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This article is taken from PN Review 43, Volume 11 Number 5, May - June 1985.

The Work of George Steiner Julian Roberts

(Page references are to George Steiner: A Reader [R] and to Antigones [A])


The great thing about a socialist regime, in George Steiner's view, is that it takes literature and intellectuals seriously. It may end up shooting writers with whom it disagrees, but even that, says Steiner, is a 'tribute nevertheless' (R 53).

In Britain they do things differently. Cambridge did not pay Steiner the tribute of shooting him; but it did elbow him out. And so, when Steiner left Cambridge for the Chair of Comparative Literature at Geneva he joined that gallery of English Faculty exiles who, if truth be told, have always constituted its real glory.

From his exile, he has continued the impassioned and prolific critique of intellectual life which, no doubt, used to alarm his colleagues at Cambridge. This year has seen the publication of another collection of articles, George Steiner: A Reader, and of a major new theoretical work, Antigones. More is promised for future years; but now is perhaps an appropriate time to take stock of the oeuvre as it has developed thus far.

Despite Steiner's formidable and universally acknowledged reputation for innovative exploration in uncharted territory, he does provoke. It is not difficult to see why his British reviewers classify him as a seer and hierophant, nor to identify, with them, the chinks in his learned armour. Steiner's declamatory manner can grate; his more portentous speculations tremble on the brink of bathos; ...


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