My experience with George Steiner’s work is bitter-sweet. His book “After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation” had great significance for me at a time when I struggled to establish my bona fides as an academic linguist while casting about for a basis on which to salvage a disintegrating career. Having striven with mixed success to acquire my extra languages, I envied his natively absorbed polyglot fluency. My fight to be learned is behind me. That makes it easier now to tip my hat to Steiner for having supported it.
Mr. Steiner complained… of having “scattered and, thus, wasted my strengths… As the close comes nearer, I know that my crowded solitude, that the absence of any school or movement originating in my work, and that the sum of its imperfections are, in considerable measure, of my own doing… It is the unwritten book which might have made the difference… Which might have allowed one to fail better. Or perhaps not.”
“I’d love to be remembered as a good teacher of reading,” he told The Paris Review in 1994. Characteristically, he had a specific, lofty notion of reading as a moral calling. It should, he added, “commit us to a vision, should engage our humanity, should make us less capable of passing by.”
(Christopher Lehman-Haupt and William Grimes, “George Steiner, Prodigious Literary Critic, Dies at 90,” NYTimes, 2-3-20)
(c) 2020 JMN