10 reviews

The Bells: A Novel
by Richard Harvell

Published: 2011-06-28
Paperback : 373 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 10 of 10 members
I grew up as the son of a man who could not possibly have been my father. Though there was never any doubt that my seed had come from another man, Moses Froben, Lo Svizzero, called me “son.” And I called him “father.” On the rare occasions when someone dared to ask for ...
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I grew up as the son of a man who could not possibly have been my father. Though there was never any doubt that my seed had come from another man, Moses Froben, Lo Svizzero, called me “son.” And I called him “father.” On the rare occasions when someone dared to ask for clarification, he simply laughed as though the questioner were obtuse. “Of course he’s not my son!” he would say. “Don’t be ridiculous.” 

But whenever I myself gained the courage to ask him further of our past, he just looked sadly at me. “Please, Nicolai,” he would say after a moment, as though we had made a pact I had forgotten. With time, I came to understand I would never know the secrets of my birth, for my father was the only one who knew these secrets, and he would take them to his grave.

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 Hardcover edition.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


A Note to the Reader

I grew up as the son of a man who could not possibly have been my

father. Though there was never any doubt that my seed had come

from another man, Moses Froben, Lo Svizzero, called me “son.” And I

called him “father.” On the rare occasions when someone dared to

ask for clarifi cation, he simply laughed as though the questioner were

being obtuse. “Of course he’s not my son!” he would say. “Don’t be


But whenever I myself gained the courage to ask him further of

our past, he just looked at me sadly. “Please, Nicolai,” he would say

after a moment, as though we had made a pact I had forgotten. With

time, I came to understand I would never know the secrets of my

birth, for my father was the only one who knew these secrets, and he

would take them to his grave.

This aside, no child could have wished for more. I accompanied

him from Venice to Naples and, fi nally, here, to London. Indeed, I

rarely left his side until I entered Oxford. Even after that, as I began

my own, unrelated, career, at no time were we ever more than two

months absent from each other’s company. I heard him sing in

Eu rope’s greatest opera houses. I sat beside him in his carriage as

mobs of admirers ran alongside and begged him to grace them with a

smile. Through all of this, I never knew anything of the poor Moses

Froben, but only of the renowned Lo Svizzero, who could make ladies

swoon with a mere wave of his hand, who could bring an audience

to tears with his voice.

And so you can imagine my surprise, a week after my father’s

death last spring, to fi nd among his things this stack of papers. And

more, to fi nd within them all I had sought to know: of my father’s

birth and mine; of the origin of my name; of my mother; and of the

crime that had kept my father silent.

Though he appears to have had me in mind as his reader, I cannot

believe he did not wish these words for other eyes as well. This

was a singer, remember, who practiced with an open window, so any

man or woman passing on the street would have the chance to hear an

angel sing.

Nicolai Froben

London, October 6, 1806



First, there were the bells. Three of them, cast from warped shovels,

rakes, and hoes, cracked cauldrons, dulled ploughshares, one rusted

stove, and, melted into each, a single golden coin. They were rough

and black except along their silvery lips, where my mother’s mallets

had struck a million strokes. She was small enough to dance beneath

them in the belfry. When she swung, her feet leapt from the polished

wooden planks, so that when the mallet met the bell, it rang from the

bell’s crown to the tips of my mother’s pointed toes.

They were the Loudest Bells on Earth, all the Urners said, and

though now I know a louder one, their place high above the Uri Valley

made them very loud indeed. The peal could be heard from the waters

of Lake Lucerne to the snows of the Gotthard Pass. The ringing

greeted traders come from Italy. Columns of Swiss soldiers pressed

their palms against their ears as they marched the Uri Road. When

the bells began to sound, teams of oxen refused to move. Even the fattest

men lost the urge to eat, from the quivering of their bowels. The

cows that grazed the nearby pastures were all long since deaf. Even the

youn gest herders had the dull ears of old men, though they hid in

their huts morning, noon, and night when my mother rang her bells.

