There are European authors, notably those writing in German, whom we perceive to be important, intimidatingly so, but with whom we find it hard to come to grips, despite the existence of extremely skilled translations. Some of these authors are possibly less brilliant or wise than they appear to be, or than, given our nagging though commonly well-concealed sense of intellectual inferiority, we resignedly suppose them to be. Incomprehensibility and prestige often go hand in hand. Yet the fascination persists, whatever the degree of understanding (or lack of it), resentment or suspicion that attends the 'Hegels and Schlegels' who so bewildered Erich Heller's undergraduate. (To whom one could add the Krauses and Strausses, Brochs and Blochs, Kellers and Hellers.) In the company of a few other British Germanists and translators, J.P. Stern, who died in November of last year, did much to make these writers more accessible to us, thanks to his persuasion that literature, no matter how exalted, is not the preserve of scholars, and that what has wide implications should be known widely. And thanks also to his moralistic turn of mind, albeit, as he says of someone else's moral and spiritual motivation, 'one blushes to admit it.' Shamefacedly or otherwise, we tend to welcome some talk of right and wrong in surroundings which threaten us with the ineffable.
LRB 11 June 1992 | PDF Download