I am not a very devoted music fanatic. I do not have a list of favourite bands or performers – or rather, I do, but that list is always negotiable and open to change. I do not anticipate album drops with any level of interest or excitement. And it always makes me nervous when someone asks me what my favourite song is, because, in truth, I do not really have one. I might have a song I favour during a specific moment, yes, but come back to me the next day, or even the next hour, and ask me the same question, and I am apt to give a different response.
Despite this, I enjoy listening to music. While there are times when I use music as a background-filler while doing something else, I am capable of appreciating a good soundtrack for a film, video game, or TV show, of pointing out when it works or when it doesn’t. I’m also quite capable of appreciating an artist’s performance, whether as a vocalist or on an instrument. And I am more than familiar with the kind of magic that occurs when a great piece of music is put in the hands of an amazing artist, and of that moment when music stops being something one just listens to, but becomes something one experiences.
It is that bone-deep experience of music, the kind that goes beyond the ears and into the heart and soul, that Richard Harvell attempts to capture in his novel The Bells. Set in eighteenth-century Europe, it follows the story of Moses Froben, know to the world as Lo Svizzero, the darling of opera from Austria to England. Structured as a memoir discovered by his son, Nicolai, the novel follows Moses, from his lowly birth as the son of a deaf bell-ringer of a tiny and isolated village in the Swiss Confederacy, to the moment he becomes the most famous opera singer in the world. Moses also reveals a secret he has kept from his son: the secret to his incredible talent as a singer and musician.
The best part of this novel is its language. Harvell has a rather amazing way with words, one that is capable of making something as ephemeral as sound seem more concrete in a way that has nothing to do with sheet music. To be sure, sheet music has proven an invaluable tool for archiving and recording music for posterity, but it does not capture the experience of listening to music, nor does it capture the other sounds that surround us: the music – and the noise – of life in general.
That is where Harvell succeeds. Much like Patrick Süskind manages to put the experience of smell into words (an experience more ephemeral by far than sound, in my opinion) in the novel Perfume, Harvell puts into words the many marvellous and repulsive sounds that Moses hears throughout his life. For example, in the excerpt below Moses describes the belfry in which he and his mother spent most of their time, as well as the sound of the great bells his mother rang:
In terms of space, our belfry was a a tiny world – most would have thought it a prison for a child. But in terms of sound, it was the most massive home on earth. For every sound ever made was trapped in the metal of those bells, and the instant my mother struck them, she released their beauty to the world. So many ears heard the thunderous pealing echo through the mountains. They hated it; or were inspired by its might; or cried as the vibrations shook their sadness out. But they did not find it beautiful. The beauty of the pealing was reserved for my mother, and for me, alone.
While it makes sense to describe sound by way of emotion, Harvell does not stop there. In the following excerpt, he describes bells, and the sounds they make, in a manner that is strikingly visual:
A bell is a tower of tiny bands, stacked thinly one upon the other, and each of these bands rings a different pitch, just as a thousand shades of paint shine slightly different hues.
Anyone who has ever seen the paintings of the Impressionists, like Monet and Renoir, can readily grasp what Harvell is trying to accomplish in the above quotation. In an Impressionist painting, subtly different colours are applied next to each other so that, when one looks at the painting from a distance, one does not see the individual colours, but perceives them as blended together to create the necessary gradations of light and shadow that the Impressionists are famous for. In the same manner, every part of a bell has subtly different sounds, so that, depending on where the player strikes it, one hears a different tone or note entirely.
But where Harvell’s prose really stands out is in his descriptions of Moses’ performances, particularly of the listeners. Since Moses is so attuned to sound, he perceives the reactions of his audience differently, and Harvell shows that difference quite beautifully:
Like a crystal goblet rubbed with a wet finger along its rim, the faintest ringing gradually arose in her—my voice vibrating in the muscles of her neck and upper back. Is this how my mother would have heard my voice?
As Amalia tuned herself to my song, I adjusted the pitch of my notes to her, and so it seemed I held her neck with my own warm hands. I felt, for the first time, that desire to know my voice in her, like the painter who falls in love with his subject because of the power of his own brush.
Again Harvell interweaves images and sounds to create a picture the reader can feel almost viscerally. After all, a listener remembers more than just the sound of a musical piece – they attach images, smells, emotions – a whole landscape of memory – to the music. Harvell is very good at bringing these concepts together and making them play so nicely that the reader can, if they try, all but hear the music even if they have never heard the piece mentioned in the story.
However, the glowing beauty of Harvell’s language actually masks a story and characters that are, in the end, not particularly interesting or compelling. As someone who loves beautiful language and enjoys a good turn of phrase, it is terribly easy to be dazzled by Harvell’s word-spinning and think this novel is something better than it actually is. However, once I held it at a distance, I quickly realised that, Harvell’s lovely prose aside, the novel really isn’t anything to write home about.
Take the plot, for example. Once the reader has stripped away Harvell’s prose, it becomes clear that the story is essentially a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Now, while there is certainly nothing wrong with retelling stories, especially one with as great potential for metaphor as the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, Harvell’s retelling is a particularly melodramatic interpretation, a tale of close calls and doomed love. For all that it is wrapped in beautiful language, the story itself, when stripped to its bones, lacks a certain poetic nuance; it is a story of bombastic gestures and extreme paroxysms of emotion. In short, it is very much like an opera – a rather interesting and appropriate comparison, because the latter third of the novel is focused on a fictionalised version of the 1762 premier of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice.
This operatic tendency extends to the characters. With the exception of Moses, all the other characters lack a certain layer of complexity and subtlety: easy to remember because of some distinguishing aspect of physicality, or personality, or both. More often than not they are defined by the role they play in Moses’ life – much the same way characters in an opera are defined by their role in the larger story. I suspect the only reason Moses has any subtlety in characterisation (though even that is in comparison to the other characters, not because he, himself, is subtly characterised) is because he is the narrator, and the reader is privy to all his thoughts and feelings. This knowledge allows the reader to contrast his thoughts with his actions, providing a layer of characterisation the others lack. However, when all is said and done, Moses is not really better-characterised than everyone else around him; he just happens to stand out because he is the narrator.
Overall, The Bells is a lovely read – at least, while the reader is engaged with it. Like listening to a song that is beautiful only when one is listening to it but is otherwise unremarkable, so it is with this novel. Harvell’s exquisite language renders the reader temporarily blind to what is, in reality, a rather mediocre story populated by middle-of-the-road characters. It is an enjoyable experience while it lasts, but is not really something that will linger with the reader after they finish the novel.