George Steiner: A traveller in the realm of the mind

September 22 1997 / The Times

As a young academic with two small children George Steiner faced a life-transforming decision: accept a lucrative post at an American university and help fulfil Hitler’s prophecy that, as he puts it, “no one called Steiner would ever live in Europe”, or remain at Cambridge where he had little chance of securing tenure. A polyglot and a maverick, Steiner, a founding fellow of Churchill College, did not fit comfortably into the closed, parochial world of the Cambridge English faculty of the mid-1960s.

He was too self-confident, too eclectic, not English enough.

His passion for work in other languages, his restless roaming across apparently incompatible disciplines and insistence on the Holocaust as the defining calamity of our century isolated him. He was offered a professorial salary, but denied the right to examine. Steiner, who as an extraordinary fellow of Churchill retains links with his college, says: “That would have been fatal: if you can’t examine, if you can’t join in the life of a faculty, your students suffer. I wouldn’t accept this.”

He was determined, though, to live in Europe, to honour the moral imperative of his father who sternly told him over lunch that if he went to America, “Hitler had won”.

“Later,” he says, “I phoned my wife and said, ‘Zara, I don’t know if I can enter industry or sell clothing, but I will do anything rather than face that moment of contempt from my father again’.” So Steiner, in his own self-description, became a “great wanderer”, a figure on the margins, working in universities but belonging to none. It was not until his appointment, in 1972, as Professor of Comparative Literature at Geneva University that he secured a settled position.

Now 68, he describes his wife Zara - a native New Yorker of Lithuanian Jewish extraction and a former vice-president of New Hall, Cambridge - as the love of his life. Their meeting was ordained: working in London in the early 1950s (he was then a writer on the Economist ; she on secondment at the Foreign Office ) they received separate postcards from former professors at Harvard, where they had both studied, urging them “to be a sport” and meet up. “The professors had had a bet…that we would get married if we ever met.”

Steiner ignored the first postcard, but soon afterwards another arrived. He phoned Zara and they met for afternoon tea, agreeing that “we would send our own postcard after the meeting, saying, ‘You lose the bet’.” But at the end of our afternoon together, he turned to Zara and said: “Perhaps we should send that postcard next time.”

Walking with Steiner through the grounds of Churchill College you are struck by the loneliness of his position and how his plight as an outsider has hurt him. His parents were elegant, cultured Viennese Jews, who, unsettled by the incipient anti-semitism in Austrian society, moved to Paris in 1924. “A systematic, doctrinal Jew-hatred seethed and stank below the glittering liberalities of Viennese culture,” he writes in his new book, Errata , a compelling semi-autobiographical meditation.

Steiner is a treasured, if trenchant and controversial, link to the central European Jewry from which sprang many of the commanding figures of our modernity - Wittgenstein, Marx, Freud, Einstein and Schoenberg. Many of his essays - a form he has made idiosyncratically his own - are elegies for that lost world. For Steiner the perplexity of our age is that the humanities did not humanise; that senior Nazis listened to Schumann and Bach and still organised the Final Solution; that great art may, in some way, encourage barbarism and tyranny; that to survive the levelling threat of assimilation the Jew may have to solicit disaster.

He feels he owes his existence to the fact that his father, a prosperous merchant banker, saw with “grim clairvoyance” the coming Nazi storm. He describes how his father continually warned relatives and friends of the danger of remaining in Vienna. “Nobody of your age,” he says, gripping my arm, “knows what it was to grow up with a father who knew that Hitler was coming but couldn’t get people to listen to him. As late as 1938, his cousins and sisters in Vienna and Prague were saying, ‘Oh, come off it. We are completely safe’.” Steiner pauses, lowers his head. “But, of course, 1938 was too late. They stayed and died.”

Steiner was born in Paris in 1929, with a withered right arm - an handicap, which though he does not say so, may have given him an instinctive sympathy for the outcast. He was precocious and gifted, studying the classics as a child. He was educated at home and in the elitist French lycee system, where he spoke French, German and English. In 1940 the family moved to America, where Steiner at tended the University of Chicago. A month after they left Paris the Nazis surged in. Of the many Jewish children in his school only two survived.

Steiner adored his parents. His mother, who often began a sentence in one language ending it in another, was, he says, a “typically delightful Viennese grand dame”. He gently begins to sing, as his mother once sang to him, a charming ditty: “I am bad/I could be better/But it doesn’t really matter.” He looks up, his eyes watering. “I loved my parents so much that it killed the creative artist in me.”

That is not strictly true: as well as criticism, Steiner has written fiction, including The Portage to San Cristobel of AH , in which a team of Nazi hunters discovers an aged Adolf Hitler living in exile in a Peruvian jungle. The novella was an international success; Steiner considered leaving academe and striking out as a novelist. He admires writers of extremes, solitary, unafraid individuals who step outside conventional society in search of radical self-expression. He quotes approvingly a line from I.A. Richards: “Leaping crevices in the dark/That is the way to live.”

He regrets that he himself has not lived on the edge, not leapt enough crevices in the dark, not been swayed by passions. “After the success of the Hitler novel in the mid-1970s, I thought about going it alone; my only defence for not doing so was that I loved teaching. That’s just an apologia.”

He recalls his father’s fascination with Disraeli and England. “For the eastern and central European Jewish intelligentsia, the career of Disraeli had assumed a mythical, talismanic aura.” Steiner also loves England, yet remains frustrated by its philistinism, mistrust of intellectuals and cultural fatigue. “When I was having trouble at Cambridge, people used to say it was because they didn’t want a Jew to teach English. But I don’t think it was that. England has a veneer of high society anti-semitism, yet it has given Jews a tolerance, protection and ironic indifference. . .

“In France, where they are passionate about abstract ideas, if you shoot a man for disagreeing with you about Hegel, then that is a tremendous compliment to the life of the mind. The English would say, ‘No, no, that is very silly’.”

Steiner considers what he calls “the blessed decency” of John Major to be emblematically English. “That he could hand over power with a courteous handshake and smile, and then go that same afternoon to a cricket match speaks well of the man. Robespierre would not have gone to a cricket match.”

Steiner speaks as he writes, long sentences of baroque grandeur. His English, with its massed adjectives and awkward syntax, but also its cloudbursts of insight, recalls Conrad. Critics are divided over his language and style, over his towering self-belief and range. Nabokov famously complained that one of his essays was “built on solid abstractions and opaque generalisations”; James Wood, writing in the New Republic , lamented his “laborious imprecisions and melodramas”.

Steiner remains stoical. “I have many detractors; I am conscious of overwriting. On the other hand, Borges, Nabokov, Wilde, Conrad - maybe it’s moving my way; maybe literature is becoming more polyglot.” It is this unshakeable belief in his work that irritates his critics.

His conversation is studded with allusions, half-remembered phrases, direct quotations. He is a remarkable orator, using rhetoric, repetition and canny theatrical pauses to hold and delight an audience. At Cambridge, his lectures were always full. “I had more people in my lectures and more research students than anyone else.”.

A current of sadness runs through Errata, sadness at what was destroyed in the Shoah, and at what Steiner has not done: the languages not learnt, the books unread, the risks (and drugs) not taken. In the final chapter, written in characteristic twilight mode, he grapples with his Judaism, with what he calls his “messianic agnosticism”. For Steiner wants to establish the boundaries of knowledge - that of which we can speak - in order to make way for faith in a transcendent as well as a materialist view of the world. “My Jewishness,” he says, reaching out to touch the Star of David on the cover of Errata, “is the badge I have worn my whole life, but not in humility or shame. If I had to wear it again, I would wear a big one and with pride.”