Consider the possibility of a man whose sense of hearing is so enhanced that he can discern the noise of the entire world and also mimic all the sounds made by men and beasts. Imagine a human being who can SEE sounds as well as hear them. It is little wonder that he would have an affinity and talent for music.

Johannes Elias Alder is such a musical genius born in 1803 with a preternatural gift of hearing. The illegitimate son of the village curate, Elias experiences a physical metamorphosis as a child and by the age of ten is already a man. He effortlessly composes magnificent music that he plays on the organ.

Although Elias falls in love with his cousin, Elsbeth, she marries another man. After this loss, he becomes tired of life. Elias commits suicide at the age of 22 by refusing to sleep and succumbing to starvation and an overdose of belladonna.


The author of this novel has constructed a world of disasters--both personal and natural. One calamity after another befalls the characters inhabiting this odd European town. What ails the inhabitants of this village cannot be remedied by medicine or religion. When dreams are no longer possible and all hope is gone, life has no meaning.

Sleep and death are portrayed as brothers. Both threaten our already short, waking lives. Love and genius are depicted as competitors. The novel asks, "Is love not more important than the greatest genius of this world?" For the protagonist, Elias, love means everything. Love provides not just the joy of life but the very will to live.

Elias and the other characters in this story struggle to understand and accept his uniqueness. Talent is ruined by jealousy, ignorance, and indifference. This novel evokes comparisons with Andrew Miller's Ingenious Pain (see this database) and Patrick Suskind's Perfume.


Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside. Originally published in 1992 (Leipzig: Reclam). This novel won the Robert Musil Prize of the City of Vienna and the Prix Medicis Etranger for the best novel in of 1994.



Place Published

Woodstock, N.Y.



Page Count