Patrick Gibson's Reviews > The Bells

The Bells by Richard Harvell
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Nov 23, 10

it was ok
bookshelves: contemporary-literature
Read from October 30 to November 23, 2010

A visceral overwrought melodramatic operatic novel that gives voice to vibration, to resonance, to tone... and puts into words how the beauty of pure sound is felt in the heart. If it weren’t about opera (sort of) it would BE an opera.

Richard Harvell accomplishes this gushing mess by juxtaposing in three acts the story of Moses Froben—the man who was made into an angel (castrated) and who could bring an audience to tears with his voice"—with the great opera in three acts by Christoph Willibald von Gluck: Orpheus ed Eurydice; not only one of my favorite operas, and one reason why I am so fond of this novel, but the Greek mythology upon which the opera is based is brilliantly applied to the plotting of this novel. (Sometimes yah just gotta have one long convoluted sentence.)

To succumb to this novel's charm is easy because the well researched background provides all of the vitality necessary for the story to be taken seriously. Its sounds are real. Its settings are real. Some of its characters are real. The history is real and the willing suspension of disbelief is easily come by for total engagement in this unusual novel.

The original version of the opera Orpheus, with libretto in Italian by Raniero da Calzabigi, was premiered in Vienna in 1762. It was conducted by the composer Gluck and the lead role of Orpheus was sung by the castrato Gaetano Guadagni. That much, as represented in the novel, is true, so it is not at all difficult to place the character Moses in that same operatic world of the mid-1700s.

Moses's story from his humble birth in the Swiss Alps to his renowned success on the greatest of stages is so many things: love, beauty, innocence, art, tragedy, drama, dilemma, hatred, loyalty, bravery, fear—and a partridge in a pear tree. It’s is an epic of emotional truths. Moses is a hero who opens a window into the human spirit. He does it with sound, with his breath, with his voice.

The main thrust of the storyline in The Bells is parallel to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The myth becomes the story of the hero Moses and his heroine Amalia. Melodramatic and over-the-top? Of course! You wouldn’t want it any other way. This technique, as it does in opera, enables us to experience the emotion, to really get inside the human experience which is being exploited.

You need not be an opera aficionado or a classical music buff to appreciate this great novel—but is sure makes a lot of it a little easier to swallow. If you like a well-told historical fiction, poetic in language and sensitive in manner, in which unforgettable characters appear in authentic settings, where the action excites and intrigues, then here you go.
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