Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Lesley Chamberlain

IAS Fellow at Trevelyan College, Durham University (January - March 2014)

Lesley Chamberlain is a writer of fiction and an independent scholar with a preponderant interest in German and Russian thought. After a degree in Russian and German Comparative Literature at the University of Exeter she took a research degree at Oxford before joining Reuters as a correspondent in Moscow in 1978. Her freelance career as a writer and critic began in 1986, since when she has written for all the major British newspapers, and also The LA Times and The Wall Street Journal. She currently writes occasionally for The New Statesman and The Times Literary Supplement, drawing on her background in European literature and Continental Philosophy. Most recently she published a novel, Anyone’s Game (Harbour Books 2012), described by a critic as ‘both symbolic and distinctly individual’ in placing, within a narrative of ‘layered ambiguity’, a twentieth-century Russian woman in her times. Forthcoming is The Shoe Story, an account of readings of van Gogh by Heidegger and Derrida which suggests reasons for why art has changed so dramatically over the last century, from precious object to event in the here and now.

Her writing career has been extremely varied. From pioneering early work on Russian food and its cultural and historical background (The Food and Cooking of Russia, Penguin 1982), she moved on to write, with In the Communist Mirror (Faber, 1990), a unique account of being a ‘Westerner’ in the Communist East. Through the 1980s and on, much of her writing, on fiction and non-fiction, and in her own fiction (In a Place Like That Quartet 1998) reflected the ideas behind and the social reality of The Cold War. Intense Western preoccupation with the Holocaust during this time was also reflected in her reviewing and her travelling in Central and Eastern Europe.

Her interest in the Continental history of ideas revived as the Cold War ebbed. Her biographical evocation of Nietzsche in Turin (Quartet 1996) was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic and led to her appearance at The Chicago Festival of Humanities and lectures at Sarah Lawrence College in New York State, and the University of London, and much media interest. Her controversial book Motherland A Philosophical History of Russia (Atlantic 2004) and subsequently The Philosophy Steamer Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia (Atlantic 2006) established her authority in the field of Russian intellectual history. The unique form of these books also drew parallels with her work as a novelist (Girl in a Garden, Atlantic 2003, Anyone’s Game, Harbour Books 2012).

As an IAS Fellow she will continue to bring her unusual combination of intellectual, historical and artistic interests to bear on ideas of contemporary relevance. The period historians call The Enlightenment has intermittently over the last two centuries and intensely in the last forty years come in for intense criticism for its vision of ‘Reason’. Lesley Chamberlain will examine the work of some Russian and German thinkers who turned their backs on the Time of Light.

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Turning Away from the Light: Why Reject the Enlightenment
4th March 2014, 17:30 to 18:30, Dowrick Suite, Trevelyan College

The Enlightenment has become a hot topic for discussion in recent years. Does it represent standards of rationality and secularity that are bound up with the identity of the West, and to which the West needs to return with renewed confidence? Or is it to blame for all sorts of ills? Critics say that an excessive belief in reason underpinned the enormities of Stalin's and Hitler's ambitions, and that reason inherently does violence to 'life'. Moreover an enlightenment emphasis on universality created norms that relegated many people, peoples and cultures to a second-class position, despite the Enlightenment's proposed desire to uphold equality. 'The Enlightenment' has in short become a minefield. Lesley Chamberlain’s interest in this topic is both as an historian of ideas and as a writer. She will try to pick her way through a small corner of the territory by looking at some of the thinkers, and life-stories, involved on either side.

Listen to this lecture in full.

Lesley Chamberlain Publications

Chamberlain, L (2014). A Shoe Story: Van Gogh, the Philosophers and the West. Chelmsford: Harbour Books

Chamberlain, L (2014) 'The Sad Rider: a decade since Derrida' Common Knowledge, 20(3), pp. 391-403

IAS Insights Paper


The Enlightenment is both a historical period and an instrument of polemic. Tending to become politically engaged, historians have differed over which philosophers best characterize its ideas in what period. The Enlightenment, while it overlapped national borders, seems also to have taken different forms in different European countries. Against this background my work in Durham was to consider criticism of ‘the Enlightenment’ over the last 75 years, to examine the historical background to that criticism and consider how it reflected continuing political and social tensions in the West. Associations with out-of-control technology and totalitarian politics have been deeply harmful. Further, the metaphor of light, associated with a long and dominant tradition of reason and truth, and deeply embedded in the Enlightenment’s self-understanding and reception, has obscured what the Enlightenment was and how to evaluate it.

Insights Paper