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Isaiah Berlin: A Life  
Author: Michael Ignatieff
ISBN: 0805063005
Format: Handover
Publish Date: June, 2005
   Book Review

Russian by birth, Jewish by descent, English by choice, Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) knit together three identities into a cosmopolitan sensibility that informed his contributions as one of the 20th century's most influential and important intellectuals. Based on his experiences as a child during the Russian Revolution and his friendships with such beleaguered writers as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, Berlin affirmed the superiority of individual freedom and judgment to Marxist totalitarianism. But he made fellow liberals uncomfortable with his unwelcome reminders that their ideals--liberty, equality, social justice--inevitably conflicted and required painful tradeoffs. London-based journalist Michael Ignatieff, who spent 10 years interviewing Berlin before his death, adeptly captures an appealing man: lighthearted, spontaneous, a brilliant conversationalist and lecturer (one of Oxford University's most popular professors), able to savor private happiness despite an essentially tragic view of political life. Ignatieff admires Berlin's views without accepting them uncritically; similarly, he acknowledges personal failings while appreciating the serenity Berlin achieved against considerable odds. This lucidly written, thoughtfully argued work is a model of the well-balanced biography, carefully evaluating the complex interplay of character and conviction in one remarkable individual. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly
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 talks?as well as on interviews with Berlin's widow, friends, students and colleagues?the 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 Oxford?he was elected Tutor at New College, Fellow of All Souls?but 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. Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal
Ignatieff (The Warrior's Honor, LJ 1/98) met and conferred with Berlin periodically over a ten-year period until Berlin's death at the age of 88 in 1997. He also spent hours talking to Berlin's wife and friends and had complete access to his papers and a collection of his letters. Berlin also "opened himself up" fully to Ignatieff, which has resulted in an intimate, revealing portrait of a man who knew just about everybody of importance in his lifetime?artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, politicians. The account is more or less chronological, from Berlin's birth in Riga, Latvia, to his emigration to London at age 11, to his appointment to teach philosophy at Oxford, to his wartime diplomatic service in America and Europe, and his subsequent abandoning of academic philosophy to pursue political theory and the history of ideas, especially the ideas of liberty and freedom. A good biography should leave readers feeling that they know the subject intimately, and this is definitely a good biography. For both academic and public libraries.?Leon H. Brody, U.S. Office of Personnel Mgt. Lib., Washingon, DCCopyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

The New York Times Book Review, Steven Marcus
...Isaiah Berlin is an undertaking of considerable merit. It gives us a rounded view of an extraordinarily distinguished mind...

The New York Times, Richard Bernstein
In this admirable, clearheaded and readable biography, Michael Ignatieff explains not only why Berlin is celebrated, but also why the celebration is justified.... In describing Berlin's contribution, Ignatieff has produced a model biography of the man of ideas. He lucidly explicates Berlin's work even as he draws a lively and vivid portrait of a major figure.

The Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, Stephen Toulmin
Michael Ignatieff has written a charming life about a man who lived a charmed life.

The Boston Globe, Robert Taylor
Michael Ignatieff's account measures up to the challenge of portraying a subject who was arguably the foremost liberal philosopher of his century. The prose is crystalline, the biographical evidence scrupulously weighed. Ignatieff collaborated with Berlin for a decade and was granted complete access to his papers, yet the result displays neither the cosmetic touches of hagiography nor the distortions of debunking.

From Booklist
Isaiah Berlin was a witness to and commentator on the most important events of the twentieth century, which he called the most horrible century in history. In Russia as a child during World War I and the Revolution, he saw the results of ideology linked to power. As a Russian Jewish exile in England, he became perhaps the prototypical British intellectual of the century. He met with Sigmund Freud in the 1930s and lived to have his portrait painted by Freud's grandchild in the 1990s. A confidant of Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion, Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, he argued with T. S. Eliot about Eliot's statements about Jews and was able to convince him to alter those statements in subsequent publications. His conversation was admired by Albert Einstein and Virginia Woolf, and his political and editorial advice was sought by Winston Churchill. Ignatieff gets enough of Berlin's writing and talk into this biography to bring his life to life, and it will interest even those who have not read Berlin's published essays and lectures. Joel Neuberg

From Kirkus Reviews
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. (b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Stephen Toulmin, Los Angeles Times
"Rarely were biographer and subject better matched. Everything Ignatieff writes, he feels on his pulse."

Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Remarkable. It cannot be overstated how sublimely Ignatieff takes the measure of this man."

"A model biography of the man of ideas." --Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

"Remarkable. It cannot be overstated how sublimely Ignatieff takes the measure of this man."--Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Rarely were biographer and subject better matched. Everything Ignatieff writes, he feels on his pulse." --Stephen Toulmin, Los Angeles Times

Book Description
Isaiah Berlin was witness to a century. Born in Riga in the twilight of the Czarist empire, he lived long enough to see the Soviet state collapse. Biographer of Marx, scholar of the Romantic movement, and defer of the liberal idea of freedom against Soviet tyranny, Berlin was the presiding judge of intellectual life on both sides of the Atlantic. When he died in 1997, he was hailed as the most important liberal philosopher of his time. But Berlin's life was not only a life of the mind. From Albert Einstein to Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill to Anna Akhmatova, his circle of friends constitutes a veritable who's who of twentieth-century art, politics, and philosophy. In this definitive work, the result of a remarkable ten-year collaboration between biographer and subject, Michael Ignatieff charts the emergence of a unique temperament and a singular vision.

About the Author
Michael Ignatieff is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. He is the author of The Warrior's Honor (Metropolitan Books, 0-8050-5519-3, $13.00), The Russian Album, The Needs of Strangers, and Scar Tissue, a novel short-listed for the Booker Prize. He lives in London.

Isaiah Berlin: A Life


Isaiah Berlin was witness to a century. Born in the twilight of the Czarist empire, he lived long enough to see the Soviet state collapse. The son of a Riga timber merchant and the first Jew elected to a fellowship at All Souls, Oxford, he was a presiding judge of intellectual life on both sides of the Atlantic for sixty years: historian of the Russian intelligentsia, biographer of Marx, scholar of the Romantic movement, and defender of the liberal idea of freedom against Soviet tyranny. When he died in 1997, he was hailed as the most important liberal philosopher of his time. But Berlin's life was not only a life of the mind. Present at the crucial events of our age, he was in Washington during World War II, in Moscow at the dawn of the Cold War, in Israel as the new state came into being. For this definitive biography - the result of a remarkable ten-year collaboration between biographer and subject - Michael Ignatieff, himself a leading public intellectual, interviewed Berlin extensively and was granted complete access to his papers, one of the largest archives in Anglo-American cultural history. Ignatieff charts the emergence of a unique liberal temperament - serene, comic, secular, and unafraid - and he examines its influence on Berlin's vision of liberalism, which stressed the often tragic nature of political and moral choice.


Ralf Dahrendorf - Sunday Times (London)

A rare gem of a book. We knew we had to read Isaiah Berlin's writing, but now also know that his long and extraordinary life has as much to tell us.

Ian Buruma - New Republic

Michel Ignatieff has written a fine biography in the spirit of his subject. . .entertaining without ever lacking in seriousness.

Richard Bernstein - New York Times

. . .[A]dmirable, clearheaded and readable. . .[that] explains why Berlin is celebrated. . .[and] why the celebration is justified. . . .[I]t would be difficult in light of the experience of the century to come up with a clearer and more humane political credo than the one we owe to Isaiah Berlin.

Noel Annan - Literary Review(London)

A fine biography of the most remarkable intellectual of his generation.

Steven Marcus

A touching portrait and a labor of love. . .a rounded view of an extraordinarily distinguished mind. —The New York Times Book Review Read all 15 "From The Critics" >


Michael Ignatieff

There's a bit of fox in me -- look at the books I've written -- but I also feel theres a hedgehog trying to come out. . . .I suppose I'm interested first of all in multiple identities and how they're reconciles. You've got to belong to yourself first. — Interviewed in Publisher's Weekly, November 30, 1998


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