic and cultural historian.

Jennifer Homans

Homans, who is the author of “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet,” put together “When the Facts Change” as a bookend to “Reappraisals.” That book had notably left out the essays on Israel and the Palestinians, preferring to concentrate on the European side of his work; Judt felt, as Homans notes, “that he wasn’t, as he had come to be known in certain circles, primarily a commentator on Israel/Palestine.” But it was a key part of what he left behind, and the new book devotes an entire section to Judt’s essays on the subject.

Homans spoke to Ideas about her work on the book, and how she conceived of helping to shape Judt’s legacy, in her new offices as founder and director of the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University. This interview has been edited and condensed.

IDEAS: What particular aspects of Judt’s intellectual work were you interested in emphasizing with this book?

HOMANS: Writing in good faith. And the idea of the facts changing. Something I always admired about Tony’s work was he really was looking very, very hard at what was happening. He just immersed himself in the facts. And took great trouble to find them, verify them, let them complicate his view, and to change his mind, if the picture he was seeing didn’t look like the picture he thought it was. He was very much in the world in that way. That’s what intellectual debate was to him.

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IDEAS: Did you see it as an opportunity to renew a familiar conversation with your husband?

HOMANS: I mean, as you can imagine for me, it’s very personal. Both gratifying and very sad. It was not an easy book to put together. I read through probably three times the amount that’s in the book. Maybe even more. Because there’s still quite a considerable number of essays that have not been collected. The question of which ones to include in this one volume was really important. Trying to figure out what was really worth keeping between two covers.

IDEAS: What guided the process?

HOMANS: I tried to include things that were as well written as Tony would have wanted them to be, because he was very attached to the idea of good writing. And things that were still in some way timely, even if they were written some time ago. So they seem to somehow speak to the world we’re living in, even if they’re not an up-to-date, up-to-the-moment commentary. It’s both a sort of historical marker—here’s what was being said, by Tony, at these moments—and a kind of contribution to the conversation now.

IDEAS: In the essay “Freedom and Freedonia,” included here, Judt talks about “the usual pitfalls” that affect historians of Central and Eastern Europe, including the desire to “go native.” Was over-identifying with his subjects a concern for him?

HOMANS: No, I don’t think he was worried about becoming so identified. He wasn’t worried about falling in love with any of these places. Not quite being from anywhere gave him a sense of distance from most places.

IDEAS: Did having your husband as your intellectual sparring partner improve your work?

HOMANS: Tremendously. Tony and I were very deeply tied together in terms of our work. We read everything that the other one wrote. We talked often—all the time—about work and about history. We often worked together at home. Long days at home, meet in the kitchen for sandwiches for lunch. It was a writer’s life! I learned a tremendous amount from him, about history of course, but also about writing....He was tougher on himself than on anyone else in terms of the writing and clarity of presentation and articulation. You could sit with Tony over one word, and he would get it right, and it would change the whole thing. One word! He was just incredible that way.

IDEAS: Was he taken aback by the ferocity of the response to his essays critiquing Israeli policy, like “Israel: The Alternative”?

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HOMANS: I guess what I would say about that was that he was not surprised, but he was disheartened. I was surprised. I think it was very hard for him to take that anger. There were as many people for him as against him. The positions that he took, he took more anger for them, certainly, from the American Jewish community than he did from Europeans or Israelis themselves.

IDEAS: Everything he said would fit comfortably into mainstream debate in Israel.

HOMANS: Whereas here there were death threats. I just didn’t expect the discourse to be quite as violent as it was. They threatened Tony, they threatened our family.

IDEAS: Are the essays here a comfort for you, or a reminder of his absence?

HOMANS: It’s neither. The only way that I can do it, really, is...I can read them kind of objectively, in a certain way. I can appreciate them for what they are. And so the rest, the part of them that is the man, is part of my life. It’s not part of this book. So that’s just a personal thing.

IDEAS: Are there likely to be more volumes of Judt’s work?

HOMANS: I think it’s unlikely....I don’t intend to do another one. And as you may have noticed, the book is dedicated to Tony’s father, who is still alive. He’s still alive and he lives in Britain. He hasn’t seen the book, but it should be arriving any day.

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Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @saulausterlitz.

Related:

Obituary: Tony Judt, at 62; chronicler of history, intellectual critic

The Internationalist: Foreign policy wins Obama could still pull off

Farah Stockman: Keeping the dream of a Palestinian state alive?

2012 | Book review: ‘Thinking the Twentieth Century’ by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

2010 | G Force: A dance through history