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 ...
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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Publishers Weekly, 1998-10-19 Over the last 10 years of Isaiah Berlin's life (1909-1997), Ignatieff tape-recorded conversations with the philosopher in what he describes as "a virtuoso display of a great intelligence doing battle with loss." Because this biography is based primarily on these talksæas well as on interviews with Berlin's widow, friends, students and colleaguesæthe tone is informally conversational rather than pedantically authoritative. After a prosperous childhood in Latvia, Berlin's family was forced to move to London, where young Isaiah absorbed the British values of decency, the toleration of dissent and the importance of liberty over efficiency. At Oxford, he developed intellectually under the likes of Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, R.G. Collingwood, Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf. Berlin did well at Oxfordæhe was elected Tutor at New College, Fellow of All Soulsæbut with war coming, he welcomed a chance to work for the Ministry of Information, first in the U.S., where his brilliant wartime dispatches (avidly read by Churchill) established his reputation in both Britain and America, and later as part of a Foreign Office team in Moscow (where he met Boris Pasternak) and Leningrad (where he began his transformative friendship with Anna Akhmatova). Throughout the book, Ignatieff concentrates on his subject's conversation and flow of ideas. Berlin championed freedom but not dogmatically. In his view, to be true to human nature in its diversity, we have to embrace contradictory values; otherwise, we lose our humanity. Ignatieff's biography is worthy of its subject, lucidly explaining how this "Paganini of words" used philosophy to defend civilized society. (Nov.)
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