George Steiner, critic, essayist, and fiction writer, died this week at the age of 90. He published more than 40 books, including The Death of Tragedy; Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966; In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture; and After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. He wrote regularly for the TLS, Guardian, and New Yorker. He taught at Geneva, Oxford, Harvard, and Cambridge.
Steiner’s preoccupations were language and the Holocaust; he was born in Paris to Viennese Jews who had fled the growing threat of Nazism, and was only one of two Jewish students at his school to survive the war. He became a US citizen in 1944.
“My whole life has been about death, remembering and the Holocaust,” he told the Guardian. “Namelessness was Hitler’s taunt—’Who remembers the Armenians?’ I’ve had to be a ‘remembrancer.’”
Steiner often inspired strong feelings in those who read him. A.S. Byatt called him a “late, late, late Renaissance man”; others called him pretentious, imprecise, and bigoted. He read the Iliad in Greek at six, spoke (and taught in) several languages, and was seen as a proponent of “high” culture that privileged the Western canon. He eschewed critical theory, mass media, existing fields in academe—and he denigrated football. All this often put him at odds with prevailing trends, even in his early working years. With his death his reputation is likely to continue to fade, at least for now.
I loved reading Steiner, though it was not easy work. As an English major and philosophy minor, I leaned hard into the European intellectual tradition for a while, and still think of some of those writers as a jumbled but formative group: Steiner, Adorno, Baudrillard, Camus, Levi, Eco, Calvino, Russell—even Gass and Bellow.
The Steiner book that has stuck with me the most is the one I found first, in first edition, in an enormous used bookstore under the El tracks in Chicago. The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. is a novel, about an Israeli para-commando team tracking down an ancient Adolf Hitler in the Amazon, circa 1975. It was first published in the US in 1982 and was a finalist for the 1983 PEN/Faulkner Award. It is a philosophical novel with little plot, other than trying to get Hitler out of the jungle for extradition to Israel. There is a lack of sensory details, and much of the action is verbal, with the commandos arguing among themselves, and Hitler mounting a legal defense of his actions in an impromptu court. Characters are mostly abstract or broad. The book is sometimes called a “fantasy.”
In this, a modern reader might see it as precursor to Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 fantasy Inglourious Basterds, in which the Nazi high command gets the justice many feel that some of them escaped in real life. Portage might also be compared to the 2018 film Operation Finale, in which Ben Kingsley plays Adolf Eichmann, in real life captured by the Mossad in Argentina in 1960 and hung in Jerusalem in 1962.
But Steiner’s novel is more philosophically significant than either of those films. Two issues in particular are left unresolved and forced onto the reader. The first is what to do with Hitler. What could you possibly do to one shrunken old man to get justice for the 75 million who died in that war, including six million Jews and millions of non-Jews murdered in the Holocaust? The commandos argue with each other, for a public trial with worldwide coverage; for execution on the spot; for sitting him on a mountain of barrels of explosive, with barrels leading off over the horizon, one for each of his victims, and lighting them at the far end so he has to watch his doom approach.
The second issue is that Steiner allows Hitler not only to speak but to mount a defense of himself, in which he blames the Jews for his ideas and claims Israel would not exist without him. His are the last words spoken in the novel. Some critics and scholars hated the book for those reasons.
The latest edition, from University of Chicago (where Steiner was an undergraduate), has a painting of Hitler on the cover, with his sour face and dark, worried eyes. The ears are attached weirdly to the head. Was the three pounds of tissue inside that skull really the cause of everything unleashed on humanity in that period? One of my grad students said once she wished there was a single figure in the slave trade to blame, in the way Hitler was blamed for the Holocaust and for ruining a certain view of Western European civilization. She knew it was not that simple, but it is tempting to wonder what might have happened without the little corporal’s rise to power. Steiner only intensifies uncertainties, which is why he deserves to last.
He asked hard questions in his books: Does art do anything, even in terms of making us more human or humane? Is it elitist? Can we be truly literate, even in our own language, without learning others’ language systems? Does our barbarity spring, somehow, from our gift of words?
With Portage, the inquiries get pertinent quickly: What if a country loses its rule of law to demagoguery? Who is to blame? What if a mockery is made of our deepest beliefs, by using the very words and trials we defend them with? How might things be put right afterward? And if they cannot be put right, can remembrance at least prevent them from happening again?