Letters 1960-75 by Isaiah Berlin: Vast erudition, fluency and humanity, gossip, back-stabbing and name-dropping too

Berlin's letters, superbly edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle, encourage us to ask what is going to be remembered and what is going to fade: the work, or the personality?

Isaiah Berlin – Building: Letters, 1960-75
Edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle
Chatto & Windus, 704pp, £40

Isaiah Berlin’s career fell into three different parts. First, there was a period of growing acclaim during the late 1940s and 1950s. A key anti-communist voice during the cold war, he became a household name thanks to his radio broadcasts on the BBC and he became one of the most important liberal thinkers of the postwar period, the author of works such as The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953) and Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) – his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford.

From the mid-1960s, however, Berlin increasingly came under attack from the new left and, later, the new right. His cold war liberalism seemed out of step with the times and a new generation of historians of political thought was more critical of his academic work. Then, in the late 1980s and 1990s, his ideas acquired a new relevance with the end of the cold war, the fall of Soviet Communism and the revival of ethnic nationalism, especially in the Balkans.

The third volume of his Letters brings the story of the second stage to life. It begins in 1960 with Berlin in his heyday: recently knighted, an Oxford professor, a friend of the great and the good on both sides of the Atlantic. He knows Stravinsky, W H Auden and David Ben-Gurion. He is invited to the Kennedy White House and Anna Akhmatova and Shostakovich visit him in Oxford.

Yet, as the 1960s go on, Berlin becomes more and more embattled, like one of his beloved 19th-century Russian liberals. Under attack from left and right, he writes with feeling of “the awful fate of liberals in difficult times”.

One of “the miserable centrists, the contemptible moderates”, Berlin was not at home in the new world of student protests, feminism and race riots. In May 1968, he writes, “New York – the student riots – the slowly mounting mass of black anger – is terrifying.” Two years later, he writes, “I am 60, this is not my world.”

Even more disturbingly for Berlin, Israel is attacked twice – in 1967 and in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. He agonises as Israel faces destruction from its enemies and then, having won both wars, risks losing the peace. This prompts some of the most powerful letters in the book, especially his exchanges with the Palestinian Omar Haliq.

In much of Building, the Holocaust is a strange absence until it explodes with extraordinary intensity in a series of letters from 1972. Berlin goes to Israel to give a lecture on “Zionist politics in wartime Washington” and comes under ferocious attack from an Israeli, Nathan Yellin-Mor, over his alleged silence about the Holocaust during the war. Berlin mounts a passionate defence against this charge and these 20 pages are the darkest and most troubling part of the book.

This is Berlin at his most engaged. Surprisingly, though, he is often neither original nor illuminating about the events of the day. He writes, “My life is divided between my duties in Oxford and thoughts about conductors; Cuba, Laos, the atom bomb, Berlin pass me by.” There is one letter on the Eichmann trial and just a single reference to Martin Luther King. The great social and cultural changes of the time – the civil rights movement, feminism and gay rights – do not engage him.

However, the editors are surely right to call Berlin “one of the best letter-writers of the 20th century”. He used to say that people were his landscape and the book is full of evocative portraits. His lifelong friend Maurice Bowra was “like a half-extinct, halferupting volcano”, once a “Byronic, satanic, brilliant destroyer” but now “a pathetic old porpoise, fat, resentful, suspicious”. His mother “had enormous vitality, fantasies of what she might have been, passionate love of Ibsen, Hamsun, D H Lawrence . . . all forms of full-blooded self-assertion”.

Many individuals pass through in just a sentence but come to life, like Mr Edelberg, “who used to sell chocolates to her [Berlin’s mother], and wept in a welter of German- Russian Riga broken phraseology”.

Then there are the intellectual fireworks. There are pages and pages of Oxford gossip and endless chatter about Wolfson College and the Royal Opera House, then suddenly Berlin turns to 19th-century Russian thinkers and writers such as Belinsky, Herzen and Tolstoy or late 18th-century critics of the Enlightenment such as Herder and Hamann. Take this on Tolstoy: “Towards the end of his life, [he] was thought of much as [Bertrand] Russell is now – marvellously self-confident aristocrat, a genius in his own proper sphere, but cranky and silly on social and political issues, though so proud, and so eminent, as not to be assailable whatever he said.” These pages are astonishing and bring Berlin’s genius to life.

This is the essence of Berlin and the best part of this volume of Letters, superbly edited again by Henry Hardy, this time in tandem with Mark Pottle. Yet there is always a tension. On the one hand, the vast erudition, fluency and humanity. On the other, the feline gossip, the back-stabbing and the namedropping. In 1972, Berlin wrote about his friend Lewis Namier: “He will live by his works more than by his personality, the memory of which will gradually fade.” The central question this book raises about Berlin is which will fade: the work or the personality? And what will endure?

Man out of time: Isaiah Berlin in 1985. Photograph: Gemma Levine/Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

GETTY
Show Hide image

Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser