Sometimes life throws up fortuitous cultural combinations. It was satisfying to watch Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s beautiful, devastating film Ida recently while considering the English historian Tony Judt’s posthumous essay collection. Judt’s writing on Eastern European history and identity provided context for Pawlikowski’s drama about Poles living amid the legacy of the Holocaust and the realities of communism.
I doubt Judt, who died of motor neurone disease aged 62 in 2010, would mind me mentioning Ida because his understanding of the ways art and history inform and illuminate each other is one of this book’s many qualities.
Books highlights of 2015
Books highlights of 2015
1/6 God Help the Child by Toni Morrison - 23 April
A new book by this American Nobel Laureate is always going to be an event, and this one has excitement building around it already: it is the story of the way in which the legacy of childhood trauma can shape, and damage, adult life.
2/6 The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - 3 March
Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade is being billed by his publishers as urgent, relevant, troubling and mysterious, and its central characters are called Axl and Beatrice. We’ll have to wait to find out more
Matt Carr/Getty Images
3/6 So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson - 12 March
The idea for Jon Ronson’s latest offering was sparked by his online identity theft in 2012. Ronson confronted the imposters and began a probing inquiry into public shaming on social media. It looks funny and seriously hard-hitting.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images
4/6 Mr & Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance by Daisy Hay - 8 January
A biography of a fascinating couple, gleaned from letters found in the Bodleian Library archives. He was one of the foremost politicians of the Victorian age, she the daughter of a sailor on her second marriage. Their passionate letters through courtship and marriage will surely make fascinating reading.
5/6 The Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, edited by Larry Siems - 20 January
A diary written by a Guantanamo detainee, this book promises to be a powerful and unsettling read. Mauritian-born Slahi has been imprisoned for 12 years and has yet to be charged for any crimes.
6/6 Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig - 5 March
A rumination on depression, Matt Haig’s book takes the novelist into personal territory while keeping an eye on the bigger picture: “In the Western world suicide is the leading cause of death among men under the age of 35.” Joanna Lumley calls it a “small masterpiece”.
Jennifer Homans, Judt’s widow and the book’s editor, sets the tone with her perfectly pitched introduction, offering personal insights and describing “a clear-eyed realist… and idealist who aimed at nothing less than the well-lived life; not just for himself but for society.” Whether discussing Marx or the Marx brothers, the EU or UN, the Middle East or the social function of railways, Judt’s range and clarity are magisterial.
Under five thematic headings, essays appear in chronological order. Judt, an ardent Zionist in the 1960s, sounds increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine.
In 2002, he writes: “(Israel) is an oddity among nations not – as its more paranoid supporters assert – because it is a Jewish state and no one wants Jews to have a state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one community – Jews – is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.”
Teaching at American universities allowed Judt to witness the “militarisation” of US society after 9/11. A dangerous tendency today, he says, is the will to “deny continuity and proclaim novelty”, which is why politicians talk about unprecedented threats even though terrorism is the ancient weapon of the weak.
We also risk dismantling 20th-century achievements, including the welfare state, if we forget the dire conditions which necessitated their invention.
Free of the barrel-scraping that often blights posthumous publications, this is a welcome addition to Judt’s oeuvre.
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