My Unwritten Books, By George Steiner

George Steiner regrets that the phone call from Stockholm never came
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The Independent Culture

This publishing season, which has already brought us Pierre Bayard's How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read, now produces a book on a related theme, by another distinguished professorial voice. George Steiner, that magnificent combination of polyglot and polymath, writes of the books that he might have written: seven works which he had hoped to complete but, for one reason or another, proved too difficult to pull together.

An unwritten book, Steiner says, is more than a void. "It accompanies the work one has done like an active shadow, both ironic and sorrowful." As he approaches 80, Steiner looks back with regret, and a sense of what might have been, at the roads he could have taken, the literary and intellectual journeys he might have made.

The themes behind Steiner's unwritten books – language, translation, Jewishness, the Holocaust, the death of God – reflect, not surprisingly, the major preoccupations of his career. What is perhaps more unexpected is the revelation of his own self-doubt, his admission of failure, and a strikingly appealing note, missing from much of his earlier work, of humility in the presence of his own great gifts.

This quality comes across most strongly in Steiner's second chapter, though not perhaps in its opening sentence. "Not many today, I presume, read the works of Francesco Stabili, better known as Cecco d'Ascoli," he declares with the grand manner of one who evidently has. D'Ascoli was a contemporary of Dante's in 14th-century Italy, who suffered agonies of professional jealousy at Dante's artistic supremacy, and who was ultimately burned at the stake for heresy. D'Ascoli's works apparently present intractable problems "of a linguistic and hermeneutic order" which Steiner once hoped to penetrate.

One's heart sinks slightly reading this. But then, suddenly, the point of Steiner's arcane disquisition becomes clearer. What he is really getting at is precisely what made it impossible for him to complete his study of D'Ascoli. The underlying story of artistic envy – "What is it like to be an epic poet with philosophic aspirations when Dante is... in the neighbourhood?" – "came too near the bone".

Steiner embarks on a fascinating riff about the themes of envy and professional rivalry in his own life. He has been close to the great ("Twice I have heard the phone-call from Stockholm ring in the office next door"), but sees himself merely as a facilitator, a teacher, an interpreter, without the creative genius of "the real thing".

One of the principal concerns of Steiner's work, most obviously in his book After Babel, has been with the nature and diversity of human language. So in "The Tongues of Eros", another of the books that got away, he writes of having been privileged to make love in four different languages. This unwritten book was to have been a kind of sexual autobiography. It would have explored the relationship between eros and language ("I believe that... the love and lechery of the polyglot differs from that of the monoglot, faithful to one language"). For those of us who've only ever managed to have sex in one language, it may be difficult to suppress a giggle as Steiner recalls one of his lovers, called Ch, crying out the name "Sankt Nepomuk the Lesser" as she reached climax. Another lover employed the euphemism "taking the streetcar to Grinzing" to signify "a gentle, somewhat respectful anal access".

On more conventional territory, Steiner hoped at one time to contribute a study of the sinologist and biologist Joseph Needham to the "Modern Masters" series edited by Frank Kermode. Needham's great life's work was his multi-volume Science and Civilisation in China, in which he was intent on pursuing the idea of Chinese precedence in everything: the invention of gunpowder, printing, the waterwheel, magnetic compass, even the toothbrush. However, Steiner believed, Needham's work was less of an encyclopaedic history, and more a work of literary architecture "in thought, imagination and executive form", akin to Proust's A la Recherche. Was Needham's scholarship really a form of fiction? Such an unorthodox approach halted Steiner's proposed book in its tracks.

These three are the most arresting of the books that Steiner might have written. The others centre on his Jewish identity, his views on education in the United States and France, his political ideology, and his revulsion at cruelty to animals. In this last chapter, there's an unexpected sweetness in Steiner's portrayal of his dog Ben, who appears to be as much a cultural élitist as his master. Ben emits a low growl whenever a recording of Ravel's Bolero is played, but is perfectly at peace during performances of Haydn.

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