My Unwritten Books, By George Steiner

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The Independent Culture

I first heard George Steiner at a lecture he gave at Glasgow University almost 20 years ago, and was immediately bewitched. His latest volume, consisting of the outlines of seven "unwritten" books, is also bewitching; as personal as it is philosophical. His essay on envy, "Invidia", is a masterpiece, in which he imagines the problems of being a writer at a time of the greats, ("What is it like to be an epic poet with philosophic aspirations when Dante is, as it were, in the neighbourhood? To be a contemporary playwright when Shakespeare is out to lunch?"); of knowing that not your words, but those of another, will be the ones to live on.

In this and other essays Steiner attributes his failure to write a particular book to a failure of nerve, or cowardice, on his part. Yet, as he argues in his final essay, the loss of privacy would be one of the greatest losses to him; perhaps some subjects were simply too private for him to expose his thoughts and feelings, and would have compromised that privacy he needs. Yet he does expose a great deal here: thankfully, this is a touching, revealing, enlightening book that he did write.

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