Sunday, 9 February 2020

George Steiner, 1929-2020

 © National Portrait Gallery, London
1. In my teens George Steiner was on the telly a fair bit, talking about really great writers and themes in history; and I mean scheduled shows on BBC2 and Channel 4 (who had him as a pundit when they broadcast live coverage of the bicentennial celebrations of the French Revolution in 1989.) Having Steiner talk at one through the television made a big impression on a boy who hadn’t grown up with many significant literary works lying around the house.

2. It was on one Channel 4 book-show (about the life and work of Kafka) where Steiner proposed that Kafka was the only great author (i.e. besting even Dante or Shakespeare) who could be thought to ‘have made his own a letter of the alphabet’ – which is such a sharp and charming apercu.

3. I will also 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?)

4. Understandably, a great many literary critics rate themselves in the mirror as major wordsmiths, and Steiner no doubt had a sound ego; but he also served a warning here: ‘Cruelly, perhaps’, he wrote in Real Presences (1989), ‘it does seem to be the case that aesthetic criticism is worth having only, or principally, where it is of a mastery of answering form comparable to its object.’

5. Subsequent to hearing the news of Steiner’s death last week I saw a piece from 1996 in Prospect, by James Wood, heavily and rather showily (i.e. ‘hatchet’-like) criticising Steiner’s rigour and high-flown manner, and the windiness of certain propositions, especially Steiner’s insistence on the aspiration to transcendence in great art. Wood thought a writer couldn’t seriously argue this without religious belief of their own, vested in a specific form of faith. 'All great writing,' Steiner insisted, 'springs from le dur desir de durer, the harsh contrivance of spirit against death, the hope to overreach time by force of creation.' Personally I think the hope is sufficient – the belief that the human spirit points us to the possibility, still, of something more than our mortal consciousness. I don’t believe, but most of my favourite art is religious art of a sort.

6. Wood and others mark Steiner down as something of a conservative figure from the 1960s, a button-down among longhairs and so forth. Maybe accurate when viewed from a generational lens, but Steiner certainly wasn’t shocked by or immune to strains of new and daring thought – he just took a view on them as phenomena. His two 1960s-era essays on sexual explicitness in fiction, 'Night Words' and 'Eros and Idiom', I would happily teach today, and I don’t feel the same about a lot of celebrated and f*ck-laden fictions of that era and subsequent.

7. Steiner was quite modest about the few fictions he published, but The Portage to San Christobal of A.H. is a remarkable dramatic-philosophical piece, potent enough for Christopher Hampton to make a play out of it.

8. Like many writers who teach writing, I find it useful to refer to the published and unexpurgated versions of the stories of Raymond Carver, before and after Gordon Lish got to them. They’re a good test of the worth of the sort of literary minimalism which has been critically valorised for all the years that I’ve been reading and writing. Minimalism has its pros and cons, and Steiner was very good on the cons, remarking a few years back that 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?"

9. Steiner had a bit of a snub from Cambridge in his early academic career, and believed, if I have it right, that his foreignness made him a bit of a figure of suspicion in the circles where he’d hoped to practise. He certainly fired some bullets in the direction of Cambridge’s circular culture when in 1980 he wrote of Anthony Blunt as ‘The Cleric of Treason.’

10. I was only in the same room as Steiner once, 1998, I think, when the London Review of Books and New Left Review jointly hosted a sort of symposium on Israel/Palestine given by Edward Said. Steiner made some comments from the floor, more in sorrow than anger over things, noting how long he and Said had been writing in the field. Afterward there were drinks in the low-ceiling basement bar of a Bloomsbury hostelry, an unseemly buy-your-own crush with crazy-loud music, and I remember watching Steiner pass alone amid the throng, en route – or so I was hoping, for his sake – to the exit. As a sodality it was hopeless; but still he wore the small, curious smile of this that I’d got used to seeing on the telly.