My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

The ghosts in the library
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The Independent Culture

The polymathic George Steiner, both an avowed elitist and also a tireless populariser, has always been something of a paradox. He is the doyen of silence and privacy who never seems to stop speaking or writing. While he may sound assured, he appears increasingly divided. My Unwritten Books provides ample evidence for this inner conflict. In a typical refusal to be confined by any one genre, he has written a part-memoir, part-scholarly miscellany, which veers wantonly between mandarin obscurity and foolishly naked revelation.

Steiner was born in Paris in 1929 to Viennese parents, educated at the Universities of Chicago, Harvard and Oxford. His trilingual family background – German, French and English – has enabled him to act as a welcome courier between the lost worlds of Central European humanism and the parochialism, as he sees it, of Britain and the US. My Unwritten Books looks back at the paths not taken which might have helped him to "fail better".

Steiner's influential essays and books have changed the face of studies in English and comparative literature, and our understanding of translation. After half a century, we now take for granted his path-breaking "news from nowhere" about the major philosophers, poets and writers who once populated his beloved Central Europe.

Here, Steiner outlines seven unwritten books on a bewildering variety of themes. A decade ago, in his autobiography Errata, he lamented those "doors unopened" – to Russian, Hebrew or Islam – which limited his understanding. At its best, this book gives a sense of the subjects beyond the European canon which help to expand the range of his interests. As he approaches his 80th year, one can only admire his continual striving to get it right.

He begins with a wonderfully compelling chapter on Joseph Needham, editor of the monumental, 30-volume Science and Civilisation in China. Needham started this enterprise in 1937 although it remained "majestically incomplete" by his death in 1995 aged 94. Its purpose of was to explore why China was overtaken by the West in science and technology despite its vastly superior early development. Steiner explores Needham as both an ideal version of himself ("Was there anything he hadn't read and read retentively") while exposing his fatal flaw ("In his 'China' no less than his radical politics, utopia was concrete"). Needham's utopianism is deemed his Achilles heel as it transforms his project into a kind of fiction: "a baroque species, a hybrid of minute erudition, arcane learning, esoteric citation", akin to Borgesian surreal literature.

At their best, these chapters also read as a mixture of fiction and scholarship. His account of "Invidia", or envy, recalls Steiner's underrated stories, which explore its destructive power. His medieval subject, Cecco d'Ascoli, could not be more Steineresque: "a proud, irascible, arrogant" individual who made "dangerous enemies" and "shone on the margins" of academia. Second only to Dante, Cecco ends up burned at the stake with the apocryphal proclamation: "I have said it, I have taught it, I believe it".

Steiner, who once described himself as "a kind of survivor", is understandably obsessed by his first 11 years in Paris before he was whisked off to America in 1940. Unlike Cecco, he "missed the rendezvous with hell" (to quote an earlier essay) and this, he makes chillingly clear, is another kind of envy.

Sadly, Steiner does not always get the balance right between such painful revelation and his scholarly subtext. In exploring the "interrelations between eros and language", he recalls rather too many multilingual sexual encounters which disclose the "private parts" of speech. Elsewhere he reprises his welcome Jewish diasporism in response to the nationalism of Israel. There is the best and worst of Steiner here. But even the worst is better than most.

Bryan Cheyette is professor of modern literature at Reading University; his 'Diasporas of the Mind' is due next year

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99 (210pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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