Great Britain

George Steiner, influential culture critic, dies aged 90

The eminent literary critic and essayist George Steiner, who explored the power and limitations of language and culture in a series of hugely influential books, has died at the age of 90.

Born in 1929 in Paris to Viennese parents, Steiner and his family left for New York in 1940, shortly before the Nazis occupied the city. He was one of only two Jewish pupils in his French school to survive the Holocaust, and this experience clearly marked his future work.

Steiner died at home in Cambridge, where he had been an extraordinary fellow of Churchill College since 1969. Steiner spoke four languages and was known for his wide knowledge of European literature, publishing more than two dozen books of literary criticism and introducing his English-language readership to a wide range of continental authors. In Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1960) he analysed the two Russian masters; in Language and Silence (1967) he explored the limitations of language in responding to atrocities, and in After Babel (1975) he analysed language and translation.

“George Steiner’s contribution to our understanding of the relationship between literature and society was immense,” said Weidenfeld & Nicolson publisher Alan Samson, who published Steiner’s My Unwritten Books (2008), about unfinished work. “He was an inspirational teacher and writer, and I am deeply saddened by the news of his death. Thankfully, his groundbreaking and truly international books are tribute enough.”

From his 1981 novella The Portage to San Cristobal of AH, which imagines that Hitler survived the second world war and is living in the depths of the Amazon, to Language and Silence, Steiner’s books explore the power of language, asking questions about the relationship between culture and morality. In Grammars of Creation, he wrote of his “astonishment, naive as it seems to people, that you can use human speech both to love, to build, to forgive, and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate”.

“We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning,” he wrote in Language and Silence. “To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanising force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?”

Robert McCrum, who hired Steiner as chief critic at the Observer and edited him at Faber & Faber, said: “He was part of a vanishing species of the great European intellectual, always an outsider-insider, both of the culture and not of it.”

Steiner held the post of professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva between 1974 and 1994, and became the first Lord Weidenfeld professor of comparative literature at Oxford in 1994.

He became a US citizen in 1944, going on to study at the Sorbonne, the University of Chicago, Harvard and Oxford, before working for the Economist as a leader writer. When he was sent to interview J Robert Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he accepted a job there, spending two years at the university before taking on his role at Churchill College in Cambridge. He was also a prolific reviewer.

“He was an extraordinary figure. He was a critic in the Coleridge sense, not the Johnson sense. And he was a terrific performer,” said McCrum. “I used to go to his lectures in Cambridge and they were sellouts, with applause at the end. We were all completely in his thrall. The performance was staggering.”

In Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, Steiner wrote: “Great works of art pass through us like storm winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers … We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order. Through some primary instinct of communion we seek to convey to others the quality and force of our experience. We would persuade them to lay themselves open to it. In this attempt at persuasion originate the truest insights criticism can afford.”

Steiner was at times a controversial figure, drawing criticism for what some saw as elitism, others a lack of depth. As the critic Lee Siegel wrote for the New York Times in 2009, “his bracing virtue has been his ability to move from Pythagoras, through Aristotle and Dante, to Nietzsche and Tolstoy in a single paragraph,” while “his irritating vice has been that he can move from Pythagoras, through Aristotle and Dante, to Nietzsche and Tolstoy in a single paragraph”.

Steiner was criticised, in his own words, for being “a generalist spread far too thin in an age when this is not done any more, when responsible knowledge is specialised knowledge”.

As for charges of elitism, he brushed them away, telling the Guardian in 2001: “To be part of an elite means loving passionately and not negotiating your passions. If that’s elitism, I plead guilty.”

He is survived by his wife, the historian and academic Zara Steiner, and his two children.