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Conversations in the dark

To be quite honest, Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford political philosopher, has always seemed a bit too formidable to read. And except for one brave attempt three decades ago — that resulted in some vigorous underlining — I have let his book Russian Thinkers remain in mint condition on my shelf. But another of his books, recently to hand, seemed more inviting, complete with its yellowing pages, its old-book smell, black-and-white photographs and far friendlier title of Personal Impressions.

Charming is an inadequate word for the essays the book contains — elaborate, cultured, sympathetic and educated assessments of Churchill and Roosevelt, Chaim Weizmann and Einstein, Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf. Berlin’s own intellect, sensitivity and knowledge is the life blood of these essays but it is unobtrusive, almost unseen; there is no attempt to push the self into the picture. There is no “lopping off the heads of the tall poppies”, no deliberate attempt to look for weakness. Instead there is an affectionate effort to decipher genius and in so doing, praise it; the driving force is redemption, not condemnation. As the introduction says: “Like Hamlet he stands amazed at what a piece of work is a man; unlike Hamlet he delights in man.”

The Russia years

Berlin spent most of his life at Oxford, except for a brief stint at the British Embassy in Washington in 1945. Being a native Russian speaker, he was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Riga and saw the 1917 revolutions in Petrograd — Berlin was asked to fill in a temporary situation at the Embassy in Moscow. The friendships with Russian writers, particularly Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, which Berlin writes about in an enchanting 50-page essay (“Meetings with Russian Writers in 1945 and 1956”) began during that stay.

The context was dark: the country was war-ravaged, the years of the midnight knocks and gulags were not forgotten and would soon return, freedom of thought and expression was anti-revolutionary and contact with foreigners — particularly those from western embassies — was fraught with mortal danger. But literary Russia was very much alive, available books were devoured, manuscript copies were circulated privately, poets were worshipped as heroes.

During the war, soldiers went to the front with the words of Alexander Blok, Mayakovsky and Marina Tsvetaeva on their lips, and both Pasternak and Akhmatova, who were living in internal exile, received piles of letters from the front quoting from their published and unpublished works.

Pasternak lived in his dacha at Peredelkino, a writers’ colony not far from Moscow that had been organised by Gorky and it was there that Berlin met him on a “warm, sunlit afternoon in early autumn.”

Many years later, I made the same journey but it was on a windy spring day, with the last remnants of snow welcoming the first green leaves and my destination was not the writer’s house but his grave. It must have been Easter because when I found the grave, distinguished by three pine trees, admirers had left painted Easter eggs on it.

Bringer of news

But to return to Berlin — he was the bringer of news from the world of western literature and art to Pasternak and his friends, for whom time had stopped. Pasternak admired Proust and Joyce and asked if Malraux was still writing; he had not heard of Sartre or Camus and thought little of Hemingway.

But it was Pasternak’s conversation that fascinated Berlin — “his talk often overflowed the banks of grammatical structure — lucid passages were succeeded by wild but always marvellously vivid and concrete images.” Like Virginia Woolf, Pasternak “made one’s mind race….and obliterated one’s normal vision of reality in the same exhilarating and, at time, terrifying way.” The essay also includes Pasternak’s account of the famous telephone call from Stalin during which the dictator wanted to know if Pasternak was present when the poet Osip Mandelstam lampooned Stalin. Pasternak evaded the issue; Mandelstam died in Siberia.

In 1945, Pasternak had only completed a draft of a few early chapters of Doctor Zhivago but even then called it “my last word, and most important word, to the world. It is, yes, it is, what I wish to be remembered by; I shall devote the rest of my life to it.” Berlin met him again after a gap of 11 years. By then the writer’s estrangement with the political order was complete. His friend, Olga Ivinskaya, on whom Zhivago’s Lara is supposed to be modelled, had been sent to a labour camp for five years. During this meeting, Pasternak thrust a thick envelope containing the entire manuscript of Zhivago into Berlin’s hands; it had already been smuggled out to an Italian publisher. The rest is literary history — the Nobel Prize in 1958 and his refusal under political pressure.

The account of Berlin’s famous night long meeting with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad, a meeting which she believed set off the Cold War, must await another occasion, to be told at length unless, of course, readers can get their hands on Personal Impressions before that.


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