Saturday, 19 April 2008

George Steiner, maintaining the standards

I was 17 or 18 when I first encountered the critical writings of George Steiner, and I don't think I have ever liked a critic better. (I say 'critic' - modestly the man himself discounts his occasional fictions, including The Portage to San Christobal of A.H., but then one can be sure he sets the bar higher than the average mortal.) My favourite titles of his remain Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky and Real Presences. I will never forget hearing Steiner describe the true function of the critic as that of a postman: one who knows precisely where to deliver the missives of men & women of letters. (As I recall, he attributes this image to Pushkin?) And he returns to this theme in an excellent interview in today's Guardian. He also expresses the view that most writing "seems to me too often, in this country, at the moment, a minimalist art. Very, very non-risk-taking. Very tight - often admirably, technically. But finally one thinks of the nasty taunt of Roy Campbell, the South African rightwing poet: I see your bridle, where's the bloody horse?"

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