George Steiner’s new book.
As a literary critic and essayist George Steiner is distinguished by his erudition, which is not just impressive but even intimidating. A quick glance through his books reveals that he’s a writer confident enough to sit in judgement of a vast range of cultural figures ranging from the poets of antiquity to great composers like Bach and Beethoven to the Russian novelists of the 19th century to modern philosophers like Heidegger. “Is he a man or an encyclopedia?” you ask yourself as you read his essays.
Another question worth asking is, how much of Steiner’s erudition is real, based on actual familiarity with the artists and thinkers he’s writing about, and how much is just name-dropping? Is Steiner just the high-end equivalent of a Hollywood hanger on who has tales of chance encounters with “Angelina” and “Bobby DeNiro”.
I’m a great admirer of the poet, short story writer, painter and translator Guy Davenport, who really was a polymath. I’ve always had a soft spot for Steiner because he once lavishly praised Davenport in The New Yorker, a review that did much to bolster Davenport’s reputation and visiblity. “Davenport is among the very few truly original, truly autonomous voices now audible in American letters,” Steiner wrote. (Steiner’s review was recently republished in the essay collection George Steiner at The New Yorker, published by New Directions).
Recently while reading Guy Davenport’s letters to the publisher James Laughlin, I discovered that even Steiner’s commendable act of celebrating Davenport carried with a whiff of fraud.
“I was dashed last night to learn (from Joan Crane) that when George Steiner wrote his piece on me in The New Yorker years ago … he had read two stories and faked a general knowledge of my oeuvre,” Davenport wrote in 1995. “He has since, to his dismay, read more, and decided that I’m an awful and evil writer. That’s his problem. He should have done his homework in the first place.” (from the book Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by W.C. Bamberger. Laughlin was, coincidentally and amusingly, the publisher of New Directions).
Many years ago, in the pages of The New Criterion, John Simon wrote the definitive take-down of Steiner, which is worth recalling:
But what can you expect from a critic who, in his Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, performed stylistic analysis on a passage from the Russian on the basis of its uses of ‘a’ and ‘the,’ even though Russian has neither the definite nor the indefinite article? Or a scholar, moreover, who in an essay in The Atlantic Monthly settled the vexed ‘Homeric question’ (without knowing Greek): the Iliad and Odyssey are the works of the same poet, the former of his angry youth, the latter of his mellow old age? Or of a fellow (sorry, Extraordinary Fellow, his title at Cambridge University; in Geneva, he is a professor) who published a two-part essay in The Kenyon Review arguing that Robert Graves was an overrated minor poet, but an underrated major prose writer, and cited as evidence, among others, Grave’s two novels about the Argonauts, The Golden Fleece and Hercules, My Shipmate – without realizing that they were the same novel under its British and American titles? And when a reader wrote in pointing out this and other comparable errors, Steiner’s printed rejoinder was not an apology but a string of insults hurled at the hapless correspondent.
For a more balanced assessment of Steiner, the reader might want to go to this earlier essay I wrote.