The reputation of Isaiah Berlin, that “charming, witty, urbane” and “brilliantly talkative” man, takes a thrashing in A.N. Wilson’s merciless TLS review. The books under discussion are Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960 and The Book of Isaiah, a collection of personal impressions from those who knew the big man. I never got on with Berlin. His undernourished ideas cast long shadows into the gloom of my undergraduate years. Berlin was a big name lacking a big book. It’s refreshing to read Wilson saying what many have long thought, “…that the author of The Hedgehog and the Fox was not worthy to lick the boots of the author of Philosophical Investigations.”
In The Book of Isaiah Jennifer Holmes tells us Berlin “was particularly sensitive to being regarded as a licensed clown, a mere jolly and garrulous vulgarisateur.” He was prickly, Wilson snipes, precisely because “that was what he chose to make of himself.” And Wilson doesn’t hold back with painful examples of Berlin’s unique sensitivity.
Of the Letters, Wilson blasts, they “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.” And his best shot he saves till last with this damning, final judgement:
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, pompous loghorrhoea of the Letters leave a far less pleasing impression.