Set against the backdrop of a nineteenth century Alpine village, Brother of Sleep tells the story of Johannes Elias Alder, a musical genius with an uncanny ear who develops his talent in secret midnight sessions at the church organ. Though he plays transcendently, his unrequited love and his struggle to break free from his circumstance threaten to destroy him.
Translated into twenty-four languages and adapted into a film, a ballet, an opera, and several plays, Brother of Sleep moves inexorably toward tragedy in a tale reminiscent of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. In this beguiling novel, Robert Schneider has created “a strange, rich story suffused with the poignancy of genius that is not allowed to flourish” (Los Angeles Book Review).
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HE WHO LOVES DOES NOT SLEEP
THIS is the story of the musician Johannes Elias Alder, who took his own life at the age of twenty-two, after he had resolved never to sleep again.
For he had fallen in inexpressible and therefore unhappy love with his cousin Elsbeth, and from that moment on he would not rest, not even for a moment, until he had plumbed the mystery of his impossible love. Until his unbelievable end, he had bravely maintained that time spent sleeping was a waste and therefore sinful, and that purgatory would await him, for when asleep one was dead, or at least not really living. Not by chance does the old saying liken sleep and death to brothers. How, he thought, could a man who was pure in heart ever claim to love his wife his entire life, when he did so only by day and then, perhaps, only for the duration of a thought? That could not be true, for he who sleeps does not love.
These were the thoughts of Johannes Elias Alder, and his spectacular death was the last tribute to that love. We shall now describe his world and the course of his wretched life.CHAPTER 2
THE FINAL CHAPTER
IN 1912, when Cosmas Alder, the last inhabitant of Eschberg, a mountain village in the middle of the Vorarlberg range, starved to death in his neglected farmhouse — not even the old people in nearby Götzberg were aware that anyone still lived up there — nature decided to obliterate any thought of the village once and for all. It was as if nature, almost respectfully, had waited for the pitiful death of its last conqueror, before falling forcefully and forever upon the little hamlets. Nature now reclaimed what man had taken centuries ago. It had long since filled the former village street and the paths to the farmyards with spiky bushes, rotted the remains of the charred stables and houses, mossed their foundation stones. After the death of the stubborn old man nature fell ever more brilliantly and capriciously upon the steep mountain passes, where once the axes had obstinately stripped it of all its young trees.
And the ash, its favorite tree, grew again, plentiful and strong.
After the third fire in a single century — the people of Appenzell still talked with amazement of its nightly glow — the Lamparters and Alders, the only clans in Eschberg, finally understood that God had never wanted people there. In the night of the Third Fire, on 5 September 1892, twelve people burned in their beds and forty-eight head of cattle in their stables. All day a hellish Föhn, the hot mountain wind, had raged around the timbers of the houses and the woods had shrieked and groaned, so that people later claimed someone knowing of the coming disaster had laughed in a thousand voices. In the night of the Third Fire no one in Eschberg dared to light their ovens, not even their candle for prayers. Everyone knew — the children from the menacing tales and the suddenly ghostly eyes of the old folk — what an open flame during a Föhn was capable of doing. One Lamparter man who had been through the Second Fire, and could still dimly recall the First, went that night from farm to farm to prevent, by force if necessary, anyone from lighting a fire. He crept around and spied into stables and rooms and saw not the palest glow. He sniffed for chimneys and smelled not so much as a hint of cold smoke. At around two he lay down on his pallet and slept more peacefully.
At around three the whole village, and the nearby forest, was burned down in less than an hour. The Föhn drove the shrieking fire from St. Wolfgang's Church up the slopes and over the wooded hilltops and the mountain crests.
In the night of the Third Fire the survivors fled along the bed of the river Emmer into the Rhine Valley, crying and screeching with rage and despair. Cosmas Alder, who was believed burned like the other twelve, and for whom the Dies Irae had already been sung in nearby Götzberg, remained in his charred farmhouse, the only human being. He had been sleeping between the damp walls of his cellar, for it was his nightly custom to hold conversations with his daughter, who was buried there. Cosmas's daughter had been an abortionist, and the vicar of Götzberg had been unable to authorize a church burial. When Cosmas Alder now saw what God had done, he decided to stay on his farm and idly await the Day of Judgment. For twenty years he lived in its ruins, not making the slightest effort to rebuild the farm and leaving it only when hunger drove him deeper into the merry young forests. In the end he starved to death, not from any shortage of food — the people of Eschberg knew how to cook anything — but simply because his defiance had left him tired of life.
