Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Book Review: The Theory of Clouds - Stephane Audeguy

To celebrate the 200th review on Books, Time, and Silence, I will be re-posting 10 of my favourite reviews. On day one it is The Theory of Clouds by Stephane Audeguy, a book I consider the most fortunate discovery of my life.

Read: December 2007

The Theory of Clouds in one tweet-sized chunk:
The Theory of Clouds is a journey across skies and into lives, quietly building a tapestry of interlocking narratives on life, obsession and memory

Since the dawn of time writers have been drawn to the sea, to its solitude and its silent power. From Homer and William Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, and John Banville, the sea has existed as both a living presence, and 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. Now retired, 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.

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. 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 though some lives are made by their relationship with clouds, others lose themselves in their deceptive depths.

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.”

It is this infinity, this capricious refusal to be defined, that can send people mad. For example, Carmichael, the English painter, whose obsession with painting the true nature of clouds drives him mad. 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.

So when The Abercrombie Protocol becomes available, Kumo dispatches Virginie 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.

The Theory of Clouds is about the interconnectedness of nature and humanity. Without a single line of dialogue Audegey builds a novel which is both illuminating and beautiful, understated and yet intensely profound. 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 merge 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. There are hints of W.G. Sebald too, in the search for memory and historical truth.

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.

I finished The Theory of Clouds on a Friday afternoon and started re-reading it immediately. I had never done that before and it was as good the second time as it was the first. I can offer no greater recommendation than that.

10 out of 10

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