Austrian literature has a long tradition, but it’s not very well known abroad and as you may have noticed I’ve taken it upon me to spread its word a little. In fact, I would consider it rather odd if I – an Austrian book blogger – neglected the literary production of my own country in favour of Anglo-American blockbusters which are overwhelmingly present on the internet and in bookshops, anyways. For this week’s review I chose an Austrian novel which earned international fame in the early 1990s. Brother of Sleep by Robert Schneider is historical fiction set in the mountains of Austria in the early nineteenth century and tells the story of a musical genius in love who was born into a poor and hardworking environment without use or understanding for his exceptional gift.
Robert Schneider was born in Bregenz, Austria, in June 1961. As a two-year-old he was adopted by a farmer couple in the mountains of Götzis in Vorarlberg where he grew up. After high school he went to Vienna to study composition, dramatics and art history, but eventually dropped out of university to become a writer. For several years literature grants along with work as a tourist guide and organist provided his livelihood. In 1992 Robert Schneider made his debut as a novelist with Brother of Sleep (Schlafes Bruder) which was an immediate and international success. The novels Die Luftgängerin (The Air Walker: 1998), Die Unberührten (The Untouched: 2000), Der Papst und das Mädchen (The Pope and the Girl: 2001), Schatten (Shadow: 2002), Kristus (2004), and Die Offenbarung (The Revelation: 2007) followed, some of them much acclaimed and award-winning, others highly controversial or even pulled to pieces by critics. He also wrote some plays and poetry. Robert Schneider lives in Götzis, Austria, with his family.
The location of Brother of Sleep is a hamlet in the mountains of Vorarlberg, the westernmost province of Austria, where farmers have a particularly hard life wresting a meagre living from nature with their hands’ work. The major part of the novel is set during the lifetime of Johannes Elias Alder, usually just called Elias, who was born on 24 June 1803 and died on 9 September 1825. His birth is difficult and long. Only when the desperate midwife starts to sing the Te Deum to prey for God’s help the boy shows a first sign of life. Two weeks later he and his cousin Peter Elias Alder, who is five days his junior and will be his lifelong friend, are baptised. Hearing Elias cry for joy at the sound of the church organ, the father is the first to feel that something is terribly wrong with the boy. His voice is “glassy” and reminds of a high-pitched whistle or a long-held tone. When Elias is only ten years old, he changes within one winter afternoon into a fully developed man with a bass voice and yellow instead of green eyes. During this violent transformation, the boy also discovers the full range of his exceptional ear. Elias is feared and laughed at for his “monstrosity”, but he also is a warm-hearted and hard-working boy which wins the villagers over eventually. As he grows older the odd difference between looks and actual age fades. Elias loves the sound of the organ in church, but his uncle, the organist, refuses to teach him to play because he envies the boy’s obvious talent. With the help of Peter he teaches himself and charms everybody with his music. Then a fire breaks out during Christmas mass and destroys half the hamlet. Elias rescues his young cousin Elsbeth, Peter’s little sister, and carrying her from the burning house he knows all of a sudden that she’s the one meant for him. He waits patiently for her to grow up, but he is shy and the girl is so lively…
The story of Brother of Sleep is rather unusual, not to say bizarre thanks to the protagonist’s peculiar nature as well as to his wide-awake love leading to a horrible death. In addition the author chose to imitate nineteenth-century classics to tell his comparatively short tale. Like them he opens the novel not only explaining what made him write it, but he also anticipates the fate of the protagonist which is at once labelled as unlucky, extraordinary and amazing. However, that its title refers to a hymn is revealed only when the story reaches its musical and biographical climax towards the end. Tone and style of the third-person narrator must inevitably seem rather old-fashioned to a modern reader who isn’t used to remarks giving every so often additional information on the background of the story or on the biography of side characters although they are of little or no importance for the plot. It’s also a characteristic of Robert Schneider’s language to use words from his local – Alemannic – idiom which are not generally understood in the German-speaking countries, not even in Austria. I wonder if and how the translator managed to make this peculiarity of the text visible in the English edition… Despite all it isn’t a difficult read and unlike the novel’s nineteenth-century models it doesn’t feel lengthy, either.
All things considered Brother of Sleep by Robert Schneider has been an interesting and entertaining piece of Austrian fiction, a bit strange maybe, but easy as well as quick to read. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of historical novels, this one is different, though, because it’s less about the time than about the people. And of course, it’s a book that is worthwhile reading.