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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas