ERRATA: An Examined Life.<i> By George Steiner</i> .<i> Yale University Press: 186 pp., $25</i>
More than the life, it is the examination that seems at first glance to survive, often brilliantly, in George Steiner’s memoir of reflection. “Errata” is a recollection and tally of his thoughts; an intellectual autobiography with personal details assembled mainly as a kind of memory palace for the ideas to lodge in.
But then the reader notices the emotion: the anger, anguish and pride that cling to Steiner’s wrestle with such varied subjects as Judaism, music, teaching, literature, the problem of God along with its twin problem of Evil and much else. His mind bleeds as it thinks. “Errata” is a battle journal. Something other than the “examined life” of the subtitle, it is a lived examination lived sometimes darkly.
Steiner’s darkness stems, in part, from finding himself in the shadows of two large edifices: contemporary criticism and academic scholarship. Against the first, he is a passionate modernist in the reign of postmodernism. A critic and scholar, he is committed to the inherent ability of literature to engage with life and alter it, not merely to comment upon itself. Against the second, he is an itinerant generalist whose medium is the literary essay; not a deep-boring (deeply boring) specialist of the exhaustive treatise and footnoted monograph.
He hasn’t done badly. In academe, he has been a palace guest--most recently a visiting professor of comparative literature at Oxford--though lacking a comparable palace of his own. His books, “No Passion Spent,” “Some Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture,” “The Death of Tragedy” and others, are recognized as formidable intellectual and literary enterprises. He has written some of the grander and more searching essays to be found in the few remaining magazines aimed at the serious nonacademic reader.
If you think of contemporary criticism as cuisine, it consists largely of chefs cooking for other chefs. Steiner, in an older tradition, aims to cook for the hungry--a rather discriminating hungry, it’s true, and one able to squeeze out the intellectual cover charge.
The academic establishments, Steiner writes, “consider my work, if they consider it at all, as archaic impressionism, as heraldry.” Up to those last two words, we get a ruefulness that, when it swells to bitterness, chokes up the memoir.
The “as heraldry,” on the other hand, is the author at his best. More than in his large and sometimes ponderous thoughts, Steiner’s best comes in an unexpected image or turn of language. It turns the reader’s imagination suddenly, the way a musical phrase does. His mention of heraldry is an example: It evokes his earliest intuition of how art and the great world link up. As a child, he was given a book with illustrations of hundreds of coats of arms. Resplendently reproduced, they were something more important than beautiful. Representing royalties, dukedoms and bishoprics from all parts of Europe, they were a talisman of life’s teeming variety and of the ability of art uniquely to convey it. Nothing could be further, Steiner suggests, from the reductionist view of art that contemporary critical theory expounds.
The relatively few biographical details in Steiner’s memoir are selected to account quite specifically for his intellectual and aesthetic development. His Austrian Jewish family left Vienna in the 1920s when his father, a distinguished civil servant, foresaw the coming troubles. They moved to Paris, where the father prospered as an innovative financier and where Steiner was born. Later the family moved to New York.
Steiner depicts his father as a man whose passions were literature and music and who refused to let his son take up his own profession. “I would prefer that you did not know the difference between a bond and a share,” he told young George, and he hired tutors to shape him for a life of scholarship. Evenings he would read Homer with the boy and have him trace the letters and wrestle out the meanings.
Steiner notes with a certain wryness that it was the study of literature rather than its practice that the father had in mind. “Judaism is not altogether at ease with the poetics of invention, with the mustard-seed of falsehood in fiction, with the rivalry with God the Creator inherent in the arts,” he writes.
It is a characteristically provocative ukase; characteristically, Steiner doesn’t mind citing the exceptions that do not so much prove the rule as bend it into a pretzel: Kafka, Proust, Osip Mandelstam, Celan. He himself was to try a few pretzel-bends, interspersing his critical work with several novels.
In any event, Steiner takes pride in the rigor of his upbringing. “My childhood,” he writes, “was made a demanding festival.” It is the only kind of festival he seems free to revel in. The youth culture, along with much other culture of the past 40 years, is alien to him. Along with his father, the men whom he reveres were mostly older. Chiefly, they were his professors: figures in whom the qualities of brilliance, rigor, eccentricity and arrogance were virtual coefficients. His portraits of them are as wittily coruscating as the message is gloomy: Their like will not be seen again.
Certainly it will not be seen in Steiner’s students. He had brilliant ones, he tells us; some more brilliant than he. He cites four, though not by name. One became a Maoist and dropped from sight. The other three either turned against him or went on to become academic stars: at the expense, he implies, of true excellence. Or if excellent, by building upon Steiner’s own writings and not giving credit.
I am not sure if Steiner is King Laius, victim of his son Oedipus, or Saturn, who had kids of his own and ate them. Whichever the role, it provides more sourness than enlightenment. His pleasures--he mentions a secluded house in a remote part of France--have a Midas touch; his praise stiffens them into gold. His regrets are for not having dedicated himself entirely to fiction or for spreading himself too thinly. His regrets, you feel he feels, are finer than other people’s satisfactions.
The virtue of this memoir, in fact, does not lie in the charm of its voice but in a brilliance that can make charm irrelevant. One or two of its sections are sagging duffel bags into which he seems to pack everything he thinks about everything. When he has a go at the classic dilemma of reconciling the existence of God and Evil--God versus Auschwitz, for short--the conclusion is limp, but the back-and-forth along the way is scintillating.
So, for one of many examples, is his contrasting of two summits of world drama: Shakespeare and Racine. He settles finally on Racine, although he is judiciously witty about the verbal elegance--in French literature even the deaths are loquacious--and the very pure perfection: “In an artifice of the absolute, Racine closes reality.”
Shakespeare, on the other hand, closes nothing. We are allowed to think that Cyprus may do better after Othello’s death and Scotland after Macbeth’s, Steiner writes. “He knows that someone is being born next to or even on a lower floor in the house of high death.”
A memoir, even an intellectual memoir, submits the writer to the common human risk of personal exposure. He may not be liked; he may not even be likable. Steiner as memoirist is not particularly likable, but just often enough he is irresistible.
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