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Bells (Harvell)

The Bells
Richard Harvell, 2010
Crown Publishing
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307590534


Summary
The celebrated opera singer Lo Svizzero was born in a belfry high in the Swiss Alps where his mother served as the keeper of the loudest and most beautiful bells in the land. Shaped by the bells’ glorious music, as a boy he possessed an extraordinary gift for sound. But when his preternatural hearing was discovered—along with its power to expose the sins of the church—young Moses Froben was cast out of his village with only his ears to guide him in a world fraught with danger.
 
Rescued from certain death by two traveling monks, he finds refuge at the vast and powerful Abbey of St. Gall. There, his ears lead him through the ancient stone hallways and past the monks’ cells into the choir, where he aches to join the singers in their strange and enchanting song. Suddenly Moses knows his true gift, his purpose. Like his mother’s bells, he rings with sound and soon, he becomes the protégé of the Abbey’s brilliant yet repulsive choirmaster, Ulrich.

But it is this gift that will cause Moses’ greatest misfortune: determined to preserve his brilliant pupil’s voice, Ulrich has Moses castrated. Now a young man, he will forever sing with the exquisite voice of an angel—a musico—yet castration is an abomination in the Swiss Confederation, and so he must hide his shameful condition from his friends and even from the girl he has come to love. When his saviors are exiled and his beloved leaves St. Gall for an arranged marriage in Vienna, he decides he can deny the truth no longer and he follows her—to sumptuous Vienna, to the former monks who saved his life, to an apprenticeship at one of Europe’s greatest theaters, and to the premiere of one of history’s most beloved operas.

In this confessional letter to his son, Moses recounts how his gift for sound led him on an astonishing journey to Europe’s celebrated opera houses and reveals the secret that has long shadowed his fame: How did Moses Froben, world renowned musico, come to raise a son who by all rights he never could have sired?

Like the voice of Lo Svizzero, The Bells is a sublime debut novel that rings with passion, courage, and beauty. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—October 6, 1978
Where—New Hampshire, USA
Education—Dartmouth College
Currently—lives in Basel, Switzerland


Richrd Harvell was born in the state of New Hampshire, USA, studied English literature at Dartmouth College. He now lives in Basel, Switzerland, with his wife and children. The Bells is his first novel. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews
Chronicling the journey of 18th-century singer Moses Froben from his Swiss village to Vienna, this debut novel strikes many melodramatic notes in an overwrought plot; squalor, beauty, horror, forbidden love, tragedy, and triumph splash broadly, sometimes artfully, but often with operatic excess. Moses, born to a deaf-mute in a belfry, possesses a unique bond to music. Cast from his home, he joins a choir, discovering that he can mold "that ocean of sound... into something beautiful." Harvell, however, shows his own limitations when he seeks to describe the resonance of music. When Moses says, "I wished I could dissolve into sound," the reader shares his frustration. A tormented choirmaster castrates Moses to preserve his beautiful voice, transforming him into a "musico," a soprano whose voice never deepens, and who will never be a man. His ability to sound like an angel brings him into contact with a wealthy family, sparking an impossible love affair with a beautiful but crippled woman. Moses's ardor impels him to Vienna and its vibrant opera scene, where his brief appearance on stage allows love to triumph before, unsurprisingly, tragedy brings down the curtain.
Publishers Weekly


Born in a belfry in the Uri Valley of the Swiss Alps, where his deaf-mute mother rang the Loudest Bells on Earth, Moses Froben...overcome[s] his humble origins to become Lo Suizzero, the musical toast of Europe in the eighteenth century.... Taking few liberties with history, Harvell has fashioned an engrossing first novel ringing with sounds; a musical and literary treat. —Michele Leber
Booklist



Discussion Questions
1. Harvell begins his novel with a letter from the narrator’s son Nicolai, in which we learn a great deal, including that Nicolai never knew his mother and that in 1806 Moses is a famous singer. How does this affect our experience of the novel? How would the novel be different with these two pages torn out?

2. Moses’ years at the Abbey of St. Gall are tumultuous and fraught with pain. But would you say he wishes Nicolai had never brought him there? What does he gain from the abbot and abbey? Aside from the obvious in his castration, what does he lose?

3. Moses calls Ulrich “the architect of my tragedy” (208). And yet, his life would have been so different had he never been castrated—we certainly would not be reading the story of this famous singer. Is his regret complete? Does he blame Ulrich? How would his life have been different had he not been castrated?

4. In an interview, Richard Harvell says, “I first planned Nicolai and Remus, as two cruel monks, and then, as I wrote, they just wouldn’t be mean, no matter what I tried. I had to make them good. I am very thankful for that.” Why are Remus and Nicolai so important to Moses’ story? Why do you think Harvell is so thankful that they are not ‘mean’?

5. “This is not magic,” Harvell writes (14). “He cannot hear through mountains or to the other side of the earth. This is merely selection. The selection of sounds, the dissection of sounds, is something he can do like no other. This his mother and her bells have gifted him.” How would you describe Moses extraordinary hearing ability? Is this magic? How does Moses’ hearing influence his destiny?

6. While Harvell uses many visual images in the book, there are many descriptive passages relying on sound. “The one-eyed idiot’s howling, the rattle of the coppers in the leper’s wooden bowl, the creak of the warped wagon wheel, the hissing of a black cat plucked of half its fur by some disease” (217). How does description through sound add to the novel?

7. Gaetano Guadagni is one of the many historical figures in the novel. Is he a villain, or is he, as he always claims to be, Moses’ “fratello” (brother)?

8. One reviewer claimed that The Bells “earns its operatic tone” (Kirkus Reviews). What might be meant by ‘operatic tone’? In what other ways is the novel like an opera?

9. The narration is told in the first person, by the mature Moses, but told through the eyes of a child and, later, a young castrato. How is the novel influenced by the two perspectives? When does it swerve toward one or the other?

10. “I promise you as your faithful witness,” Moses swears (page 14). But does Moses always tell the complete, unbiased truth? Here is one example when his bias leaks through: “In this village I was born (may it burn to the ground and be covered by an avalanche)” (page 6). Where else does this happen?

11. The novel is clearly inspired by the Orpheus myth. How is Moses’ and Amalia’s love story like the Orpheus myth and how is it different?

12. The child Nicolai was destined for great fortune as a Riecher. So why does Moses kidnap his “son”? Should we blame him for this decision?

13. In his nocturnal wanderings in St. Gall, Moses understands that he has traded the ability to love, and to be loved, for the ability to sing like an angel. “All at once, the musico’s exchange made sense. We had given up this song of union for a song that we must sing alone” (page 163). How does singing replace love? And how does it not?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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