George Steiner at the New Yorker, introduction by Robert Boyers (New Directions, 304 pages, $17.95 paper). It never exactly escaped literary notice that the George Steiner who wrote 130 pieces for William Shawn's New Yorker for 30 years (1967-1997) is different in kind from the George Steiner who gave the world such scholarly books as "After Babel." To current literary assassins of the James Wood variety, the difference might scarcely be said to matter because "toppling the monument" of Steiner, the polyglot polymath's polymath is the whole point anyway ("George Steiner's prose is a remarkable substance" begins Wood's gleeful 1996 demolition "it is the sweat of a statue that wishes to be a monument.")
Statue sweat, he says? Well, here's Steiner, from the New Yorker, having at John Barth's huge novel "Letters": "a more or less indigestible classroom souffle. Nary a page here, sirrah, unworthy of exegesis, gloss, footnotes, heremeneutics, explication, semiotic analysis, psychohistorical and seminar-cabalistic commentary." Statue sweat? Hardly. Sounds to me like the infectious cacklings of a merry apostle of the "old criticism" (as he called his first book "Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?") having sport of academic writing that deserves it.
Whether or not Steiner served as William Shawn's late-century stand-in for what Edmund Wilson gave the New Yorker in midcentury, the critic and essayist you'll find here seems to know most things worth knowing and is acutely perceptive and energetically serious about them all. Any man so partial to Borges, Beckett, Guy Davenport and Simone Weil and so penetrating about them all deserves respect -- hold the marble ("a transcendental schlemiel" he calls Weil.) That's especially true when he can seem close to definitive on the subject of the "racist vituperations" and "the material summons to slaughter" of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, whose prose features the beginning of "the rock beat, the hammering of heavy metal, of sound as drug."
Great work -- with much faster and better reflexes than, say, the average statue.
-- Jeff Simon