Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Theory of Clouds - Stephane Audeguy

Since the dawn of time writers have been drawn to the sea, to its solitude and its silent power. From Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch to Homer and William Shakespeare, the sea has existed as both a very real living presence, and a metaphorical idea on which novels, poems and plays have floated…and occasionally sunk. Yet despite their equally transient nature, moodiness, and deceptive depth, clouds have been largely overlooked in the annuls of literature. Suddenly, having read The Theory of Clouds this strikes me as a remarkable oversight.

“All children become sad in the late afternoon, for they begin to comprehend the passage of time. The light starts to change. Soon they will have to head home, and to behave, and to pretend.”

From this sumptuous first paragraph, The Theory of Clouds takes you on a journey across the skies and into lives, quietly, gradually, sparsely building a tapestry of interlocking narratives, stories of life, and obsession; and clouds. Stephane Audeguy’s debut novel, already the recipient of the Grand Prize of the French Academy, reveals a rare and delightfully fresh new literary talent.

Legendary couturier Akira Kumo has built his whole life for himself: never questioning the holes in his memory: the absence of a childhood, or family, or a vast, earth-shattering explosion. Now, in retirement, he has devoted himself to amassing the world’s largest collection of books on clouds and meteorology. Requiring someone to catalogue this vast library, he hires Virginie Latour and begins to teach her about the history of clouds, and those who have watched them.

So begins this most gently beautiful of books. As Kumo takes Virginie on a historical tour of clouds, we meet prominent men whose lives have been attracted to those deceptively heavy clouds which float so lightly across the skies.

“You have to be single-minded, Kumo said to Virginie, and single-minded in a particularly wilful sort of way, to take an interest in clouds.”

We meet Luke Howard a devout Quaker who, in 1821 gave clouds the names by which they have been known ever since, Cirrus, Cummulus, Stratus, and Nimbus. And so the nomenclature of clouds was born. Then there is Lewis Fry Richardson, a devout pacifist and mathematician who devised the means of modern weather forecasting years before the technology existed make it a reality. But when his work on weather patterns was used for more effective dissemination of poison gas is World War One, he changed track and spent the rest of his life attempting to create a mathematical model for why people wage war on each other, work which has, sadly, never been followed up.

But, Kumo continues to explain, “like all things so simple and sublime, clouds pose dangers.” Who could forget the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and the vast cloud of ash and debris which spread across the entire world, altering global temperature for years to come. And cloud watching itself also poses problems for those drawn to it. Not all relationships between people and clouds have happy endings.

“Men are destroyed, and destroy each other, over basic things – money or hatred. On the other hand a really complicated riddle never pushed anyone to violence; either you found the answer or gave up looking. Clouds were riddles too, but dangerously simple ones. If you zoomed in on one part of a cloud and took a photograph, then enlarged the image, you would find that a cloud’s edges seemed like another cloud, and those edges yet another, and so on. Every part of a cloud, in other words, reiterates the whole. Therefore each cloud might be called infinite, because its very surface is composed of other clouds, and those clouds of still other clouds, and so forth. Some learn to lean over the abyss of these brainteasers; others lose their balance and tumble into its eternal blackness.

And this infinity, this capricious refusal to be defined can send people mad. For example, Carmichael, the English painter, whose obsession with painting the true nature of clouds drove him mad. And then there is Kumo’s past, and the cloud which lurks there, raining black dust on all he has become.

But it is the story of Richard Abercrombie, noted cloud watcher and all round English gentlemen, which holds the key, not only to Kumo’s collection, but to his past, and Virginie’s future.

“All great collections tend to orbit around a missing piece, a central absence that acts like a hub around which revolve, indefinitely, the collector’s desires…In the case of Kumo’s collection, the missing piece bore a name, a name celebrated in meteorological circles, The Abercrombie Protocol."

So when it appears The Abercrombie Protocol becomes available, Kumo dispatches Virginie on a mission to London to see if she can lay her hands on the fabled document. Her journey takes her into the heart of the very history Kumo has been teaching her, its locale and its characters, and soon she returns with fresh stories, stories which run to the heart of that most difficult of relationships, between clouds, and the people who watch them.

And devoid of the companionship Virginie offered him, Kumo is beginning to remember things about his own past and the great cloud that overshadows everything in it.

The Theory of Clouds
is a novel about clouds, both literal and metaphorical, all the different sorts and the people who look at them, sometimes with intrigue, sometimes wonder. It is about the interconnectedness of nature and humanity, the first in a planned trilogy investigating the relationship between humanity, the natural world and technology. And it is a phenomenal beginning.

Without a single line of dialogue Audegey builds a novel which is both illuminating and beautiful, understated and yet intensely profound. Just a look at the cover offers an insight into its fabulously, carefully constructed plot. The ying and yang of clouds, darkness and light, that depth and deception which lead people to stare in wonder and sometimes lose themselves forever in their midst. The narratives verge from the fictional to the literal, each story merging together, reflecting its predecessors in some way or other, be it geographically, emotionally, intellectually or in the events of life and death. And slowly but surely the lives of Kumo and Virginie are merging with their forebears, being written into this future history of clouds.

There are touches of Kazuo Ishiguro here, in the Japanese history and the sparse prose, the ability to let events and stories speak for themselves. Subtly, ever so quietly, this novel will creep up upon you until you find yourself thoroughly engrossed, hungry to read at all hours of the day. Such sparsity requires incredibly confidence and ability, and Audeguy pulls it off consummately. There is also something of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in the multiple narratives, all taking place together under an ever changing sky.

And as it draws to a close the various plots begin to come together, the interconnectedness of lives and clouds, each reflecting the others simplicity, constantly evolving, ever apt to be caught by a strong breeze and whisked off somewhere completely new. Or else destroyed.

“Only the ocean may be more fascinating to watch than clouds, and equally dangerous, for nothing is more useless and more deceptive and generally more stupefying that watching something that is ever changing and ever self-renewing. Yearning to describe or understand, or even control it can cost you everything. What Virginie first perceived as a long and sweetly amorous procession of clouds now contained an element of despair, unrequited love, and dreary solitude.”

Reading this simple tale of clouds is so much more and less than that. It is like watching the clouds pass overhead, like looking at life itself, head on for once. Infinity, infinitely recurring, always changing, never definable. And the clouds are both literal in the history and science behind them, and a metaphor for the transience of thought, of life, and of expectations.

Audeguy is a prestigious talent. I cannot wait for Autumn 2008 and the publication of the second in the trilogy, The Only Son, which has already been published in France. I almost want to learn French fluently just to read it. I finished The Theory of Clouds on a Friday afternoon and started re-reading it immediately. I have never done that before and it was as good the second time as it was the first. I can offer no greater recommendation than this.

10 out of 10

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