Book review / Eminent Victorian

Errata: an examined life by George Steiner, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 11.99
George Steiner's criticism has always striven for grand impersonality, but what has made it interesting has been precisely the flavour it conveys of barely concealed personality. At the end of an essay by Steiner, one's tendency is not to say: how true! but: how does he manage to know so much, to write with such panache? Now, at last, he has produced a book in which he promises to speak of those things that have made him who and what he is.

The first chapters do not disappoint. They take one from his early childhood in Austria to his brief sojourn in France and on to the French Lycee in Manhattan and the University of Chicago. In a marvellous section he describes how his father coaxed him into reading Homer in Greek and left him with an abiding passion for the classics of Western civilisation. A banker by necessity, he was, according to his son, the epitome of the cultured Viennese Jew: "His learning was extensive and exact ... Investment banking occupied most of his outward existence. At the core, it left him almost indifferent. From this tension came his uncompromising resolve that his son should know next to nothing of his father's profession ... I was to be a teacher and a thorough scholar."

Yet Steiner is half aware that this has been, for him, a mixed blessing. "The cost of this early incision of the classical into my existence has been considerable," he says, and comes back to it at the close, when meditating on the state of our culture at the end of the millennium. I am not sure, though, if he quite realises the degree to which the early influence of his remarkable father has made him what he is, and how even his unease with his inheritance is itself so clearly the mark of one imbued with the culture of 19th-century Germany and Austria.

There is, first of all, the need to inform and persuade, the passion of the teacher, which has always been an integral part of Steiner's writing. I could have done with less of it here, since after the fascinating chapters on his youth and education he ceases to talk about his own life and instead gives us what are in effect summaries of his long-held views: on Jewishness and the state of Israel; on music; on language; on the fateful collision of new and old in late-20th-century culture.

These are of course central issues, to put it mildly, but I would have preferred him to proceed in the personal vein of the opening chapters. Nevertheless, they all help one to see to how large an extent Steiner's view of things is conditioned by his upbringing.

His concern with both language and music has, as he recognises, its roots in his rootlessness, in his trilingualism and his sense of being between at least three cultures. But his sense of musical history, too, is culturally specific. It would have been shared by Schoenberg and Wittgenstein and Adorno, but not, say, by Stravinsky or Berio or Birtwistle. This history has its apex in Beethoven and Brahms, not in Ockeghem or African drumming.

Steiner blames his education, with its stress on the worship of the classics and The Classic, for not having allowed him to grasp fully what has been happening in our time. "It is the ebbing of ideals and performative hierarchies instrumental since the pre-Socratics, which define what I have called `the epilogue' but which others acclaim as `the new age'. There is too much I have grasped too late in the day. Too often my activity as a writer and teacher, as a critic and scholar, has been, consciously or not, an in memoriam, a curatorship of remembrance."

What Steiner does not seem to see is that this very plangency, this apocalyptic note, is itself typical of German culture of the late bourgeois period. He could have been quoting from Wittgenstein's Culture and Value or Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus.

But does the contrast have to be between Brahms and rock, between a profound love of the 19th century and an irresponsible embracing of chaos? Much of the finest art of our century has in fact simply sidestepped the terms in which such a debate has been conducted among those steeped in Germanic culture. There is a combination of lightness and depth in Stravinsky, an elemental quality about Birtwistle or Henry Moore, which owes little to the 19th century and yet is far from the crudities of pop culture or the cynical knowingness of post-modernism. Steiner ignores this and goes on asking his large and serious, his very Germanic questions. How can culture and barbarism coexist? Where are we going? And so on.

Towards the end a strange tone surfaces, as Steiner returns again and again to the assertion that he has not achieved the recognition he deserves and that his work has been consistently plagiarised. At the same time, sometimes in the same sentence, he manages to hint at how immensely successful he has been. How can he doubt that the latter is the truth? He is widely regarded as the foremost cultural critic of his day. And yet his sense of having been betrayed - by his country and city of adoption, by his former pupils - is also very Viennese-Jewish: it is to be found on almost every page of Schoenberg's letters.

But then so is the generosity of spirit which shines through much of this book - the simple enthusiasm for great achievements in whatever field, the warmth of his homage to those who made him what he is. And that is the true George Steiner, though I suppose it is in the nature of things that he should not always be as aware of this as his readers.