RICHARD HARVELL was born in New Hampshire, USA, and studied English
literature at Dartmouth College. He now lives in Basel,
Switzerland, with his wife and son. The Bells is
his first novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
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
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
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?