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Something catastrophic has happened to academic literary criticism in the last 30 years. Much of it has become inaccessible and riddled with jargon, reluctant to engage with large cultural and political questions. It has decisively moved away from the general reader.

George Steiner could hardly be more different. He has always been prepared to address big, often controversial questions and has unfailingly written for the general reader. He started out in the early 1950s, writing for the Economist. Later, he succeeded Edmund Wilson as the chief literary critic of the New Yorker and for many years reviewed for the Sunday Times. His best-known books were not academic monographs but were published in paperback by Penguin and Faber. He appeared regularly on television, debating Freud’s legacy with Bruno Bettelheim, the relationship between creativity and totalitarianism with Joseph Brodsky, and T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism with Christopher Ricks.

A Long Saturday
is a book of conversations with the French journalist and biographer, Laure Adler, first published in France in 2014. It now appears in translation and provides an excellent introduction to Steiner’s major preoccupations over 60 years.

The interview begins with Steiner’s background. Born in Paris in 1929, he escaped with his parents to New York in 1940. He studied at Chicago and Harvard before going to Oxford and then spent most of his academic career at Churchill College, Cambridge. A number of things emerge from these early years. Steiner grew up trilingual. His Viennese parents spoke German, he was educated in French and learned English in wartime America. His parents loom large over his account of his early years. “The decisive factor in my life was my mother’s genius,” he tells Adler. But it was his father who made him watch French crowds shouting “Kill the Jews!” as they marched through Paris. It was also his father who put Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu tantalisingly out of reach so that his precocious son would want to reach for the book and begin his lifelong affair with great literature. What emerges is a childhood soaked in high culture: classical concerts, his father’s library full of great literature, learning Latin and Greek (not Hebrew, a lifelong regret), and a secular, cultured Jewishness.

The rest of the book explores Steiner’s chief preoccupations. There are chapters on Judaism, language, the Bible and literature, and the great paradox of the humanities: “Is it possible . . . that the humanities can make us inhuman? That far from making us better (to put it naively), far from sharpening our moral sensibility, they dampen it?” This leads us to a question which has been at the heart of Steiner’s writing since Language and Silence, published 50 years ago. Steiner tells Adler:

. . . the death camps, Stalin’s camps, the great massacres, didn’t come from the Gobi desert; they came from the high civilisations of Russia and Europe, from the very centre of our greatest artistic and philosophical pride; and the humanities put up no resistance.

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Jerry KavanaghAnonymous
May 17th, 2017
8:05 PM
We can see his like among us today in the 92-year-old John Simon, a distinguished critic and a Ph.D. in Comparative Lit from Harvard.

Emery Roe
May 2nd, 2017
8:05 PM
I just finished "A Long Saturday" and would like to thank you for this review. I've been reading Steiner since the 1970s and have most of his books downstairs in my library. I can't imagine my thinking without his provocations over the decades.

S B Benjamin
May 1st, 2017
1:05 PM
Whether or not one likes or even agrees with George Steiner, he represents a dying tradition, one which illuminated the Renaissance; namely, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It is never offensive to want to understand man in his own terms. It is equally demeaning to the essence of inquiry to reduce it to name calling. I was most fortunate to have experienced his learning.

Klaus Rohde
April 30th, 2017
8:04 AM
George Steiner wrote the first article in English on Paul Celan, how many English articles are there on Karl Kraus, a Viennese Jew who is very relevant even today?

Al de Baran
April 29th, 2017
3:04 PM
"It is hard to imagine we will ever see his like again" One can only hope. I recall Penguin's incomprehensible decision to allow Steiner to introduce their edition of the English translation of Ernst Junger's *On the Marble Cliffs*. Steiner obviously loathed Junger personally, and his introduction consisted alternately of pompous pronouncing and finger-wagging--perhaps Penguin felt readers needed a parental warning? As literary criticism of even the populist type, it was and is utterly worthless. I suspect that other, less infatuated readers of Steiner can provide comparable examples.

John Borstlap
April 29th, 2017
10:04 AM
The accusation that the humanities / the high arts are potentially capable of 'dampen' moral awareness, of 'making us bad', is based upon the misunderstanding that when elites fail to 'fight against barbarism', it is because the humanities are somehow culpable. The more obvious explanation is, that the practitioners - where they fail to raise their voice against injustice and barbarism - don't understand the humanities enough. Also there is the distinction between levels: the humanities take place on another level than politics, and only when the real world threatens to intrude into the quiet study, elites may wake-up and often it is then too late. To make victims culpable is relocating the problem. Steiner's claim that evil and selfdestruction is at the heart of Western civilization, is plain ridiculous and utterly stupid. When you read 'In Bluebeard's Castle' you realize he has built an enormous polemical edifice upon most feeble grounds, and it is self-defeating: he wants to defend high culture and attacking it in the same time. And his celebration of Jewry is quite nonsensical too: it is entirely irrelevant which ethnicity brilliant people have. Jewry being a combination of ethnicity and culture, gets into scraps when confusing culture with race, the same mistake Wagner made. As far as culture goes, it is the liberation from orthodoxy, and the cultural training of text interpretation, that contributes to the skills of people of Jewish descent (something that the philosopher Brian Magee has already explained very clearly). Culture is something that can be absorbed and identified with by anyone, as people from Jewish descent have already proven extensively over the last ages. Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Einstein etc. etc. were Europeans through and through, and Steiner's inclination to give them special status as 'Jews', is misplaced and, basically, racist.

Gene Schulman
April 29th, 2017
9:04 AM
I am happy to see this review of an interview with George Steiner appear in English translation. I read the book originally in French when it first appeared in 2014, and have been hoping for a translation so that English speaking readers could have a chance to enjoy it. Below, find a link to my own review of it which appeared at Amazon.

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