Approaching his seventieth year, George Steiner has written a compact, eloquent, impassioned, and deeply sad memoir that stresses his intellectual life while subordinating his personal life. As a self-proclaimed champion of canonical values in literary studies and as a mandarin defender of the European intellectual tradition, he regards himself as besieged and the arts and humanities as endangered into obsolescence. Above all, he broods darkly on the twentieth century’s being the most bestial in recorded history. “Man has, on a pervasive scale, been diminished.”
Steiner’s accomplishments as a cultural scholar and critic are commanding. He has written sixteen books that span an astonishing arc from ancient Greek literature to chess, philosophy, philology, linguistics, aesthetics, religion, fiction, and poetry. In 1984, Oxford University Press published a selection of his essays in GEORGE STEINER: A READER. Introducing it, Steiner called the book “an interim statement.” This work is another interim report on the intellectual concerns of one of the twentieth century’s most erudite humanists.
Steiner’s parents, Austrian-Jewish, left anti-Semitic Vienna in 1924 for Paris, where George was born in 1929; in 1940 the family reached New York City. A brilliant student, he received a B.A. at the University of Chicago, M.A. at Princeton University, and a Ph.D. at Oxford University. Since then he has taught at the best American and British universities.
Steiner’s passions, besides literature, are mathematics, philosophy and, above all, music. Yet he is disturbed that people have found it possible to listen to Schubert in the evening, then torture victims in a concentration camp the next morning. And he is appalled that, between 1914 and the closure of the Gulags, at least seventy-five million people have been killed. The earth, he concludes, has often been Hell.
Sources for Further Study
The Christian Century. CXV, July 1, 1998, p. 657.
Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, January 1, 1998, p. 44.
Library Journal. CXXIII, February 1, 1998, p. 87.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 12, 1998, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, January 19, 1998, p. 360.
The Spectator. CCLXXIX, September 6, 1997, p. 39.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 10, 1998, p. 31.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, March 22, 1998, p. 8.
WE Magazine. July, 1998, p. 82.