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This review is taken from PN Review 77, Volume 17 Number 3, January - February 1991.

SURFACES Adalbert Stifter, Brigitta, translated from the German by Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly (Angel Books) £13.95, £9.95 pb.

Tristram Shandy's father thought a mistake in the dust of a butterfly's wings could affect universal truth. Adalbert Stifter would have agreed with him. He has an eye for the small things. Error exists only in human judgement. In our self-important allocation of categories we have no time for the dust of a butterfly's wings: it is not significant. Stifter was born in 1805 in a Bohemian village. He spent a large part of his professional life as an Inspector of Primary Schools in Upper Austria. He wrote two novels, one of them unfinished, and several stories. He died (by his own hand) in 1868. He is a master of German prose and a landscape painter of some repute.

Brigitta is one of four stories of almost equal length in this volume. The others are Abdias, The Forest Path and Limestone. Quality is always important in translation, but more so with a writer like Stifter whose style is such an immediate reflection of thought. These versions are so good that you are never aware of the translator's presence.

All four stories are about apparent misfits. The Jew Abdias is an ugly outcast, Brigitta is also ugly, the hero of The Forest Path is 'a very great fool', and Limestone is about a poor priest who seems to make no contribution to life.

In every case there is a transformation. Not necessarily in the people themselves but in the judgement of those who observe ...


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