Isaiah Berlin – a life, by Michael Ignatieff

This is an excellent biography – informative, unsentimental and well written. It also brings out the intellectual currents of Berlin’s thinking, which must always be a challenge for the writer of philosophical biography.

There is a startling vignette – just after he got married, Isaiah Berlin was in the South of France with his wife and they were staying at a chateau when Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and their respective mistresses turned up. They all sat in the car together, drinking champagne.

That sounds to me like the very essence of cool. I imagine the warmth, the smell of lavender and jasmine, the dusty driveway and the laughter and chatter from the car. All that and brilliant artists too? I would like to stand and look, wearing espadrilles and linen trousers, sipping local red wine and just being watchful.

But mostly this book recounts Berlin’s fascinating life and personality. Irving Berlin was once invited to 10 Downing Street for dinner by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who asked him what he thought the Russians were planning and what a post-war settlement for Eastern Europe would look like. Irving Berlin was non-committal, since he had of course been invited in error.

The book also encouraged me to go back to some of (Isaiah) Berlin’s writings, since his humanist outlook feels more necessary today than ever.


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