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My Unwritten Books

Hephzibah Anderson: A book of unwritten books is a beguiling idea. In George Steiner's hands, it becomes a rich puzzle of a read.
In his latest work George Steiner devotes a chapter to each of the books that could have been.
In his latest work George Steiner devotes a chapter to each of the books that could have been.

A book of unwritten books is a beguiling idea, Hephzibah Anderson writes. In George Steiner's hands, it becomes a rich puzzle of a read.

My Unwritten Books George Steiner Phoenix Dh48

An unwritten book is an alluring prospect, unsullied by the limitations of skill, time or publishing budgets. Plenty of authors carry them around inscribed in their heads and hearts, knowing that to begin putting such works to paper would bring to light all that makes them unwriteable, unpublishable. "A book unwritten is more than a void," explains George Steiner, "It is one of the lives we could have lived, one of the journeys we did not take." Unable to resist exploring books that might have been, he has chosen to go public with his. In fact, he has filled a book with them.

A scholar and critic on the cusp of his 90s, Steiner's backlist roams across subjects from poetry to cosmology, and he turns out to be just as prolific and polymathic when it comes to the works he hasn't completed. Seven in all, they include a study of the 14th century mathematician and philosopher Francesco degli Stabili, sometimes known as Cecco d'Ascoli, and an examination of human attitudes to animals across centuries and continents.

To each of these ghost books Steiner devotes an essay-like chapter, giving a pungent whiff of how such a work might have taken shape and what he had hoped to achieve. He also offers explanations for why the projects foundered. A comparative study of secondary education systems across Europe and the US, for instance, would have required teamwork, something to which he is terminally unsuited. "No committee has benefited from my anarchic improprieties," he confesses.

Some of these literary embryos advanced further than others. A study of the life of Joseph Needham, for instance, was all but commissioned. Needham was a British biologist and Sinologist whose love affair with Communism led him to become a pawn in the hands of spymasters and agents. Steiner was fascinated by his "kaleidoscopic persona", yet couldn't shake a memory of watching Needham support controversial Chinese claims of American biological warfare at a rally during the Korean War. When he later brought the matter up with Needham, it became clear that reciprocal trust would elude them.

But there is more to it than that: Steiner had attended the rally as a young reporter, and when the audience was asked to speak up if they doubted Needham's claims, he kept quiet. The social embarrassment of voicing dissent quashed his convictions. Over half a century later, the incident still weighs on him. "It has oriented my entire attitude to those who flinch under totalitarian blackmail," he writes. "I knew from that evening onward how easily I could be prone to abjection".

This disarming candour courses throughout. As Steiner concludes regarding his reasons to leave one book unwritten: "I didn't have the guts". On occasion, he is a little too revelatory. The Tongues of Eros outlines a doomed exploration of the role of language in lovemaking. It's a chapter full of thought-provoking questions whose answers would necessitate significant leaps forward in cognitive research. In their absence, Steiner draws on his own between-the-sheets experiences in four languages: English, French, German and Italian.

Even when he's being so coyly indiscreet, Steiner's thinking is defined by an uncompromising intelligence. He rails against "the cult of vulgarity" and flits agilely between diverse disciplines and cultures. Though allusions are rife, he sees little need for illustrative quotes or English translations - which can be vexing, though that's a small quibble. A book of unwritten books is a beguiling idea. The reality might easily seem self-indulgent - the ultimate literary in-joke, perhaps itself a book better left unwritten. In Steiner's hands, it becomes a rich puzzle of a read, filled with illuminating insights into the point at which the writer's creative process intersects with his life.

Updated: January 9, 2009 04:00 AM