Monday, June 04, 2012

A slightly manic thrill

I read The Bellwether Revivals ages ago, but it occurs to me that I never said as much about it as I meant to. In truth, a few months on, I don't remember its details. However, I remember loving it.

The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood, is the sort of book you want to stumble upon some rainy weekend and stay up all night reading. It may not be a literary classic, but the atmosphere is rich, the ideas provocative, and the pacing is perfect.

From the publisher's description:

The Bellwether Revivals opens and closes with bodies. The story of whose bodies and how they come to be spread about an elegant house on the river near Cambridge is told by Oscar, a young, bright working class man who has fallen in love with an upper-class Cambridge student, Iris, and thereby become entangled with a group of close friends, led by Iris's charismatic, brilliant, possibly dangerous brother. For Eden Bellwether believes he can heal — and perhaps more — through the power of music.

It's clear early on not only that Eden is a condescending little prick but that he is likely diagnosably personality disordered. He's musically talented, and generally intelligent, and he's hung up on Descartes's mind–body dualism.

"Well, let's extend that line of enquiry..." Eden sipped his wine. "If I told you there is music that makes you happy, and some that makes you sad, you wouldn't disagree with me, right?

Oscar shrugged. "I suppose not."

"Well, Mattheson believed — and I believe — that composers have the power to affect and manipulate your emotions, your passions, as Descartes put it. When they're writing music, they have the potential to make you feel whatever they want you to feel. Sort of like a chemistry experiment: if certain elements are put together in a certain formula you get a certain reaction. Would you say that's a big leap to make?"

"I don't know," Oscar said. "Maybe."

"Well, Descartes didn't think so. He said even those with the weakest souls can acquire an absolute command of their emotions, if — and I quote — if art and industry are used to manage them. And Mattheson believed the same thing. He said that, in some structural way, music and emotions resemble each other. The man was a genius, and I don't use that word lightly." Eden waited. There was a glimmer of something in his expression that made Oscar feel uneasy, a slightly manic thrill in commanding the whole group's attention. "Mattheson took Descartes's ideas and applied them to music. In Capellmeister, he basically lays down a set of instructions for composers, to show them how to induce certain emotions through their work — to achieve that empire over the passions Descartes was talking about."

Maybe Eden's really onto something, but as the story unfolds we learn that he is extreme, persistent, megalomaniacal, and severely deluded.

Wood orders his elements well enough. Many of the reviews criticize the stilted dialogue and the lack of depth to his characters. Specifically, Eden's hold as charismatic leader of the group of friends is called into question; this doesn't bother me, as the reader's access to the group is limited to Oscar's outsider perspective. For me the draw of the ideas and the pull of the story made for a highly engaging read.

My shelf space is limited. I weed my books semi-regularly (every year or so), and I'm much quicker to part with books than ever I used to be. These days, when I finish a book I ask myself, am I likely to want to reread this book, or is it a book I'd like my daughter to "discover" on my shelves. If the answer to these questions is no, I give the book away. I consciously kept The Bellwether Revivals, for myself or my daughter or guests to find some rainy eve in the distant future. To me this is a fine and sufficient measure of a book.

Globe and Mail
Kevin from Canada
National Post
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