My life is a beautiful fairy tale, rich and happy,"" wrote Andersen in his final autobiography. That was, for the most part, true as Bredsdorff makes clear in his diligent and absorbing story of the life and work of the poor, ungainly boy who became Denmark's outstanding writer and the world's best known creator of fairy tales. Andersen's early difficulties included not only harsh poverty, though that might have been enough given the time and place of his birth (1805), but spiritual impoverishment, which manifested itself in prostitution and madness in the family. He was determined, however, and cultivated his creative gifts, expecting, as in a fairy tale, that he would at first have to suffer but eventually fame and fortune would be his. Though it is through his fairy tales and stories that he has achieved immortality Andersen was also a novelist, poet, playwright, author of travel books, diarist and prodigious letter writer. Bredsdorff draws on all this and on comments by other (European) writers and critics of the day to present a satisfying and illuminating portrait of an intriguing and complex artist and a man of many contradictions--vain but humble, a doubting Christian, a social climber who championed the underdog, a phobia-ridden traveler who was continually on the go, a generous miser, etc., etc. Not the least virtue of this book is the appended list of ""best"" translations of the fairy tales and stories. The contrast between the charming and amusing excerpts here quoted and the barren versions we are likely to be familiar with is startling. Bredsdorff is Head of the Department of Scandinavian Studies at Cambridge University.