I was born in that belfry, above the tiny church. There I was

nursed. When it was warm enough, there we slept. Whenever my

mother did not swing her mallets, we huddled beneath the bells, the

four walls of the belfry open to the world. She sheltered me from the

wind and stroked my brow. Though she never spoke a word to me,

nor I to her, she watched my mouth as I babbled infant sounds. She

tickled me so I would laugh. When I learned to crawl, she held my

foot so I did not creep off the edge and fall to my death on the jutting

rocks below. She helped me stand. I held a fi nger in each fi st, and she

led me round and round, past each edge a hundred times a day. In

terms of space, our belfry was 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 were entranced until they stared blindly into space; or

cried as the vibrations shook their sadness out. But they did not fi nd

it beautiful. They could not. The beauty of the pealing was reserved

for my mother, and for me, alone.

I wish that were the beginning: my mother and those bells, the Eve

and Adam of my voice, my joys, and my sorrows. But of course that is

not true. I have a father; my mother had one as well. And the bells,

too; they had a father. Theirs was Richard Kilchmar, who, one night

in 1725, tottered on a table, so drunk he saw two moons instead of


He shut one eye and squished the other so the two moons resolved

into a single fuzzy orb. He looked about: Two hundred men

fi lled Altdorf’s square, in a town that was, and was proud to be, at the

very center of the Swiss Confederation. These men were celebrating

the harvest, and the coronation of the new pope, and the warm summer

night. Two hundred men ankle- deep in piss- soaked mud. Two

hundred men with mugs of acrid Schnapps burned from Uri pears.

Two hundred men as drunk as Richard Kilchmar.

“Quiet!” he yelled into the night, which seemed as warm and

clear to him as the thoughts within his head. “I will speak!”

“Speak!” they yelled.

They were quiet. High above, the Alps shone in the moonlight

like teeth in black, rotting gums.

“Protestants are dogs!” he yelled, raised his mug, and nearly

stumbled off the table. They cheered and cursed the dogs in Zu rich,

who were rich. They cursed the dogs in Bern, who had guns and an

army that could climb the mountains and conquer Uri if they wished.

They cursed the dogs in German lands farther north, who had never

heard of Uri. They cursed the dogs for hating music, for defaming

Mary, for wishing to rewrite the Holy Book.

These curses, two hundred years dull in the capitals of Eu rope,

pierced Kilchmar’s heart. They brought tears to his eyes— these men

before him were his brothers! But what could he reply? What could

he promise them? So little. He could not build them a fort with cannons.

He was one of Uri’s richest men, but still, he could not afford

an army. He could not soothe them with his wisdom, for he was not a

man of words.

Then they all heard it, the answer to his silent plea. A ringing

that made them raise their bleary eyes toward heaven. Someone had

climbed the church’s belfry and tolled the church’s bell. It was the

most beautiful, heartaching sound Richard Kilchmar had ever heard.

It resounded off the houses. It echoed off the mountains. The peal

tickled his swollen belly. When the ringing ceased, the silence was as

warm and wet as the tears Kilchmar rubbed from out his eyes.

He nodded at the crowd. Two hundred heads nodded back at him.

“I will give you bells,” he whispered. He sloshed his drink at the

midnight sky. His voice rose to a shout. “I will build a church to house

them, high up in the mountains, so the ringing echoes to every inch

of Uri soil! They will be the Loudest and Most Beautiful Bells Ever!”

They cheered even more loudly now than they had before. He

raised his arms in triumph. Schnapps washed his brow. Then he and

every man plunged their eyes into the bottom of their mugs and

drank them empty, sealing Kilchmar’s pledge.

As he drank the fi nal drop, Kilchmar stumbled back, tripped,

and fell. He spent the rest of the night lying in the mud, dreaming of

his bells.

He awoke to a circle of blue sky ringed by twenty reverent faces.

“Lead us!” they implored him.

Their veneration seemed to lift him to his feet, and after six or

eight swigs from their fl asks, he felt more weightless still. Soon he

found himself on his horse leading a pro cession: fi fty horses; several

carts fi lled with women; children and dogs darting through the

grasses. Where to lead them he did not know, for until that day he’d

found the mountains menacing and hostile. But now he led them up

the Uri Road toward Italy, toward the pope, toward snowfi elds glittering

in the sun, and then, when inspiration took him, turned off

and began to climb.