Thus the last of the Alders, and the last inhabitant of Eschberg, demonstrated the fatal obstinacy that had been characteristic of the whole village for centuries, and to which it finally owed its obliteration.CHAPTER 3
THE task of capturing the lives and customs of the Lamparters and Alders in a book, successfully unraveling, and with a nimble pen, the hundred threads that form the tangle of intertwining of the two lineages, defending the physical defects left by inbreeding — the oversized head, the bulbous bottom lip in the sunken chin — as healthy signs of primitive authenticity, is one that a local historian, attached to the intimate knowledge of his ancestors, might undertake. But all in all it would be a waste of time to describe the history of the peasants of Eschberg, the wretched monotony of their years, their sordid quarrels, their singularly fanatic faith, their unparalleled inflexibility in the face of novelties from without, had not the Alder clan, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, produced a child with musical gifts which were unheard of in the true sense of the word and which, it seems, will not be found again in the region of the Vorarlberg. The child's name was Johannes Elias.
The story of his life is nothing but a sad list of the shortcomings and omissions of all those people who might have had a sense of his great talent, but who allowed it to perish, from indifference, plain stupidity, or, like Cantor Goller, the organist in Feldberg cathedral (whose bones should be exhumed and scattered to the four winds, lest his body take shape again on the Day of Judgment), from pure envy. It is an indictment of God that, in a wasteful whim, he should have seen fit to bestow such a valuable gift as music on the child of an Eschberg peasant, of all people, when He should have seen that the boy would never be able to bring his aptitude to fruition in a region so musically deprived. It pleased God, furthermore, to equip Johannes Elias with such a passion for love that it prematurely consumed his life.
God created a musician who could not put so much as a note on paper, for he had never learned to write music, however much he might have longed to do so. But it was human beings, in their heavenly simplicity, who brought what we can only call a satanic plan to completion. When we first heard the astounding story of Johannes Elias Alder, we fell silent and thought, How many magnificent people — philosophers, thinkers, poets, sculptors, and musicians — must the world have lost, just because they were never allowed to learn their genuine skill. And we mused further that Socrates might not have been the supreme thinker, Jesus the greatest expression of love, Leonardo the most splendid sculptor, or Mozart the most sublime musician, that other names might have determined the course of the world. Then we grieved for those unknown people, born and yet, as long as they lived, unborn. Johannes Elias Alder was one of them.CHAPTER 4
FOR the third time that early summer afternoon in 1803, Seff Alder opened the door to the room where his wife lay, begging and screaming for the birth of her second child. It was as though it refused to come out, as though it were revolting against this world and would not set foot there of its own free will. Try as the poor woman might to give birth to it, finally pressing her hands against her belly and shrieking in pain all the while, the child would not come.
Seff breathed deeply. The air was filled with the smell of his wife's sweat and blood. He turned to the window and wrenched it open with such violence that half the room trembled. The vibration passed down the wall from the windowsill, over the tiles to the bedstead, and up into the feverish head of the woman in childbed. Seff was no talker. Opening the window seemed the only comfort he could give his wife. The air reflected the sun, so sultry was that June day, and its draught brought no relief. Seff looked out the window, down to the last bend in the village street, from where that godforsaken midwife would surely soon be appearing. Two hours and more had passed since he had sent the boy to Götzberg. Then, incredulously, he really did see her coming around the corner, struggling up the street with her red leather case, the straps over her shoulder. His son, he saw, was running behind. Seff pushed the window shut, went to his wife, looked into the water jug on the little chest, filled the untouched glass to the brim, closed the door, and thought up a prayer for his wife. He could have told her of Miss Ellenson's arrival. Seff was no talker. He waited downstairs in the wide- open doorway, and when the midwife entered, sweating and wheezing, he showed her her cider, her twenty kreuzers in payment, and the stairs up to the parents' room. Then, with the boy, he crossed to the adjoining hamlet, to turn the hay one last time.
