Nasty, brutish, Grimm

BROTHER OF SLEEP by Robert Schneider, trs Shaun Whiteside Outlook Press (New York) pounds 9.99
The shadows of the Brothers Grimm and even of Grunewald hang over this folkloric tale, which won its author the Robert Musil Prize of the City of Vienna. It is an extraordinary, absurd and finally rather moving story of the greatest musician never known, a peasant organist, Elias Alder, who was born in a squalid Alpine village in 1803, and even at the baptismal font showed a marked talent for getting on the wrong side of people. Elias is gifted with a preternaturally sensitive ear: as an infant he is sent into a trance merely by the whisper of snowfall and at five has such a terrific aural epiphany, hearing all the sounds of the village, the barnyard, the forest, and even "the black thunder of his own heart", that he promptly undergoes early puberty, emerging with a bass voice, a little moustache and a yellow glare to his eyes. He also falls in love with his infant cousin, Elsbeth, whose heart he can hear beating across the village.

Most of this is too ripe for English tastes, especially since the book is devoid of any irony. There are burnings and beatings, there are faeces and mud, there is animal torture and incestuous rape, and soaring above the cacophony in this pious Catholic village, where every nose is bulbous and every jaw undershot, are the screeches and scrannel note of the church organ which is, naturally, untuned. But it is the organ which provides Elias with his pathway to the sublime: he sneaks into the church at nights, teaches himself to play, and one day astounds the villainous peasantry with the majesty of his art. He is eventually lured to the city for an organists' extempore competition and there, in his only real public recital, he plays the chorale "Come, O Death, O Come, Sleep's Brother". Ovation follows ovation. Coins, hats, even, we learn, "diapers", are thrown in the air.

But the theme of the chorale has turned his wits. On the shaky theory that he has not loved Elsbeth enough, since whenever one falls asleep, one ceases, temporarily, to love, he forces himself to stay awake, to that end eating belladonna and deadly nightshade, and thus he dies, tied to a tree, covered in yet more faeces.

It is, as I said, all quite absurd. And yet ... the book possesses a kind of magnificence. Schneider has a fine declamatory style, confident and assertive - very German, really - and he plunges after his target like a bird-of-prey off a cliff. The characters who march in are given a hard, piquant edge and then abruptly shown the door when their services to the plot are over. Schneider's powers of description - of an afternoon when the "sun and moon faced each other, the moon a broken host, the sun a mother's cheek" or of "nature falling more brilliantly and capriciously upon the steep mountain passes" - have sheer poetic force. Like Elias himself on the wretched village organ, Schneider has taken the dank genre of folktale and wrung from it some splendid chords.

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