All about a prodigy

ERRATA: A Journey Inward by George Steiner, Weidenfeld pounds 11.99
Philosophical autobiographies have been written for different reasons and in different voices. Rousseau and Newman set out to vindicate themselves; Mill to describe his remarkable education; Bertrand Russell to record, in a spirit at once wry and passionate, an extraordinary life. A J Ayer thought that he had left a valuable record of Oxford philosophy in the 1930s, and on a more minor note, Bryan Magee's recent effort was mainly directed at battering his reader into his point of view. George Steiner's book, however, is the first I have come across which is simply an exercise in high camp.

Errata is, in fact, only just recognisable as an autobiography. We learn the basic facts about Steiner's early life: that his parents were cultured Viennese Jews who had the good sense to move in the 1920s to Paris and then, before the outbreak of War, to New York; there Steiner was educated at first by his father, then in the French lycee in Manhattan and at the Universities of Chicago and Oxford; that his education left him with a reverence for the classics. These, though, are just the bones of a chronological skeleton; for the most part, episodes from Steiner's early life become launching pads for flights of eloquence on themes close to his heart. His French education elicits a comparison between Racine and Shakespeare, his trilingual upbringing, a defence of linguistic diversity.

Steiner describes his father and "every corner of our Paris home" as embodying "the prodigality and glow of Jewish-European and Central European emancipation". Prodigality matters to Steiner. He was himself evidently something of a child prodigy, and he has remained enthralled, one feels, by his precociousness ever since. And of course Steiner is very clever - but to what purpose, to what effect? His eloquence can be dazzling, but once the linguistic pirouettes are over, you'll find he is still standing on the bare planks of platitude. Speech, we learn, defines humankind; men, we are told, have the capacities of both angels and beasts; the future of parliamentary democracy, it is suggested, is uncertain; the level of violence found in the mass media and the internet are very worrying.

The only time platitudes do give way, it is to something more ridiculous. In the US, he worries, "women's wrestling is a rapidly growing spectator sport"; criticism of his work, he contends, arises from "the alleged absence from my writings of the somnambular innocence and authority of the native, monoglot spirit"; "Macbeth, I understand, is gripping in Swahili".

It is tempting to contrast Steiner to Isaiah Berlin - there is something in Berlin's bubbling, passionate but sceptical intelligence which finds a caricature in Steiner's pose. Berlin, however, is an out-and-out heavyweight - a parallel with someone like Ernest Gellner seems a little fairer. Gellner was born in Paris around the same time as Steiner, to a similar background. Also like him, he got into the habit, at the end of his life, of writing too much, too easily, too loudly - of playing the pontiff.

Where they differ is that for all the hyperbole, Gellner had something of substance to say - whether about the nature of Islamic fundamentalism, or the errors of post-modernism - where Steiner does not. His suggestion that English now threatens to dominate the world is not only deeply implausible - just think of Chinese - but contradicted by his prediction that "the coming centuries will witness fierce conflicts between irreconcilable cultures"; his claim that progressive opinion in America is hostile to the idea of a multi-linguist society is, of course, the very reverse of the truth.

For someone who attaches such value to classical education, Steiner has a lazy way with language. Here, "oxymoron" has to stand for "contradiction", "biological-somatic" for "bodily", "vita" for "life". If Steiner weren't so grand, no self-respecting editor would let him get away with a sentence like "Today's planetary prepotence of Anglo-American is a crisis-phenomenon altering the very nature of language and human relations." But it's not these solecisms so much as the hammy drama of the prose that really stands out. At the end of the book, after some light wrestling with the nature of God, Steiner turns to the irrational power of erotic love. "I have stood," he says by way of illustration, "through a rain-sodden night to catch a glimpse of the beloved turning a corner. Perhaps it was not even she. God have mercy on those who have never known the hallucination of light which fills the dark during such a vigil."