NEW YORK: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.
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.
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 is survived by his wife, the historian and academic Zara Steiner, and his two children.