Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960, By Isaiah Berlin Edited by Henry Hardy & Jennifer Holmes<br />The Book of Isaiah, Edited by Henry Hardy

He told the Queen to read 'Lolita'
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The Independent Culture

Dear Ernest Gellner

You've been dead these 13 years, but thought I'd write even so. I've been reading Isaiah Berlin's Letters, second volumes, covering 1946-60. Like you, IB belonged to that disparate band of foreign-born thinkers who so enriched intellectual life in postwar Britain. Karl Popper too, Wittgenstein, others. Both of you strengthened our defences against the facile appeal of Marxism, the absurdities of Freud, and later the avalanche of increasingly obscurantist theories from across the way in France.

At first I was daunted. While IB made his home in Oxford - All Souls, New College, finally President of Wolfson - he had an astonishing range of friends and associates, among them Churchill, Chaim Weizmann, TS Eliot, Maria Callas, as well as virtually every academic who mattered. The list of correspondents is weighty as it is long. But that wasn't it.

His concerns were equally prodigious. As well as his professional interest in philosophy, more generally the history of ideas, he was a keen observer of the American scene (his friends there included Arthur Schlesinger, Edmund Wilson), of Russia (his place of birth), and of the newly-created state of Israel, forever trying to lure him to settle there. His Jewish identity and Jewish acquaintance are matters he returns to repeatedly.

He was au fait with literature, and had a profound knowledge of music, especially opera. (He was on the board of the Royal Opera House.) Then there's the private, hooded life, so that when his letters - often very long and under-paragraphed - are brought together in chronological sequence, vertigo threatens.

Was I really to read this 800-page roller-coaster from start to finish? Recalling IB as a broadcaster, I pictured a great baritone bumble bee hopping from bloom to bloom, promising blackout if I tried to keep up.

The alternative was to deploy a fistful of bookmarks in the several indexes and glossaries supplied by editors Hardy and Holmes (top hats off to them!), then select specific themes, specific individuals and trace them through. But I'm glad I didn't do that. Though IB dances around, not just between letters but within letters, he does so with consummate aplomb. Quickly I became entranced -- by his humour, knowledge, brilliance.

There'll be another fat vol I'm sure, through to his death in 1997, and I imagine the Complete Berlin Letters will, as a reading experience, match Boswell, even Gibbon. For what makes these letters work is that despite his famous bonhomie a) IB was an inveterate gossip; b) he was not very nice; and c) he was self-obsessed to a degree. Pace Michael Ignatieff, he is his own best biographer.

There is a healthy interplay between his real cosmopolitanism and his absorption with (or by) the parochial minutiae of college life. Knowing everybody, he excels at the poisoned vignette, while flattering his immediate confidant. Encountering Greta Garbo on board the Queen Elizabeth, "My goodness she is dumb," he exclaims. In Einstein he discovers "the inhumanity of a child", while Jean-Paul Sartre is "politically and personally repulsive". AJP Taylor is glossed as "my most revolting colleague".

Even QE2 herself is fingered. "This grave, dull, limited, horsey young early Victorian prig," he reports after lunching at Buck Pal - perhaps because she didn't respond enthusiastically enough to his advice she read Lolita. Often, though, he is profoundly moving.

Writing to Rowland Burdon-Muller in June 1958, IB describes a visit to Oxford by Dmitri Shostakovich, visibly cowed by the attentions of his Soviet minders. Yet the same passage contains comedy. The French composer Francis Poulenc is also present, but "somewhat relegated, rather like Cocteau when Picasso is about".

There are the soliloquies of indecision. Should IB stand for the wardenship of All Souls? Or accept the wardenship of Nuffield? Should he have declined his knighthood? Where does he stand on Suez? And nuclear deterrence? With his hallmark ability to see at least three sides to every question, Berlin turns sitting on the fence into an almost acrobatic art-form.

All these things contributes to the makings of this Wunderbuch. Yet I can't help feeling uneasy, guilty even, at the pleasure. Ich bin ein Berliner? IB's outstanding contribution was his understanding of liberty in negative terms. True freedom consists in freedom from interference, censorship, arbitrary government etc. Fear. This powered his sustained critique of communism.

But it was a singularly high-cultural critique. The difficulties of feeding and organising modernity's vast populations were not his boat. and I doubt whether he once visited a factory or slum. Sociology repelled him almost as much as socialism. Educated nuance, not ideology or method, was his métier.

Not that I am alone in savouring Berlin, as The Book of Isaiah, again well edited by Henry Hardy, testifies. Once more an impressive cast assembles, to pay his genius homage - Noel Annan, Joseph Brodsky, Stuart Hampshire, Alfred Brendel. A book of tributes and reminiscences, some new, some old, as well as one or two more serious pieces, and an invaluable memoir by his father Mendel Berlin about the family's Russian provenance. Mendel's son? Oh hell's bells! The time! I have a train, or a cold, to catch. Must go.

Yrs ever,

Justin Wintle is the editor-compiler of 'New Makers of Modern Culture' (Routledge)