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

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?