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Daughters of a German banker transferred to Czechoslovakia, Christine, Sophie, and Katharina Sellmann grow up in Prague during the Thirties: their stories are the tripod on which this book, elegantly and invisibly translated by Katherine Talbot, quietly rests. Christine marries a rich Czech glass merchant only for Sophie to take him away, an act for which the latter does protracted penance in a nunnery during most of the war years. Only Katharina seems to be able to ride history with any skill; her affair is with a young Communist and partisan fighter, and this liaison--Communist and brash German girl--is like a double negative that becomes positive. Bieler has the appealing talent of supplying each of his attractive people with a separate set of benign particularities; they inhabit a fictional world that is episodic, plush, and tinged with a deflected and low-key humor. Yet the fabric of the sisters' meshed lives is shot through with large events--the Sudetenland, the death camps, the Russian occupation--and Bieler chooses to keep this all offstage; we know a convulsion has occurred only in that the magnified privacies of the Sellmann girls have changed direction somewhat. An accident, a villainy, a treason, a bravery, even finally a murder don't radically alter the book's determinism. Christine is never to be happy, Sophie never free from flux, Katherina fated to forever be a leading edge. Spasmodic, then, the book isn't--it achieves its clarity through small specifics, which to some may seem blind and indifferent considering the setting and the period. If Bieler falls short, it may be only because he so barely misses a sense of elegy; the book has trouble concluding itself. But it's subtle and rich, and the Chekhovian resonances of the title don't really seem presumptuous at all.

Pub Date: Jan. 16th, 1977
Publisher: St. Martin's