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.
Isaiah Berlin refused to write an autobiography, but he agreed to talkabout himself-and so for ten years, before Berlin's death in November 1997, he allowed Michael Ignatieff to interview him about his past, his ideas, his most intimate memories, his inner conflicts. This is an extraodinary biography, full of Berlin's own voice and presence, supplemented by untouched personal archives. It will be the authoritative biography for decades. Isiah Berlin (1909-97) was one ofthe 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 ownlife was caught up in the most powerful currents of the century. The son of a Riga timber merchant, as a child in St Petersburg he witnessed the Russian Revolution: when his family came to England in 1921 he plunged into suburban school life and the ferment of 1930s Oxford; as a member of All Souls he was part of the British intellectual establishment. During the war, he was at the Anglo- American diplomacy in Washington; afterwards, in Moscow he saw the grim despair of Stalinism. This book is full of memorable meetings with Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, with Churchill, with Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova.
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