George Steiner, who died on Monday aged ninety, was one of the pre-eminent European critics and literary intellectuals of the twentieth century.
He was born into a Jewish family living in Paris, the son of Friedrich Georg Steiner, a senior official in the Austrian Central Bank, and Elsa Franzos. Steiner’s parents had left Vienna in 1924 alarmed at the rise of antisemitism there. He was brought up speaking French, German and English interchangeably and encouraged by his father to read widely in the classics. In later life he recalled that his parents would often start a sentence in one language and finish it in another. As the Germans invaded France in 1940, the family moved on to New York and Steiner became a naturalised American citizen in 1944 (while keeping his original French nationality).
He was educated at the University of Chicago and then Harvard, before winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. His first attempt at a doctoral thesis there was rejected for its intuitive style and avoidance of the normal scholarly apparatus of footnotes and extensive bibliography. Nevertheless he did later get a book out of it (The Death of Tragedy, 1961). Subsequently he submitted another thesis in the expected style on romantic poetry. This he never published, abandoning it instead, he was to say, “to the mice”.
In 1952, he joined the staff of The Economist. He stayed there for four years, mostly writing leading articles (editorials). After a year as a fellow at Princeton he went to Cambridge University, where he remained for the rest of his life apart from various visiting lectureships at Geneva, New York and Harvard. He was, for thirty years, succeeding Edmund Wilson, lead book reviewer for The New Yorker.
His own and his family’s multilingualism led to a preoccupation with the origins of speech, the meaning of the myth of the Tower of Babel, the work of the translator and what he believed was the superiority of writers who operated “extraterritorially”, like Beckett, Borges and Nabokov. With Harold Bloom, he argued on behalf of “the Western canon”, placing himself in opposition a succession of serially fashionable academic movements, from the “New Criticism” of the 1950s and ’60s to structuralism and deconstruction. In Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959), subtitled “An Essay in the Old Criticism”, he wrote:
The old criticism is engendered by admiration. It sometimes steps back from the text to look upon moral purpose. It thinks of literature as existing not in isolation but as central to the play of historical political energies. Above all, the old criticism is philosophic in range and temper.
His many books include Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (1967), In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (1971) and After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975). His work repeatedly tried to define the meaning of culture in an age of atrocities. In Language and Silence he wrote: “My own consciousness is possessed by the eruption of barbarism in modern Europe, by the mass murder of the Jews and by the destruction under Nazism and Stalinism of what I try to define in some of these essays as the particular genius of ‘Central European humanism’.” Perhaps strangely, this clear vision of the enormity of Nazi barbarism did not prevent him from studying writers and philosophers contaminated by antisemitism: Heidegger, Céline and Pound all interested him.
Although he was deeply immersed in biblical culture (Athens and Jerusalem being the twin sources of the European civilisation he championed), Steiner was often critical of Israeli policies. Though he defended the existence of the state he also described himself as an anti-Zionist. For him, he said, the essence of Jewish identity was “always having a bag packed”.
He confessed that in his long life he had perhaps not always “kept up” with changing trends or fully grasped the importance of technological change. Speaking to Le Monde in 2013, he said:
I plead guilty to not having understood that cinema was perhaps the most important of modern aesthetic forms … I confess to not having understood the importance of television or the revolution that cinema and television together had given rise to … In the same way, when I was a student at Chicago I loved the great masters of jazz; then came heavy rock, conceptual art and I turned away. One can’t like or understand everything and one shouldn’t try to bluff.
An invention like the mobile phone, he felt, deprived man of his interior monologue.
George Steiner loved the old Europe of cafés – different from American bars or Irish pubs. Make a map of the cafés, he wrote, and there you will have the essentials of “the idea of Europe”.
Europe, for him, was the most humanised of continents, the most suited to man and civilisation. It was knowable, walkable even, and its shape remained essentially the same today as it had been for the great writers and artists of the European cultural heritage: “Our fields, whether covered with snow or yellowed by the summer sun, are the same as those known by Bruegel, Monet or Van Gogh.”
Sources: The New York Times, Le Monde, George Steiner’s Una Certa Idea di Europa (Garzanti 2006).Photograph: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.