Up and up they went, almost to the cliffs and snow. Kilchmar

now led fi ve hundred Urners, and they followed him until they

reached a rocky promontory and beheld the valley stretched before

them, the river Reuss a thin white thread stitching it together.

“Here,” he whispered. “Here.”

“Here,” they echoed. “Here.”

They turned then to regard the tiny village just below them, a

mere jumble of squalid houses. The villagers and their scrawny cows

stared back in awe at the assemblage on the rocky hill.

This tiny, starved village I write of is Nebelmatt. In this village I

was born (may it burn to the ground and be covered by an avalanche).

Kilchmar’s church was completed in 1727, built of only Uri sweat and

Uri stone, so that, in the winter months, no matter how much wood

was wasted in the stove, the church remained as cold as the mountain

upon which it was built. It was a stocky church, shaped something like

a boot. The bishop was petitioned for a priest well suited to the frigid

and lonesome aspects of the post. His reply came a few days later in the

form of a young priest scowling at Kilchmar’s door— a learned father

Karl Victor Vonderach. “Just the man,” read the bishop’s letter, “for a

posting on a cold, distant mountain. Do not send him back.”

Now the church had a master, twelve rustic pews, and a roof that

kept out a good deal of the rain, but it still did not have what Kilchmar

had promised them. It did not have its bells. And so Kilchmar

packed his cart, kissed his wife, and said he would undertake an expedition

to St. Gall to fi nd the greatest bell maker in the Catholic

world. He rumbled off northward to patriotic cries, and was never

seen in Uri again.

The building of the church had ruined him.

And so, one year after the last slate had been laid on its roof, the

church built to house the Loudest and Most Beautiful Bells Ever did

not even have a cowbell hanging in its belfry.

Urners are a proud and resourceful folk. How hard can it be to make a bell?

they thought. Clay molds, some molten metal, some beams on which

to hang the fi nished bells— nothing more. Perhaps God had sent

them Kilchmar only to set them on their way.

God needs your iron, went the call. Bring Him your copper and your tin.

Rusted shovels, broken hoes, corroded knives, cracked cauldrons—

all of these were thrown into a pile that soon towered over Altdorf’s

square on the very spot where Kilchmar had sealed his pledge three

years before. Crowds cheered every new donation. One man lugged

the stove that should have kept him warm that winter. God bless her, was

the murmur when an old widow tossed in her jewelry. Tears fl owed

when the three best families gathered to contribute three golden

coins. Ten oxcarts were needed to transport the metal to the village.

The villagers, though they had little metal of their own to offer,

would not be outdone. As they minded the makeshift smelter for

nine days and nights, they contributed what ever Schnapps remained

in their fl asks at daybreak, plus a full set of wolf’s teeth, a carved ibex

horn, and a dusty chunk of quartz.

Twelve men were scarred for life with burns the day they poured

the glowing soup into the molds. The fi rst bell was as round as a fat

turkey, the second, large enough to hide a small goat beneath it, and

the third, the extraordinary third bell, was as high as a man and took

sixteen horses to hoist into the belfry.

All of Uri gathered on the hill below the church to hear the bells

ring for the fi rst time. When all was set, the crowd turned their reverent

eyes to Father Karl Victor Vonderach. He stared back at them as

if they were merely a fl ock of sheep.

“A blessing, Father?” one woman whispered. “Would you bless

our bells?”

He rubbed his temples and then stepped before the crowd. He

bowed his head, and everyone else did the same. “Heavenly Father,”

he croaked through the spittle gathered in his throat. “Bless these

bells that You have—” He sniffed and looked around him, and then

glanced down at his shoe, which rested in a moist cake of dung.

“Damn them all,” he muttered. He stalked back through the crowd.

They watched his form until it vanished into his house, which had

glass in its windows, but no slates yet on its roof.

