Imagine a private conversation — at moments, an intimate conversation — between two public intellectuals whose careers have been devoted to understanding the wider world in which we find ourselves. One is facing imminent death, and the other is recording the conversation in a valiant effort to preserve the dying man’s final thoughts. That’s what you will find in “Thinking the Twentieth Century” by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder (Penguin, $35), a unique and poignant book that is, as Snyder puts it, “a book about the life of the mind, and about the mindful life.”
Timothy Snyder will be speaking about “Thinking the Twentieth Century” in the ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 6. It will be my honor to act as Snyder’s interviewer at the event.
The late Tony Judt, author of “Postwar” and other highly regarded books of intellectual history, was at work on what was to be his memoir and magnum opus when he realized that the onset of ALS — better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — would make it impossible for him to finish the manuscript. His colleague, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, author of the recent and widely praised “Bloodlines: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” came to his rescue.
The book turned into the transcript of an extended conversation between Judt and Snyder that ranges from the details of Judt’s rich and colorful life in England, France, California, and other venues — including not a few romantic entanglements — to the great historical events, personalities and phenomena that shaped the 20th century, all of which were raw material for Judt’s scholarship.
The conversations began in January, 2009, and Snyder describes how he prepared for each day’s conversation at a café near Judt’s apartment in New York City. “I washed my hands in very hot water in the café and again in Tony’s apartment,” he recalls. “Tony suffered terribly from colds in his condition, and I wanted to be able to grasp his hand.”
The focus of the book, and its principal author, is Judt, but Snyder deserves credit for being much more than a good friend and an expert interviewer. “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is a potent blend of autobiography and intellectual history, and both elements were patiently extracted, shaped and polished by Snyder.
“In some sense the intellectual history is all inside Tony: a reality that each week, speaking with him, I absorbed in a starkly physical way,” Snyder explains. “Everything on these pages had to be in his mind (or in mine). How history came to be inside the man, and how it came out again, are questions that a book of this kind can perhaps address.”
Judt, as he explains about himself, was the child of immigrant Jews from East Central Europe who settled in London. “Neither of my parents was interested in raising a Jew,” Judt recalls. “Yet we could never be like our non-Jewish friends, simply because we just were Jewish.” He grew up among men and women who had experienced firsthand the great events that he would later study and write about: “Well into the mid-1950s, the other guests at my grandfather’s Friday-evening meals were often the Auschwitz survivors my grandfather referred to as ‘the boys.’” This ambivalence, in a sense, is writ large in Judt’s life and work: “The Jewish question was never at the center of my own intellectual life, or indeed my historical work,” he explains. “But it intrudes, inevitably, and with ever greater force.”
Now and then, Snyder “breaks the narrative” with a pointed question or comment, and his intrusions are always provocative and illuminating. “Both in private and in professional life, you are a rebel on the Left, but not a rebel against the Left,” Snyder says to Judt at one point. As we eavesdrop on their conversation, we come to realize that we are witnessing the encounter between two intellects of dazzling brilliance and extraordinary subtlety. Sometimes the discourse soars into the stratosphere of theoretical speculation, and sometimes it drills deep into the sources and texts, but Judt and Snyder never fail to shed light on the biggest questions of history and politics.
Ironically, Judt is probably best known outside academic circles for a 2003 article in the New York Review of Books in which he called for a “one-state solution” to the conflict between Arabs and Jews, a position that earned him much abuse from his fellow Jews. The book allows us to understand how he reached the conclusion that “a peculiarly Jewish social democratic idealism,” which attracted him to Israel in the first place, was a projection rather than a reality. As a teenager, he lived and worked on a kibbutz, and he was aboard the last plane to reach Lod Airport in before it closed at the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967. “Zionism was for me without question an adolescent revolt,” he explains. “What I revolted against was . . . being at once altogether English and at the same time unmistakably the child of east European Jews. In Israel in 1963 I resolved the ambiguity and became Tony Judt, Zionist.”
The Six Day War, in which he served as a translator for the Israeli army, persuaded him that his idealism was misplaced. “For the first time I came to appreciate that Israel was not a social democratic paradise of peace-loving, farm-dwelling Jews who just happened to be Israelis but were otherwise like me,” he told Snyder. “This was a very different culture and people from the one I had learned to see, or had insisted upon imagining to myself.” The makers of the “real Israel,” Judt insists, was “full of scorn for what they called the ‘heirs of the Holocaust,’ Jews who lived outside of Israel and who did not understand or appreciate the new Jews, the native-born Israelis.”
Such passages are bound to excite the passions of some Jewish readers — and Snyder deserves credit for challenging Judt on his harsher judgments on “American Jewish preoccupations with Auschwitz and Israel” — but it would be tragic if they dismiss Judt’s final book because they disagree with his controversial ideas about Zionism. As we learn from this exceptional book, Judt’s ideas and values are the end-product of a lifetime of serious scholarship and profound thought, and they deserve to be preserved in a book as impressive and rewarding as “Thinking the Twentieth Century.”