The Passions of Bertrand Russell

The Life of Bertrand Russell

by Ronald W. Clark
Knopf, 766 pp., $17.50

The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest for Liberty and Love

by Dora Russell
Putnam's, 304 pp., $9.95

My Father Bertrand Russell

by Katharine Tait
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 224 pp., $8.95

Bertrand Russell

by A.J. Ayer
Viking (Modern Masters), 168 pp., $2.25 (paper)

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell; drawing by David Levine

Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography (which was published in three volumes in the 1960s) is a work that leaves one in more than one way winded. It is not altogether a book, bringing together a rather random collection of letters with a sketchy account of the author’s life which, though sometimes alarmingly frank, omits much and hurries the reader on from one cursorily described event to another. It is not just the speed of travel that leaves one gasping, but the glancing view of some episodes that Russell puts in. One is several times confronted with a summary or dismissive account of central, professedly transforming, occurrences in his life, which cannot, surely, represent things as they were then lived, yet at the same time is not just the misleading product of a distant or oblique style of recollection.

There is no recognizable economy of narration which explains the effect produced by the Autobiography. The spiritual transitions which flash by, which are enacted between the striking of a match and the puffing of that ubiquitous pipe, do not seem as blank and unreal as they do because the structural outlines are left on the horizon, the emotional materials having burned or wasted away. On the contrary, it is the language of intense and overwhelming feeling, for a person or for the sufferings of mankind, that itself lights up these Polaroid snaps of Russell’s past and leaves the reader with a problem about how Russell could possibly have understood himself, either when he wrote these pages or when what he wrote about occurred. The most famous, now notorious, case is his account of his deciding on a bicycle ride that he no longer loved his first wife, Alys, and pedaling back to live for years in accordance with that discovery. But there are many other passages in which references to extreme or drastic resolution leave the reader bewilderingly distant from any conception of Russell’s self-understanding.

Mr. Clark’s long biography does much to help us on questions of fact, to fill in holes in the story, and to correct some impressions left by Russell’s account. For one thing, his affair with Connie Malleson (“Colette”) went on longer, and had more echoes in Russell’s later life, than you would judge from the Autobiography. Clark has taken great pains with an enormous amount of material, Russell’s widow having given him full access to documents. He makes a number of new discoveries and suggestions, very plausibly proposing in particular that the object of a passion in Russell’s earlier life, whose identity he concealed, was in fact Mrs. Alfred North Whitehead. He is good, also, at sorting out more recent events, and gives a very reasonable account of Russell’s involvement in the Committee of 100 against nuclear weapons, and his eventual quarrel with Ralph Schoenman.

The amount of work that has gone into producing this well-documented and clearly signposted account…

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