Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960

Isaiah Berlin, Henry Hardy (ed.), Jennifer Holmes (ed.)

Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960

This second volume of Berlin's letters takes up the story when, after war service in the United States, he returns to life as an Oxford don. Against the background of post-war austerity, the letters chart years of academic frustration and self-doubt, the intellectual explosion when he moves from philosophy to the history of ideas, his growing national fame as broadcaster and lecturer, the publication of some of his best-known works, his election to a professorship, and his reaction to knighthood. Berlin's visits to American universities, where he sees McCarthyism at work, and his journeys eastward - to Europe, Palestine (and later Israel) and the Soviet Union - inspire acute and often very funny pen-pictures. His political contacts yield an inside view of major world events - the creation of Israel, the Suez Crisis, the Cold War. Many letters provide illuminating, accessible commentary on his ideas. These are the years, too, of momentous developments in his private life: the bachelor don's loss of sexual innocence, the emotional turmoil of his father's death, his courtship of a married woman and transformation into husband and stepfather. 4.3 out of 5 based on 11 reviews
Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre Essays, Journals & Letters, Society, Politics & Philosophy
Format Hardback
Pages 704
RRP £35.00
Date of Publication June 2009
ISBN 978-0701178895
Publisher Chatto & Windus
 

This second volume of Berlin's letters takes up the story when, after war service in the United States, he returns to life as an Oxford don. Against the background of post-war austerity, the letters chart years of academic frustration and self-doubt, the intellectual explosion when he moves from philosophy to the history of ideas, his growing national fame as broadcaster and lecturer, the publication of some of his best-known works, his election to a professorship, and his reaction to knighthood. Berlin's visits to American universities, where he sees McCarthyism at work, and his journeys eastward - to Europe, Palestine (and later Israel) and the Soviet Union - inspire acute and often very funny pen-pictures. His political contacts yield an inside view of major world events - the creation of Israel, the Suez Crisis, the Cold War. Many letters provide illuminating, accessible commentary on his ideas. These are the years, too, of momentous developments in his private life: the bachelor don's loss of sexual innocence, the emotional turmoil of his father's death, his courtship of a married woman and transformation into husband and stepfather.

Reviews

The Independent

Justin Wintle

...what makes these letters work is that despite his famous bonhomie a) IB was an inveterate gossip; b) he was not very nice; and c) he was self-obsessed to a degree. Pace Michael Ignatieff, he is his own best biographer.

03/07/2009

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The Literary Review

John Gray

Berlin used to present himself as an extrovert for whom his own personality was of no great interest. On the whole the letters support this claim, but they also suggest that his gregarious, outward-looking persona may not have been entirely spontaneous. One of Berlin's most remarkable talents was his ability to combine a benevolent interest in others with cool insight into their characters and motives. Even more remarkably, he was able to view himself with the same mix of clear-eyed realism and benign concern.

01/06/2009

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The London Review of Books

Adam Phillips

... one of the many pleasures of these letters is Berlin’s capacity for self-caricature, his sense of the ridiculous, his unrelishing of tragedy... The correspondence is often about his (usually disparaging) sense of himself – the one big thing he seems preoccupied by – but it is more often about his fascination with other people (not their fascination with him, which was considerable). It is full of astoundingly vivid and incisive and very often amusing sketches of people...

23/07/2009

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The New Statesman

Justin Cartwright

Berlin’s letters, it strikes me, are very similar to contemporary emails, dashed off, full of in­discretions, often perceptive, sometimes a little unconsidered, occasionally displaying attitudes aimed only at friends, but they are also examples of his compelling humanity, his wide interest in the range of human activity, his love of music, his fondness for interesting and important people, his recognisably Jewish sensibility, his entrancement with most things English, his affection for the United States, his fascination with Russia, his incorrigible sociability and his unfaltering gaze at his own anxieties and weaknesses.

25/06/2009

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The Observer

Oliver Marre

This book shows how letter writing can be an art, its mastery displayed in the changes in register from high philosophical language to the conversational; acute tension followed by the relief brought by its diffusion; tiny details that combine to tell the reader so much about a situation or personality; the reported speech that captures different voices. If you think Berlin's philosophical writings are impenetrable, or that his friends were just a bunch of overeducated snobs, try reading these letters. They illuminate the insecurities and humanity of a man who, for all his acceptance by the smart society, remained something of an outsider.

12/07/2009

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The Spectator

Paul Johnson

The first volume of Berlin’s letters took him to the end of the war. This goes up to the 1960s, and is richer, even funnier, packed with insights of the great, ‘as one mounts the ladder of importance’, as he puts it. He was not a letter-writer of the genius class, like Byron or Charles Lamb. But he is high up in the second rank, alongside Creevey, for instance, or Macaulay, giving you masses of precious information about people and events.

10/06/2009

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The Daily Telegraph

Nicholas Shakespeare

The letters show his vitality, social range and irresponsibility; also, his “excessive anxiety to please” that he judged his gravest fault. Their co-editor Jennifer Holmes well observes the “nauseating” insincerity with which Berlin writes to the detested Rowse: “One cannot live for 20 years on & off with someone as wonderful & unique as, if you’ll let me say so, you are & not develop a strong & permanent bond.” Sadly omitted are letters from his 1954-5 courtship of Aline Halban, the former French golf champion who became his wife and the core of his life.

17/07/2009

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The Economist

The Economist

Readers will wonder what self-mocking Berlin would have made of this growing monument. He was an erudite wit at the dinner table and, as the reader now sees, in his letters. But he was a thinker first, and for his thought there is no substitute for his essays.

04/06/2009

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The Guardian

Terry Eagleton

Those liberals for whom Berlin is a walking-on-water figure will not be entirely enthralled by what they find here. In turning down the wardenship of Nuffield College, he describes the place as "a bleak Institute near the Station, dedicated to local government, Public Administration, Black men ... a cross between an inferior London School of Economics & Sheffield University ..." ... Despite the odd feline side-swipe at a colleague, Berlin emerges in these letters as a remarkably good-natured soul... Not even his sternest critic could fail to be impressed by his exuberance and vivacity.

27/06/2009

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The Sunday Times

John Carey

...the present volume will not, I think, enhance Berlin’s reputation as much as the editors might wish, mainly because it comes close to being unreadable... Berlin was notorious for his garrulity and in 1949, by some fatal mischance, he acquired a Dictaphone, which allowed him, with the help of the secretaries who typed up his letters from it, to infect his correspondence with what Hardy calls the “loose, baggy” style of his conversation. The result is exasperating... It cannot be said, either, that the personality that emerges from the letters is exactly captivating. He regards most other people with supercilious disdain.

07/06/2009

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Times Literary Supplement

A.N. Wilson

The letters are not worth the effort required of them. There is not one which comes anywhere near being a good letter, and nearly all of them are thunderingly boring... If these letters had not been published, I should have gone on thinking of Berlin as a very jolly diner out who wrote some delightfully well-turned essays about European thinkers and writers... As it is, the hyperbole of the encomia in The Book of Isaiah, combined with the malicious, snobbish, boastful, cowardly loghorrhoea of the Letters leave a far less pleasing impression.

17/07/2009

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