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Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Paperback

By (author) Michael Ignatieff

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  • Publisher: VINTAGE
  • Format: Paperback | 384 pages
  • Dimensions: 130mm x 194mm x 30mm | 259g
  • Publication date: 6 January 2000
  • Publication City/Country: London
  • ISBN 10: 0099577313
  • ISBN 13: 9780099577317
  • Illustrations note: facsimiles, portraits
  • Sales rank: 230,385

Product description

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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Review quote

"A work of literature and an eloquent portrait...an explanation of this most remarkable twentieth-century figure...Though Berlin will be the subject of many future studies, one cannot imagine anyone feeling the need to improve on this biography" Observer "Enthralling...More than an authorised biography...An affectionate and admiring, but none the less independently-minded portrait...A serious book, but also a vivid, lively and uplifting one" Evening Standard "Reading Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin, you feel you are understanding not only Isaiah Berlin, but the history...I do not see how there could be a more insightful, more erudite, biography of this remarkable man" -- Doris Lessing Times Literary Supplement "A rare gem of a book...It will add a new dimension to the afterlife of the philosopher" Sunday Times "Brings off the near-impossible - a lifelike portrait of a man who was loved by his friends not for what he wrote, but what he said" -- Humphrey Carpenter Sunday Times Books of the Year

Editorial 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. (Kirkus Reviews)

Back cover copy

Isaiah Berlin was witness to a century. Born in Riga in the twilight of the Tsarist empire, he lived long enough to see the Soviet state collapse. Biographer of Marx, scholar of the Romantic movement, and defender 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 -- serene, comic, secular, and unafraid -- and a singular vision.