The Books Interview: A long goodbye to Berlin lightness

Russian roots, liberal ideas: Michael Ignatieff and his hero share a lot. Justin Wintle meets him
Even on my way to see Michael Ignatieff, the point is made. It's not faces I see deep on the Northern Line so much as masks: people of all ages, from all continents, their expressions lobotomised, as though to say: Yes, this is the 20th century, and I'm a part of it too. A pity really, to be in such close proximity with so many strangers, so many human hues, and exchange but absolutely nothing with them.

I surface at Old Street on the edge of the City, then thread my way through bleak lanes to a converted warehouse standing next to a bombsite. Already the object of my Hadean journey is a puzzle. Why does Ignatieff, a 51- year-old Russian-Scottish Canadian whose natural articulacy and sharp intellect have long since established him among the brightest lights of the cultural firmament, live here of all places?

Ignatieff's lift-less top-floor apartment, like all warehouse conversions, retains its shell: a huge, wooden-floored living area with discrete adjuncts of living leading off it. Everything painted white, with a scatter of Conranesque furniture.

Space, order, loneliness. The Canadian prairie? The Belorussian steppe? But the sparse interior is offset by the presence of Ignatieff's partner, a fair-haired Hungarian woman whose warmth at once makes me feel a little envious of something or other. Perhaps the bedroom is a mess? So I substitute: balance, meaning, luck. For two hours we sit on hard chairs and talk, though in an unstructured way. It is not an inquisition. Ignatieff is positioned where I would want anyone to be positioned: more left than right, but not far left either.

The pretext of my call is Ignatieff's newest book, Isaiah Berlin: a life (Chatto & Windus, pounds 20). The night before, however, I have stayed up late reading his second, Booker-nominated novel, Scar Tissue. Our conversation flips from the one to the other. Both are brilliant books, but they are brilliant in quite separate ways, so that it is not immediately obvious how they relate. And this is the second, greater puzzle that Ignatieff sets.

Isaiah Berlin, based in part on a series of taped interviews Ignatieff made with the philosopher during the last 10 years of his life, is a beautifully organised biography. Not only does it underline the importance of Berlin's contribution to contemporary thought, especially as regards the definition and defence of a quietist liberalism.

It also highlights his humanity, and his prodigious capacity as a conversationalist. There are memorable chapters on Berlin's prewar meeting with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad, and on his wartime activities in Washington, when Berlin's Jewishness clashed with his duties as an information officer of the then pro-Arab British government - to the point of an honourable treason.

Quite rightly, Ignatieff plays up Berlin's pivotal role in establishing Wolfson College. Many of Berlin's colleagues disparaged him for dissipating his energies on an administrative task, but what could be more fulfilling than to found an Oxford college in your own image? Especially if you were the son of a Jewish Russian immigrant?

Scar Tissue is quite different. It tells of the slow death of the narrator's mother from Alzheimer's Disease, and the parallel disintegration of the narrator himself. As a novel it has obvious flaws. The characters slip in and out of focus. Its plethoric ideas are sometimes presented didactically. Lacking the ingenious plasticity of high art it belongs more to the genre of post-modernist confession, an investigation into the limits of being and identity in a godless, medically hi-tech universe.

In an extraordinary passage the son describes undressing and bathing his parent as though she were entirely asexual. Yet this disjunction oddly contributes to the book's uniquely harrowing impact.

Why, I ask, did Ignatieff chose Isaiah Berlin? Not true. Berlin chose him. He spotted Ignatieff on the box one night and invited him to All Souls. The idea of the tapes was "to capture Berlin's conversation, to tap his Homeric memory". After two years the question arose: to what use should the tapes be put? Again it was Berlin who suggested Ignatieff write his biography.

Did it matter that Ignatieff was a Gentile? No, that was an advantage. Because of their Russian heritage they had enough in common, but not too much. Their backgrounds were adjacent only. "A biographer should not be too close to his subject."

