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A Genius for Friendship

Letters, 1928–1946

by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy
Cambridge University Press, 755 pp., $40.00


When you are young, you cannot imagine that the old were ever young. As you get older, that becomes easier. Isaiah Berlin was in his sixties when I first met him in Oxford. Britain’s most celebrated public intellectual, an iconic figure with his heavy-rimmed spectacles, dark three-piece suit, and unforgettable, much-imitated, bubbling, allusive, rapid-fire conversation, had characteristically agreed to spend an evening with a small undergraduate society. To a nineteen-year-old student, he seemed close to Methuselah—although, as I would discover over a quarter-century of closer acquaintance, this was a Methuselah with a vast appetite and talent for gossip.

Letters, 1928–1946 shows what Isaiah Berlin was like when he was young. His life unfolds, through Henry Hardy’s meticulously edited first volume of his letters, in a sequence of expanding circles. The first circle is his close and supportive Russian-Jewish family, which had moved from Riga to England in 1921. There is a moving early letter from the nineteen-year-old Shaya, as he was then known, to his spirited, musical, romantically aspiring mother, Marie, consoling her (“I know that your position is not sweet”) for the frustrations of living with the pedestrian caution of his merchant father, Mendel Berlin. It ends with this admonition: “Remember: Life is Good; and always will be Good however ugly it looks….” Somehow that remained Isaiah’s personal belief through all the horrors of the twentieth century, and this fundamentally optimistic, life-affirming attitude is one of the qualities that made him such a stimulating person.

The entire volume is punctuated by such affectionate, loyal, reassuring letters to “Ma and Pa,” who are constantly worrying about his health, appearance, and so forth. Sometimes, reading them feels like eavesdropping. At age twenty-four, already a lecturer at New College, Oxford, he writes:

My dear mother: in answer to your questions in order: 1) I am taking my medicine. 2) I feel much better. The stomach is less troublesome. I am taking care about diet. 3) I have not taken the new handkerchieves with me so far as I know. I’ll look again, but I think not. 4) I have had 2 baths! 5. Nails etc. fairly, not very, clean. Doing my best.

No doubt Methuselah, too, had a fussing Jewish mother. Hardy also inserts at various points extracts from Mendel Berlin’s rather touching private biographical sketch of his son, writing of Isaiah as “you.”

The second circle is Oxford, to which he came as an undergraduate in 1928 and where he died in 1997. Oxford was central to Isaiah’s life—“London is heaven,” he writes from Washington in 1944, “but Oxford seventh heaven”—and these letters speak to us of a time when Oxford still confidently considered itself to be central to British culture, and beyond. He approvingly quotes a comment by the German scholar Ernst Robert Curtius that “the barometers of culture in England were in Oxford & Cambridge & not in London.” (No longer true, if it ever was.) And from his wartime stay in the United States he reports back, “After Oxford, Harvard is a desert.”

Isaiah Berlin’s Oxford, like Isaiah’s world altogether, was all about particular people. Crowds of them tear through these pages in a melee of vivid, thumbnail sketches, gossip, congratulation, condolence, written as he spoke: generous, witty, occasionally waspish, and overflowing with joie de vivre. We are told that he plunged into the social life of his undergraduate college, small, “cosy” Corpus Christi, joining every student society, and “his rooms were a place of resort” for other students seeking company and conversation. His genius for friendship was clearly there from the very beginning.

At the outset, the company is not so striking, with fellow classicists going on to join the Colonial Service for life, or so they fondly imagined: “Jerry’s career seems to be completely settled. I am happier about it than I can say, in spite of a slightly bitter letter about Africa from Cruikshank which I unexpectedly received.” But soon he is moving into grander company, titled, rich, the haute volée, or as Isaiah himself puts it, “mildly vile body society”—presumably an allusion to Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Now the first-ever Jewish scholar to be elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he goes to stay with Victor Rothschild and his wife in Cambridge, in the company of Aldous Huxley (“dull,” “too unspontaneous”), and is flown back from Cambridge to Oxford in a private plane.

Here is Isaiah’s third circle: high society. English high society, initially, but soon stretching well beyond. One remark attributed to him in later life was that “there are 567 people in the world and I know all of them.” Yet he was far too ironical an observer ever to have been a snob, and “snobbish” appears in these pages as a severely critical epithet. Rather, he was characterized by an insatiable appetite and ability, apparent already when in his early twenties, to get to know an extraordinary range of people, spanning especially politics, di-plomacy, literature (Stephen Spender is an early, important and lifelong friend, Elizabeth Bowen a regular correspondent), journalism, music, and, of course, academia. By the end of his life, he really did seem to know—or to have known—“everyone.” This came with a quality, of which he was wholly aware, of being something of a conversational chameleon—agreeing with each interlocutor, flattering them by that generous agreement, before going on to add something original of his own. Describing a tense ménage à trois between two philosophers and one woman he says, self-ironically, “I play my usual precarious delicate and tactful part of friend of all the world.” In his later years, I sometimes felt he had raised this to a utilitarian principle, entirely justified as bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number.

