George Steiner interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 16th July 2007

0:05:07 Born in Paris in 1929; father was of Czech origin but had grown up in Vienna; Mother was Viennese; father left Vienna in 1924 convinced that a form of Nazism was coming and went to Paris; I was educated trilingually in German, French and English; from an early date father sensed English would be the world language; Mother was a brilliant linguist; owe parents everything; opinion of psycho-analysis; Father was an investment banker but determined that I should not follow him; wanted me to be a scholar and teacher which is a deeply Judaic point of view; may have inhibited the creative impulse; Mother hoped that I would take a rather severe physical ailment as a privilege; would not be able to do military service which proved her right; she turned difficulties, like learning to tie a shoelace, into a joy; this attitude has presided over my whole life

06:23:02 Born with a right arm without natural motion; doctors suggested just using the left arm but mother disagreed and I learnt to write with my right hand; she saw no point in compromise which is echoed in my intense opposition to political correctness with regard to handicaps; had a sister seven years older who died recently; this age gap meant she looked after me which was very important during the war and on our subsequent move to the United States

07:52:09 Father was an utter Voltairian, so was my mother; the only prayer she taught me was "I am bad, I could be better, but it really doesn't matter", which has guided my life; we did observe the festivals out of regard to my grandparents and in solidarity to the Jewish community, but not in a religious sense; Father taught me Jewish history and philosophy but in an agnostic way; went first to a French lycée then briefly to the American school in Paris to practice English; we escaped from France in 1940; Father was already in the United States on a French Government mission and got permission to ask family to visit him; left on the last American ship to leave Genoa before Mussolini closed the harbour and invaded France

09:59:10 On arriving in America father's first words were "Remember we are going back"; Mother and sister were keen to make a go of it but father not content; on the surrender of Marshall von Paulus at Stalingrad he woke me and said we would be going home; sent to a prestigious high school which I hated, then went to the French lycée in New York where I blossomed; had some very good teachers as people of international renown were teaching there before getting university jobs; among them was Levi-Strauss who was helping to teach geography; own interest in Levi-Strauss started then, renewed when I realized he was a distant cousin of Proust, and think 'Triste Tropique' is one of the ultimate classics of French prose; remember Simone de Beauvoir coming to lecture on why we should be interested in philosophy

14:33:10 Became interested in the multiplicity of languages; some teachers wouldn't speak a word of English in order to keep their French pure, others learnt further languages; I was interested in the problem of the relations between language and thought, existence and identity from early on; interest in identity is central and the reason why I have been marginalized by the deep provincialism of English academic life; a monoglot country;  from the tip of Manhattan to the northern tip of Long Island there are 128 languages spoken; that part I delighted in and also the availability of all sorts of music and art; incomparable New York Public Library; in school could not accept the lack of irony and  ostentatious patriotism which was alien and strange; the Judaism I came from was not committed like the New York Jewish community; the lack of irony reflects the sense of hope in America

18:31:04 Did my baccalaureates and father made it possible for me to go to Yale; went for an orientation week and the first man I met on campus was a boy who had been in the lycée two years before me who advised me not to go there as it was not a place for Jews; first Jew to get tenure at Yale was Hempel in mathematical logic 1948, a subject regarded as marginal; had read about a revolutionary admissions process at Chicago and found myself taking sciences which I fell in love with; Fermi was teaching physics and Urey, chemistry, and Redfield, social anthropology; able to do my B.A. in one year so that I could go into graduate school when others just starting undergraduate work; went to see the graduate advisor, a mathematician Kaplansky, who said I was technically an idiot having been well trained and memorizing endless formulas by heart, but no spark of creativity; advised not to go into science and utterly heartbroken; instead began to study literature and philosophy with McKeon and Allen Tate although it took a long time to get over the disappointment; some years ago I published a paper in 'Nature' on the French mathematician Galois, creator of modern topology and sent it to Kaplansky who wrote he had no regrets for doing a service to literature

24:37:50 Robert Redfield was not a good lecturer, but the material was fascinating; in order to learn about social anthropology I read Malinowski and Myrdal's 'An American Dilemma'; offered a scholarship by Harvard and from pure snobbery took it instead of staying at Chicago where I was happy; fell into black depression as it was boring, snobbish, old-fashioned; I owe everything to hutspe (arrogance, insolence); wrote to Hutchins the Chancellor of Chicago asking for one of the two nominations to try for a Rhodes scholarship from Illinois; despite some difficulties got it, left Harvard and went to Oxford; since then Harvard have honoured me with the Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetics

