ISAIAH BERLIN: A Life by Michael Ignatieff

ISAIAH BERLIN: A Life

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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.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Metropolitan