In these letters from the 1930s, he is a witty social observer, tossing off some striking lines: “[Richard] Crossman is trying to sell his soul again & finding no buyers even among those who think he had one”; tutoring undergraduates is “like striking matches on soap”; “David Cecil still runs in and out, with a voice like a crate of hens carried across a field.” But the torrent of gossip in his letters about long-dead dons and “mildly vile body society,” recounted in a consciously heightened and slightly bright-young-thing style, can occasionally pall. All Souls College’s full title is “The College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed,” but at times this feels like All Souls of the Frivolous Departed. “There may be a lot of theatrical nonsense here,” as he self-deprecatingly remarks at the end of one letter to Elizabeth Bowen, confessing that “I can never trust myself to re-read letters.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that we don’t hear so much about his serious intellectual pursuits, although there are glimpses of the intense excitement of his regular Thursday philosophy sessions with A.J. (Freddie) Ayer, J.L. Austin, and Stuart Hampshire and some fine literary exchanges with Stephen Spender. In a letter to Spender from All Souls, written in 1935, he comments on the German poet Stefan George and his book of 1900, Der Teppich des Lebens (The Tapestry of Life):

Your remarks on George I think are absolutely true. I think he was a divine poet sometimes the Teppich des Lebens is magnificent, so are odd things in the other books: as for the passages you quote, I think he was a persecuted megalomaniac, nor can any of the pleas of his closest followers save him from the fact that he was a man of repulsive views or actual modes of living, that he ruined many of his friends, exploited them, used them, etc. as sometimes Wagner did, did not simply burn them up as George Sand or Dostoyevsky did, or tortured them as Lawrence sometimes must have done (is this nonsense?) but definitely used them coldly & that not in virtue of his nature but in virtue of what he believed himself to be, or at any rate in virtue of the part he was determined to act.

More surprising is how relatively little the threatening politics of Europe in the 1930s intrude. From one of the earliest of his regular annual trips to the Salzburg music festival with Stephen Spender, in 1931, he records his “first glimpse of a real Nazi—a great corpulent creature in the official brown uniform, with a red & black Swastika on his sleeve, & wearing a small black demi-astrakhan hat with silver symbols embroidered thereon.” There’s a trip to Ruthenia in 1933: “5 principal languages, 7 subsidiary ones, 4 frontiers, picturesque and mad Jews, petty Ukrainian squabblers.” There are echoes of the arguments about appeasing Hitler over the dinner table at All Souls. Adam von Trott, a German aristocrat at Oxford, later to be executed for his part in the resistance to Hitler, moves in and out of Berlin’s circle. But for the most part, the disintegrating European world is heard like echoes from a busy street the other side of a high college wall.

This may partly just reflect what Isaiah thought fitting matter for letter-writing, as well as the accident of which letters have survived and found their way to his Boswell, Henry Hardy—who begins this volume by appealing to anyone who possesses others to come forward. Indeed, to read this book properly you need to have Michael Ignatieff’s excellent memoir/ biography of Isaiah in the other hand.* Yet you also glimpse how, in other circumstances, Isaiah might have remained no more than just a great Oxford character, a local legend but not a figure of any wider significance, like his early exemplar Maurice Bowra, on whose conversational voice and style, Ignatieff suggests, Berlin’s famous voice and style were originally modeled. What saved him from this fate, what made him a thinker not just of national but of international importance, were the three wider circles of his life: his Jewish engagement, in relation to Zionism, Palestine, and later Israel; America, where he went in 1940; and Russia.

For me, this book explodes into electrifying life with Isaiah’s first trip to Palestine, in 1934. It goes without saying that Isaiah was deeply conscious of his own Jewishness, but one sees in these pages how, while being fully accepted as a brilliant young member of English society, he was still clearly identified as “a Jew.” After meeting him at a dinner in New College, Virginia Woolf wrote to her nephew Quentin Bell, “There was the great Isaiah Berlin, a Portugese Jew by the look of him; Oxford’s leading light; a communist, I think, a fire eater.”

Now, in Palestine, the two identities, English and Jewish, are in tension, if not outright conflict. He lodges at the Pension Romm on King George Avenue, Jerusalem, with Russian-Jewish friends of his parents, Yitzchok and Ida Samunov, while his traveling companion, John Foster, a gentile Fellow of All Souls, puts up at the grander King David Hotel. “There has been trouble there,” Isaiah explains in a letter to his parents, “—all the Jewish employées were suddenly dismissed—labour trouble—so it is unpopular for Jews to stay there at the moment.” A childhood Jewish friend is working illegally on “a Palestine paper.” But “to night Foster & I dine with a lot of young [British] officials & Yitzchok wants me to ‘pump’ them. This I will not do.”

  1. *

    Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Metropolitan Books, 1998).

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