28:05:20 At twenty went to Oxford; at Harvard had taken an M.A. in one year; had had some good courses in comparative literature but was working mainly in the Romantic period which is what I hoped to do my D.Phil. on at Oxford; researching why Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats failed totally in the theatre; had been to England for the Silver Jubilee of George V with my parents; felt great wonderment and bewilderment coming to Oxford; at Balliol we had a Scottish Master, Lindsay Keir, who believed that misery was the right instrument of human education; these were the worst years of rationing (1949-50), there was no coal, there was less bread than during the war; smell of egg powder and whale steak will never leave me; realized that nobody was interested in English in a D.Phil. as it was regarded as an unwelcome American import; my supervisor was Hugo Dyson at Merton who told me he was not interested in research, that the fee was 8gns a term which was to be spent on having a good dinner together but he would not read anything I wrote; as a result, when the viva came under the presidency of Helen Gardner the room was packed as I had already begun publishing quite a bit in London; failed as knew nothing about how to write a D.Phil.; I already had a wonderful job writing editorials on foreign policy and Anglo-American relations for 'The Economist' but it hurt; the book which would be 'The Death of Tragedy' was in my drawer at 'The Economist'; Humphrey House of Wadham, Secretary of the Board of the English Faculty came to the office and asked if it was true that I had no supervision; said this was a grave dereliction and if I wanted to be taught properly he would take me on; Geoffrey Crowther my boss at 'The Economist' offered to help pay for membership of the London Library and one day off a week to do research; Humphrey House died three days before my viva but already knew that it would pass; Helen Gardner examined it again and had told him; had just married; never wanted to be titled 'Doctor' but it pleased my father; I worshipped Humphrey House, a scholar's scholar; had taken over two years to redo, and then published 'The Death of Tragedy'

37:32:04 Stayed at 'The Economist' for four years and then assigned to go to the United States to cover the debate over the atomic energy act; got an appointment with Oppenheimer at the Institute in Princeton who then said he did not speak to journalists but introduced me to the Plato scholar, Harold Cherniss; taken to lunch and  at the table were George Kennan and Panofsky who were all eager to know about 'The Economist'; Cherniss was working on a Plato text trying to fill in lacunae; Oppenheimer came in an sat behind us and queried the sense of trying to fill in blanks; I was irritated by him and argued for the value of so doing; taxi arrived, Oppenheimer asked if I was married and had children, on 'no' to the latter said that it would make housing easier; upshot was my election as first young person in Arts to the Institute for Advanced Study; took it on the spot but 'The Economist' offered to give me a job if it didn't work out; on arrival back a Princeton asked to come to lunch and literally could not move for awe; the world's giants were taking their trays and seeing us, possibly shaking physically, Niels Bohr came over and welcomed us and put us at our ease; André Weil was less welcoming as he believed anything other than science and mathematics was garbage; stayed for two years and before leaving was introduced to Sir John Cockcroft who was the first Master elect of Churchill College who said they were looking for a director of studies in the arts with a science background; this is how I came to see the beginnings of Churchill College

45:25:00 Among others at the Institute was the medieval historian Kantorovich, the expert on Renaissance art de Tolnay, whole departments of scholars of ancient Greek and Latin; Godel was also there; now I was in Cambridge, at Churchill with the fun of starting a place; we started to teach in Nissen huts but introduced a number of revolutionary things like overseas fellows; there were three students in English, but from the start I knew it wouldn't work; Cockcroft had agreed that we needed new fields such as linguistics, comparative literature; made warmly welcome by Richard Keynes, Richard Adrian, and Martin Wells, who all were ambitious for Churchill to succeed on Cambridge terms which I did not support; lectured to huge audience on how to read a poem after Marx, Freud and Levi-Strauss; invited to apply for an assistant lectureship and questioned about my article in 'Encounter' and failed to get it; Churchill did not worry about this failure and encouraged me to lecture and teach there and would have paid me as a professorial fellow, paralleling what Downing was doing for Leavis; however Leavis's students paid a terrible price as Leavis could not examine nor be a member of the boards that set the tripos; so stayed on a tiny college stipend with wife having a job in Cambridge but two children; made my living by freelance writing and guest lecturing, many in America which meant being away a great deal; father was already very ill but when I dined with him in New York and asked which professorship in comparative literature I should accept in America he said I should chose but if I did Hitler would have won; offered the Chair in comparative literature in Geneva which I accepted in 1964; father delighted and later died in Zurich and mother died also in Switzerland ten years later; at Geneva taught the relevant texts in their original language as far as possible; wife stayed here and continued to teach as a fellow of New Hall; it haunts me that she is incredibly gifted but totally monoglot which is the irony of our marriage; wonder what the blocks are to learning languages as there is no correlation with intelligence

57:34:07 Stayed at Geneva for 25 years working for seven months a year which meant I spent five months in Cambridge; students at the graduate level were international and the city itself was multilingual and perfect for comparative literature and at the centre of Europe; kept links with Churchill as an Extraordinary Fellow and now as a Pensioner Fellow but never taught again there; irony was that two years after rejecting me they put 'The Death of Tragedy' on the tripos paper

59:36:20 Not close to Leavis but to his wife; Bulstrode Gardens was through the hedge to Churchill College and she took on undergraduate supervision and was fabulous with a burning conviction that all human beings should be given the very best of intellectual challenges