A novella and three offbeat stories represent the return of British culture critic and scholar Steiner (Real Presences, 1989; Martin Heidegger, 1979; etc.) to fiction after more than a decade, displaying his inimitable style and erudition in fine form. More a series of philosophical and existential studies than dramatic fiction, the stories consistently offer the observations of one keenly aware of the wealth of sights and sounds surrounding us. ``Proofs'' interweaves physical disability with an ideological dilemma, as a dedicated Italian Marxist and peerless proofreader finds himself at a double loss when his eyesight begins to fail just at the historical moment when events in Eastern Europe announce the collapse of the Soviet Union. A member of a Communist splinter group, he struggles against the inevitable, engaging in a nightlong but ultimately inconclusive debate with a comrade, a priest, over the brutal methods of both Marxism and Catholicism, and denying his increasing visual impairment until he's almost blind. Replaced in his job, he attempts a return to the Italian Communist party only to find it no longer exists. The brief, quixotic ``Desert Island Discs'' describes a series of requests to a unique sound archive--including a belch, the neigh of a horse escaping an ambush, the musical laugh of a woman enjoying her lover, and the cheery whistle of a lad in a painted Crucifixion scene--while ``A Conversation Piece'' presents a wry view of Talmudic scholars in a nit-picking discussion of the story of Abraham and Isaac, disrupted finally by the comments of a boy and woman with their own perspectives on the subject. Rich and challenging, this is a small but significant contribution to what is already an impressive, diverse body of work.