George Steiner 1929-2020 R.I.P.

Literary critic and scholar George Steiner died last week in Cambridge, England at the age of 90. He is the latest eminent literary critic to pass away recently, starting with Harold Bloom in October and continuing with Samuel Hynes, Clive James and John Simon. See previous posts. According to the obituary in the New York Times, Steiner was

…a literary polymath and man of letters whose voluminous criticism often dealt with the paradox of literature’s moral power and its impotence in the face of an event like the Holocaust […] An essayist, fiction writer, teacher, scholar and literary critic — he succeeded Edmund Wilson as senior book reviewer for The New Yorker from 1966 until 1997 — Mr. Steiner both dazzled and dismayed his readers with the range and occasional obscurity of his literary references.

When his death was announced, I was reminded of two of his books: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959) and The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. (1981), his only novel. I looked for any article or opinion he may have written about Waugh’s works, but a search on Google Books came up with only this mention in the context of a discussion of the different publishing practices in England and America. After remarking that publishing in America is more remunerative, Steiner concludes that English publishers are more patient, supportive and nurturing over the longer term:

…Above all, English life fosters privacies, a narrow quiet and modesty of material exustence, such as encourage a writer’s slow development of his own voice and purpose. Hence the striking number of contemporary English novelists who genuinely have “work in progress,” in whose writing there is a vital architecture: Anthony Powell, Iris Murdoch, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Evelyn Waugh, C. P. Snow, Lawrence Durrell, Muriel Spark. One may not like what they were doing, but their individual books carry a sense of the whole.

This was published in Language and Silence (1967). By the time it was in print, Waugh was dead. When he died, there was at least one work in progress that was unfinished. This was the second volume of his autobiography to be entitled A Little Hope. He may have been somewhat reluctant to proceed with that because the early chapters would have had to deal with the failure of his first marriage, not a period he was going to enjoy describing. Moreover, he had not sensed any pressure to complete volume 2 in a hurry because his publisher did not intend to print it until the large print run of the first volume A Little Learning (1964) had been exhausted. Given the low ebb of Waugh’s reputation at the time, the copies of that were not exactly flying off the warehouse shelves. So, in this case, it was a publisher that was more patient than nurturing.

It was down to literary critic Dominic Green to identify the book written by Waugh that Steiner should have analysed. In an appreciation of Steiner written for the new literary journal The Critic, Green opens with this:

George Steiner, who died on Monday aged ninety, was our last link with Stefan Zweig’s ‘world of yesterday’, the world of European high culture and polysemic scholarship that the Germans destroyed after 1933. Steiner more than anyone else invented the academic disciplines now called Comparative Literature and ‘translation studies’. He achieved this not just against the flow of a history whose undertow nearly took him down as a child, but also against the fashions of an academy which did its best to ignore him even after he had forced it to acknowledge him. Steiner was the American critic that Harold Bloom claimed to be but wasn’t…

After a discussion of Steiner’s life and career, Green writes:

…Steiner was also precocious in understanding that the Shoah was the crucial aspect in the historical eclipse of Europe’s twentieth century. Postwar America generated another Jewish immigrant, Saul Bellow, to describe the knock-on effects of Europe’s civilizational crack-up. Postwar Europe, which had produced writers capable of amplifying and expounding every previous shift in its modern history, failed to produce a single new novelist willing or able to look Europe in the eye. The Germans, usually so voluble, produced only the slippery evasions of Gunther Grass. The French agreed not to talk about it all in public, though in 1955 Alain Resnais managed in Night and Fog to present on screen what was not to be written about on paper. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate did not appear in the West until 1980. It fell to Evelyn Waugh, of all people, to describe the Second World War as a civilizational disaster, and the murder of Europe’s Jews as its central motif, in the Sword of Honour trilogy

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