French-US critic George Steiner dies aged 90

Steiner died in Cambrdige where he spent years as a fellow at the university's Churchill College

George Steiner, the celebrated French-US literary critic and essayist, has died at the age of 90, Britain's Cambridge University said on Tuesday.

The university's Churchill College said it was "saddened" to his passing, which was first confirmed to the New York Times by his son David on Monday.

Steiner was an emeritus professor and founding fellow of the college, where his papers are held in the archives. "Our thoughts are with his wife, Zara, and his family," it added.

Francis George Steiner, who was born in Paris on April 23, 1929, came to Cambridge as a founding fellow of Churchill College from 1961 after obtaining a doctorate from Oxford and spending time at Princeton in the United States.

His academic career later took in an honorary fellowship at Oxford, and similar appointments at the Royal Academy of Arts, the British Academy and Stanford in California.

From 1966 to 1997 he was senior book reviewer for the New Yorker magazine.

Fluent in English, French and German, he was once described as a "polyglot and polymath" who shook up the staid world of literary criticism with a new, broader, more cosmopolitan approach.

The British novelist A.S. Byatt described Steiner as a "late, late, late Renaissance man... a European metaphysician with an instinct for the driving ideas of our time."

- Language and violence -

He wrote at length on the relationship between language, literature and society, and held wide-ranging views on authors from Dostoyevsky and Greek epics to Shakespeare.

But it was the Holocaust that most influenced his writing.

His family had moved to Paris from Vienna before his birth to escape the growing threat of Nazism. They moved again -- to New York -- a month before the Paris occupation during World War II.

"My whole life has been about death, remembering and the Holocaust," he said in a 2001 interview with the Guardian newspaper, calling himself a "grateful wanderer" around the world.

In particular, Steiner argued that the horrors of the "Final Solution" and totalitarianism put paid to any idea that literary culture was a barrier to barbarism.

"Some of the men who devised and administered Auschwitz had been trained to read Shakespeare and Goethe," he wrote.

In one of his last interviews, published by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in April 2019, Steiner said he was concerned about the rise of xenophobia across Europe.

"Hate for foreigners, hunting Jews, excuses for self-defence and weapons are dangerous signs of a terrible regression, a prelude to violence," he said.

France's education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer was one of the first to pay tribute. "With the death of George Steiner, we have lost a major thinker," he said.

"His immense literary scholarship brought joy to all those who read or heard his works."

Steiner is survived by his wife, Cambridge historian Zara Steiner; and their two children, David, a US education adviser at Johns Hopkins, and Deborah, who heads the Classics department at Columbia University.