Up in the bedroom his wife shrieked in pain.
Miss Ellenson set to work, joylessly and without the speed that would have been so welcome earlier. When she stumbled up the narrow stairs for the third time, she had already decided to put her plan, the one she had been tossing back and forth in her prattling head on her way up the hill, irrevocably into action.
This birth would be the last one. She was still young, despite her twenty-one years. Her forehead wrinkled with impatience. Also, she had fine hands, one man at least had said. Much too fine for midwifery. And she wrinkled her brow with yet greater displeasure. On the wash table she arranged her instruments in the sequence she had learned at midwife school in Innsbruck: the clyster and, next to it, as ever, the holy water, the speculum, the forceps, the catheter, and finally the umbilical scissors. Then she began to arrange the straps by length and function.
Seff's wife shrieked in pain.
Yes, Miss Ellenson reflected, she would now accept the offer of Franz Hirsch from Hötting and go into service with the baker. That would guarantee her free bread and a higher daily wage, at least thirty kreuzers. Then she would also be rid forever of those sordid arguments with the district clerk, the endless bickering over the Christmas overtime that Herr Richter of the Civil and Criminal Court in Feldberg had personally won for her. The intention of the district clerk, with his contrary manner, was certainly just to wear her down. In future the self- employed midwives could do it. But she would like to see whether the district clerk would really find them that much cheaper. No, she had had enough of all that business. And the district clerk couldn't fool her. Just because she'd turned him down for a dance once, years before, that was why he was being so difficult with her now. It wasn't her fault he had a pot belly and goaty feet.
Seff's wife shrieked in pain.
And it was not true that no man would ever ask for her hand, because Franz Hirsch, from Hötting, had done just that not even two weeks ago. By letter, yes indeed, by letter. And Franz Hirsch from Hötting was in every respect a more cultured man than that bloated fathead, that pompous little district clerk. At the end of the day, Franz Hirsch from Hötting was a fine-looking man, his hunchback apart. She paid attention to character, that was all she paid attention to. And Innsbruck was really quite a big place. What could a district clerk tell her about the world, when he'd never set foot any farther afield than Dornberg, three hours away? But maybe she wouldn't take Franz Hirsch from Hötting after all. His hunchback was quite a serious drawback when you thought about it, and she was a pretty person with fine hands. Hands far too beautiful for midwifery. That's what Corporal Zenker had sworn on his honor as a soldier of the Double Monarchy. A brief smile nestled in the corners of her mouth but fled again when she thought about the cripple from Hötting, whom she had promised nothing but whose hopes she had aroused by clearly dropping hints.
Seff's wife shrieked in pain.
He would have been the man for her, had it not been for that embarrassing hunchback. And, of course, she had discovered that he often suffered from lung disease. The things she thought about. In the end, she paid attention to character, that was all she paid attention to. He was a bit sick in the head, too. Something that could never be said of Corporal Zenker. But Zenker certainly didn't have two acres of land, while Franz Hirsch of Hötting was comfortably off. Maybe she could go into service in one of the noble bourgeois households, so that she wouldn't be exposed to all the illnesses found in ordinary people's houses. In any case, she intended, if she had not made a decision by eve- ning, to take part in the Heart of Mary Fellowship pilgrimage to the Udelberg and pray ardently to the Holy Virgin to help her make up her mind. In any case, she would move to Innsbruck. But before she left she would tell the pompous fathead, she would tell him straight to his face, so that his mustache would fall in horror.
Seff's wife lay there, quietly weeping.
The best thing to do was to follow her mother's recommendation and not judge people by appearances but by their character. She was already doing so. And yet it was true that Corporal Zenker took too much pleasure in annoying and teasing people. Even the Kaiser himself had been the butt of his remarks, while Franz Hirsch of Hötting couldn't even bring himself to smile and ...
When she lifted the blood-splashed linen the child was lying, its umbilical cord torn, on Seff's wife's knee. Horrified, the midwife picked up the child, took it to the wash stand and, hands trembling, cut off its umbilical cord. She stared at the child, listened to it anxiously, and finally shook and struck it.
It didn't cry.
She held the infant in her dripping hands, smacked it again, listened, and held her breath to hear whether the little heart was finally beating. In desperation she intoned the Te Deum, singing it in an imploring voice and then, with terror, in a loud one. All of a sudden she felt the little bundle of flesh give a tremble. Then another. She stopped singing, held her ear to it again, and now she knew that the bundle was alive. The Te Deum had saved the child's life.
Afterward, Miss Ellenson could not remember the baby's sex. But still she announced to the village clerk that a son had been born to Joseph and Agathe Elder, and she was absolutely right.
At this point we shall leave Miss Ellenson and her chatter. We shall not be seeing her again. But we should also like to add that the birth of Johannes Elias was her last act as a midwife, that she moved to Innsbruck, where she married ... Corporal Zenker, perhaps? Well, no, in fact, Franz Hirsch of Hötting. She had opted in favor of character, then. The alliance was not blessed with children, and Franz Hirsch of Hötting died of consumption in 1809. His widow married a second and even a third time. And in the end — hard as it is to believe — she married the goat-footed fathead, the district clerk of Götzberg. We lose track of her around 1850. A year before this we find her name in a file involving a fake inheritance. We cannot say how she passed her final days. But she was present at the birth of a musician of genius.
Who would not be proud to mention such an event in her modest biography? Allowing that, if we could have shouted in her face that a twofold miracle had happened right before her eyes, the birth of a man and the birth of a genius, she would not have understood a word. And the others, Seff's wife in childbed, Seff and his boy, would not have understood either. But that is not the worst. When this man's talents had been apparent for a long time, no one understood even then.CHAPTER 5
A FATHER TO HIS CHILDREN
THE reverend curate Elias Benzer was a man of great oratorical skills, a passionate lover of life, and — as much because of this as out of obedience to his natural disposition — an enthusiastic admirer of all things feminine. It was this passion, as we shall see, that led to his downfall.
The Reverend Benzer came from Hohenberg in the Rhine Valley: Hohenberg, which had always been a bastion of superstition and things demonic. So his sermons were full of the last witch-burning in the Vorarlberg, which he had seen, as a child, with his own eyes. This strange experience had become the pillar of his theology. He devoted countless sermons to painting pictures of the stake for the eyes of his Eschberg peasants, with such fire that their mouths grew dry and the blood began to redden in their brows and in their eyes. Some even felt as though they had been hit by the first sparks or delivered whole into the flames. Whenever the reverend curate, in his Sunday morning gospel readings, had the slightest opportunity to throw a bridge back to that great event of his childhood, he seized the opportunity to cross it. Thanks to a flamboyant imagination, he was able against all odds to pass from the Burning Bush to the Hohenberg Burning.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Brother Of Sleep"
Copyright © 1992 Reclam Verlag Leipzig.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 : HE WHO LOVES DOES NOT SLEEP,
Chapter 2 : THE FINAL CHAPTER,
Chapter 3 : THE UNBORN,
Chapter 4 : THE BIRTH,
Chapter 5 : A FATHER TO HIS CHILDREN,
Chapter 6 : THE MIRACLE OF HIS HEARING,
Chapter 7 : THE TIME IN THE ROOM,
Chapter 8 : THE VOICE, THE ANIMALS, AND THE ORGAN,
Chapter 9 : SO JOYFUL IS THE DAY,
Chapter 10 : WINTER 1815,
Chapter 11 : ELSBETH AND THE SPRING,
Chapter 12 : THE WOMAN IN THE MOONLIGHT,
Chapter 13 : THE LIGHTS OF HOPE,
Chapter 14 : GOD FEARS ELIAS,
Chapter 15 : FARAWAY PLACES,
Chapter 16 : THE ORGAN FESTIVAL,
Chapter 17 : COME, O DEATH, O COME, BROTHER OF SLEEP,
Chapter 18 : THE OBLITERATION,
Chapter 19 : MOTHER, WHAT DOES LOVE MEAN?,
What People are Saying About This
“Imaginative…provocative themes and images.” —New York Times Book Review