Then the silent crowd turned to watch seven of Kilchmar’s cousins

march resolutely into the church— one to ring the smallest, two

the middle, and four the largest bell. Many in the crowd held their

breath as, in the belfry, the three great bells began to rock.

And then the Loudest and Most Beautiful Bells Ever began to


The mountain air shuddered. The pealing fl ooded the valley. It

was as shrill as a rusty hinge and as rumbling as an avalanche and as

piercing as a scream and as soothing as a mother’s whisper. Every

person cried out and fl inched and threw his hands over his ears.

They stumbled back. Father Karl Victor’s windows cracked. Teeth

were clenched so hard they chipped. Ear drums burst. A cow, two goats,

and one woman felt the sudden pangs of labor.

When the echoes from the distant peaks fi nally faded, there was

silence. Every person stared at the church as if it might collapse. Then

the door burst open and the Kilchmar cousins poured out, their

palms held to their ruined ears. They faced the crowd like thieves

caught with trea sure in their stockings.

Then the cheering began. Hands rose toward heaven. Fists

shook. Tears fl owed. They had done it! The Loudest Bells Ever had

been rung!

God’s kingdom on earth was safe!

The crowd retreated slowly down the hill. When someone yelled,

“Ring them again!” there was a collective cringe, and soon began a

stampede— men, women, children, dogs, and cows ran, slid, rolled

down the muddy hill and hid behind the decrepit houses as if trying

to outrun an avalanche. Then there was silence. Several heads peered

around the houses and toward the church. The Kilchmar cousins

were nowhere to be found. Indeed, soon there was no one within two

hundred paces of that church. There was no one brave enough to

ring the bells again.

Or was there? Whispers fi lled the air. Children pointed at a

brown smudge moving lightly up the hill, like a knot of hay, blown by

a gentle wind. A person? No, not a person. A child— a little girl— in

dirty rags.

It so happened that this village possessed, among its trea sures, a

deaf idiot girl. She was wont to stare down the villagers with a haunting

glare, as though she knew the sins they fought to hide, and so they

drove her off with buckets of dirty wash water whenever she came

near. This deaf child was staring at the belfry as she climbed the hill,

for she, too, had heard the bells, not in her vacant ears, but as we

hear holiness: a vibration in the gut.

They all watched her climb, knowing that God had sent this idiot

girl to them, just as God had sent them Kilchmar, had sent them the

stone to build this church, and the metal to cast the bells.

She looked upward at the belfry as though she wished that she

could fly.

“Go,” they whispered. “Go.”

From the Hardcover edition. view abbreviated excerpt only...

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "The Bells"by missybelle (see profile) 05/19/14

I enjoyed this book because it is very descriptive and you feel like your experiencing what the main character is experiencing. I loved the storyline. I found myself cringing and cheering for the main... (read more)

  "Compelling read"by ralphb215 (see profile) 06/04/13

One of the most memorable stories.

  "Descriptive"by BethMcF (see profile) 04/28/13

This book was wonderful to read...the characters are well developed and the writing is very descriptive. The sounds are vividly described, and I loved the story.

  "Great book for music lovers"by mclight (see profile) 05/08/12

The Bells: a novel by Richard Harvell magnificently heightens the reader’s sensory appreciation of musical sounds. In papers left for a son he raised but did not sire, Moses Froben , an illegitimate... (read more)

  "The Bells"by danb66215 (see profile) 11/17/11

May be the best book I've read this year.

  "Loved this book from start to finish!"by Rhetta63 (see profile) 10/07/11

I was immediately drawn into the story and invested in the characters. I hated to see it end!

  "Amazing story"by susanrsf (see profile) 09/16/11

I enjoyed this book from the minute I started reading it. Is was so beautifully written; you could feel the music and the sounds in every word. I have recommended this book to my book club and I will... (read more)

  "The Bells"by aperrigo (see profile) 07/06/11

Our club hasn't read this and probably won't. They don't like having to read "long" books for book club! And although this is only 384 pages, it's not a fast read. There is too much going... (read more)

  "The Bells"by LatteGirl (see profile) 06/16/11

This novel will capture you from the beginning. Harvell's descriptive ability makes this book difficult to put down.

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