Even on my way to see Michael Ignatieff, the point is made. It's not faces I see deep on the Northern Line so much as masks: people of all ages, from all continents, their expressions lobotomised, as though to say: Yes, this is the 20th century, and I'm a part of it too. A pity really, to be in such close proximity with so many strangers, so many human hues, and exchange but absolutely nothing with them.
I surface at Old Street on the edge of the City, then thread my way through bleak lanes to a converted warehouse standing next to a bombsite. Already the object of my Hadean journey is a puzzle. Why does Ignatieff, a 51- year-old Russian-Scottish Canadian whose natural articulacy and sharp intellect have long since established him among the brightest lights of the cultural firmament, live here of all places?
Ignatieff's lift-less top-floor apartment, like all warehouse conversions, retains its shell: a huge, wooden-floored living area with discrete adjuncts of living leading off it. Everything painted white, with a scatter of Conranesque furniture. Space, order, loneliness. The Canadian prairie? The Belorussian steppe? But the sparse interior is offset by the presence of Ignatieff's partner, a fair-haired Hungarian woman whose warmth at once makes me feel a little envious of something or other. Perhaps the bedroom is a mess? So I substitute: balance, meaning, luck. For two hours we sit on hard chairs and talk, though in an unstructured way. It is not an inquisition. Ignatieff is positioned where I would want anyone to be positioned: more left than right, but not far left either. The pretext of my call is Ignatieff's newest book, Isaiah Berlin: a life (Chatto & Windus, pounds 20). The night before, however, I have stayed up late reading his second, Booker-nominated novel, Scar Tissue. Our conversation flips from the one to the other. Both are brilliant books, but they are brilliant in quite separate ways, so that it is not immediately obvious how they relate. And this is the second, greater puzzle that Ignatieff sets. Isaiah Berlin, based in part on a series of taped interviews Ignatieff made with the philosopher during the last 10 years of his life, is a beautifully organised biography. Not only does it underline the importance of Berlin's contribution to contemporary thought, especially as regards the definition and defence of a quietist liberalism. It also highlights his humanity, and his prodigious capacity as a conversationalist. There are memorable chapters on Berlin's prewar meeting with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad, and on his wartime activities in Washington, when Berlin's Jewishness clashed with his duties as an information officer of the then pro-Arab British government - to the point of an honourable treason. Quite rightly, Ignatieff plays up Berlin's pivotal role in establishing Wolfson College. Many of Berlin's colleagues disparaged him for dissipating his energies on an administrative task, but what could be more fulfilling than to found an Oxford college in your own image? Especially if you were the son of a Jewish Russian immigrant? Scar Tissue is quite different. It tells of the slow death of the narrator's mother from Alzheimer's Disease, and the parallel disintegration of the narrator himself. As a novel it has obvious flaws. The characters slip in and out of focus. Its plethoric ideas are sometimes presented didactically. Lacking the ingenious plasticity of high art it belongs more to the genre of post- modernist confession, an investigation into the limits of being and identity in a godless, medically hi-tech universe. In an extraordinary passage the son describes undressing and bathing his parent as though she were entirely asexual. Yet this disjunction oddly contributes to the book's uniquely harrowing impact. Why, I ask, did Ignatieff chose Isaiah Berlin? Not true. Berlin chose him. He spotted Ignatieff on the box one night and invited him to All Souls. …