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Isaiah Berlin refused to write an autobiography, but he agreed to talk about himself - and so for ten years, he allowed Michael Ignatieff to interview him. Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) was one of the greatest and most humane of modern philosophers; historian of the Russian intellgentisia biographer of Marx, pioneering scholar of the Romantic movement and defender of the liberal idea of freedom. His own life was caught up in the most powerful currents of the century. The son of a Riga timber merchant, he witnessed the Russian Revolution, was plunged into suburban school life and the ferment of 1930s Oxford; he became part of the British intellectual establishment During the war, he as at the heart of Anglo-American diplomacy in Washington; afterwards in Moscow he saw the grim despair of Stalinism. The book is full of memorable meetings - with Virginia Woolf and Sigmund Freud, with Churchill, with Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova. Yet Ignatieff is not afraid to delve into Berlin's conflicts: his jewish idealism, his deep aspirations. This is a work of great subtelty and penetration, exhilarating and intimate, powerful and profound.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780099577317
ISBN-10: 0099577313
Format: Paperback
(198mm x 129mm x 22mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Vintage
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 6-Jan-2000
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Reviews

UK Kirkus Review » Around Isaiah Berlin's life hangs a fairy-tale air. It was all public success and private happiness, including an ideally happy marriage. Even in old age, he seemed to talk like a magical child from whose lips pour rubies and pearls - which, metaphorically, sparkled like the real thing. With sober, detailed documentation, this book traces the story of a Latvian-born Jew, steeped in Russian culture, who became a hugely respected, highly honoured intellectual pet of the Establishment on both sides of the Atlantic. Copiously though he talked, Berlin spoke little of himself and shrank from autobiography. Ignatieff was privileged to win his confidence and be approved as his biographer. Without probing Berlin's personality in depth, he has produced a careful, intimate and convincing portrait. His patent empathy has not prevented him from indicating Berlin's tendency - typical perhaps of the alien and the refugee - to avoid strong moral commitment and to savour social acceptance. Yet, whatever its human flaws, Berlin's life was that of a man whose brilliant, benevolent intelligence stands out like a beacon in the dark, destructive climate of the 20th century. Review by SIR MICHAEL LEVEY Editor's note: Sir Michael Levey, art historian and former director of the National Gallery in London, is the author of Florence: A Portrait. (Kirkus UK)

US Kirkus Review » A polished life of the century's preeminent liberal (in the classic sense) philosopher. Just as Berlin's critics complained he never wrote a single-volume magnum opus but only essays, Berlin's friends wondered why he never wrote his autobiography and instead circulated his reminiscences in his incomparable conversation. British television talk host and New York Review of Books contributor Ignatieff (The Warrior's Honor Ethic, 1998, etc.) listened Boswell-like to Berlin for over a decade, initially as another interviewer, then as a potential biographer. The resultant work stands essentially as the authorized life, equitable and sometimes revelatory, particularly about Berlin's complicated relation to Zionism. It solidly locates Berlin, always an outsider on the inside, in his many worlds during what he called "the worst century there has ever been." Quite uncharacteristically for an Oxford don who thrived in the cloistered university environment, his ability to appear in historical flash points seems almost preternatural as related here. Despite Berlin's own complaints of an exiled existence's "discontinuities," Ignatieff's account succeeds in drawing out the thematic threads in the linked episodes of Berlin's life: from his Russian childhood during the Bolshevik Revolution and his Oxford education during the rise of logical positivism to his Foreign Office posting in Washington, D.C., just before America's entry into WWII and his journey to Russia at the beginning of the Cold War. In this last, vividly recounted episode, Berlin managed to see the Russian poets Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova at precisely the moment when they needed contact with the West after Stalin's repressions. Coming away from these meetings, Berlin's philosophic path for liberty, liberalism, and pluralism was set for the course of the Cold War. During Berlin's postwar rise to fame, Ignatieff cogently glosses the development of his thought while keeping an eye on his personal career, which culminated in the presidency of Oxford's newest graduate college. An informed, smoothly executed portrait of a philosophic fox's lifetime pursuing hedgehog ideas. (Kirkus Reviews)


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