Shape of a Life: Michael Ignatieff on Isaiah Berlin

By Naves, Elaine Kalman | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Shape of a Life: Michael Ignatieff on Isaiah Berlin


Naves, Elaine Kalman, Queen's Quarterly


ELAINE KALMAN NAVES' most recent book is Putting Down Roots: Montreal's Immigrant Writers (Vehicule). Her memoir, Journey to Vaja: Reconstructing the World of a Hungarian-Jewish Family (McGill-Queen's University Press), won the 1998 Elie Wiesel Prize for Holocaust Literature.

I interviewed Michael Ignatieff at the Kit Kat, an upscale Italian restaurant in Toronto around the corner from the CBC building, on 5 November 1998, the first anniversary of the death of Isaiah Berlin, Ignatieff's beloved friend and mentor. Isaiah Berlin: A Life is Ignatieff's eighth book and first biography. His previous works have run the gamut from philosophy to memoir to fiction to political reportage. His literary honours include the Governor-General's Prize for The Russian Album, the Gelber Prize for Blood & Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, and a nomination for the Booker Prize for his novel Scar Tissue.

I had interviewed Ignatieff once before, five years earlier, also at an Italian restaurant, that one in Montreal. Then I'd found him skittish and reserved, "more jumpy creature waiting for ambush than acclaimed author, historian, broadcaster, and journalist at home in his own skin," I wrote at the time in the Montreal Gazette. It was, I subsequently learned, a troubled period in his personal life when he was going through a messy and painful divorce; the man I talked to in 1998 was expansive and relaxed, altogether at home with himself. The change may partly be accounted for as well by the fact that we were both far more comfortable with each other than on the first occasion. Last summer I studied with Ignatieff at the Banff Centre for the Arts where he held the Maclean Hunter Chair in Cultural Journalism. I brought to the Toronto interview a bit of background on the challenges he had faced in writing the Berlin biography about which he had spoken at Banff, and no small measure of affection and regard for him. This is a pared down version of our conversation.

ELAINE KALMAN NAVES: You don't mention in the biography how you came to be his biographer, but I heard you tell the story when we were in Banff last summer.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: I took that out because this was a book about him and not me.

But you'll tell it to me now, won't you?

In 1987, the BBC approached me to reflect on a play called Perdition written by Jim Allen. In it Allen dramatized the most tragic and morally ambiguous and complex moment in the history of the Jewish people, namely the extent to which the Judenrats [Jewish Councils] in Nazi-occupied Europe "collaborated" with the Nazi occupation authorities in an attempt to save some of their own. And also the play dealt with a similar "collaboration" by Zionist organizations in Europe and Palestine with the likes of Adolf Eichmann for the purpose of trying to save some Jewish lives in occupied Europe.

The play was supposed to be put on by the Royal Court Theatre, and the Court came under tremendous pressure from Jewish organizations that wanted to see the production withdrawn, and so it became a kind of free speech issue. And I was asked to comment on a Saturday-night television talk show. I said, "There are no grounds whatever to exclude the subject from legitimate dramatic treatment, and it doesn't matter how painful the subject is. Nothing should be beyond speaking about, not even subjects as painful as this. But for God's sake, get it right!" In no way was censorship the issue; the issue was moral taste. There's no logical reason you can't make this the subject of a play, but you have to be cautioned to the moral implications of what you're dealing with. This playwright was engaging in tendentious anti-Zionist propaganda. There's nothing wrong with being an anti-Zionist, but don't traffic in the moral distress of real human beings who suffered and died.

This was on a Saturday night. To my astonishment, on Monday morning I got a letter from Sir Isaiah Berlin, the nicest letter I ever received, saying, "Happened to be watching, strongly approve, come for lunch. …

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