Irony of ironies: as Berlin well knew, Ignatieff's great-grandfather, Nicolas Ignatieff, was the Tsarist minister responsible for promulgating the infamous "Temporary Measures Against the Jews" of 1883. "But such barriers are fences to be jumped," Ignatieff reflects. "By jumping fences, by not succumbing to them, we can best realise ourselves."

For all his aura as a port-drinking Oxford savant, Berlin was a mighty fence-jumper. He legitimised England's Jewry at a time when it still needed legitimacy. And writing about Berlin took Ignatieff away from the ordeal of Scar Tissue. His own mother was Alzheimic, as was his grandmother. So was the novel autobiographical? Yes and no. More so in its detail than its outline. "Certainly its composition was cathartic." Ignatieff endeavoured to universalise his personal suffering, which includes the possibility that he himself must one day endure the illness. Again, an unresolved rivalry between the narrator and an older brother was not simply transposed from life. Rather, Ignatieff redistributed his and his brother's attributes. He hopes that there's no telling which is which, to avoid any sense of a personal manifesto.

Which leads back to Berlin. Ignatieff remembers the master for his "incredible lightness of being", even though he would take Ignatieff to task over his Russian pronunciation. Bang! Du-ma. Bang! Akh-maa-tova. But what counted most was Berlin's insistence upon empathy as the gold standard in human affairs.

Now we are talking in earnest. A central 20th-century problem is how to broker human rights. Are they universal and inherent? Or are they mere fragile conventions? Would it actually make an iota of cosmic difference if an all-powerful tyrant tortured the whole of humanity to death? Perhaps not. But humankind is humankind. It has a choice. Either it can go to the devil, or it can empathise amongst itself. And empathy directly leads to human rights.

The bottom line is: survival and generosity of mutual understanding are coterminous. Two areas that preoccupy Ignatieff are developments within the precision weapons industry, and the international spawning of human rights in the postwar period. And so I begin to understand what Ignatieff is about, how his admiration for Berlin and that passage in Scar Tissue are connected. By undressing his mother in flat, Freud-free terms, he extols her individuality, her non-totalitarian being.

Also, I begin to understand why he lives close to a bombsite. Redemption is not an easy road. For the serious writer, obstacles are necessary. Yet Ignatieff will have none of this. He likes where he lives, just as he likes living in Britain. England, he says, is still as dynamic as anywhere in the world. "Only I guess you'd have to have grown up in Canada to understand why I can say that."

What about form then? Is form the challenge? "You mean because I write in so many different modes?" Momentarily, a hint of weariness clouds his features. "Yes, I admire people like Martin Amis and Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, who've found all-purpose vehicles for their many ideas. But my admiration doesn't lead to discontent. What matters is to write in such a way that I feel I am living my life."

What else should I say? That Ignatieff is six foot tall, dark, and seemingly fit for his age? That, in a pleasing North American manner, he is soft- humoured to boot? "Let's lighten up here," he regularly says. I return to the Underground. I look at another batch of uprooted masks suffering the inconvenience of being alive with sealed lips and shuttered minds, and think: isn't all this why they, we, all need Berlin? Ignatieff?

Hallelujah and goddam. The Manicheans were right. Goodness and evil are alike primordial. Pitted against our capacity for empathy is a craving for regimentation. History hasn't finished. History is just beginning. It always is. It begins afresh with the squeal of every infant.

Michael Ignatieff, a biography

Michael Ignatieff was born in Toronto in 1947. He holds history degrees from Toronto and Harvard Universities, and has taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley and the London School of Economics. Now settled in London, he is well-known not just as a writer of fiction and non-fiction, but also as a broadcaster. Because his father was a diplomat, much of his childhood was spent in London, Belgrade, Geneva and New York. He has documented his Russian ancestry in The Russian Album. His other books before Isaiah Berlin: a life, published this week, include The Needs of Strangers, The Warrior's Honour and two novels, Asya and Scar Tissue, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993. He also wrote the screenplay for the film 1919, starring Paul Scofield.