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The Theory of Cloudsby Stephane Audeguy
Synopses & Reviews
A kira Kumo, miraculous survivor of Hiroshima, reinvented himself as someone twenty years younger. Now an eccentric couturier and collector of all literature having to do with clouds and meteorology, he hires Virginie, a young librarian, to catalog his library. While she works, he tells her stories of those who have devoted their lives to clouds: the Quaker Luke Howard, contemporary of Napoleon and Goethe, who first classified clouds; the painter Carmichael (based on John Constable), who spent a year painting clouds; and the mysterious Abercrombie, a photographer who cataloged clouds around the world. Virginie's trip to London in search of the suppressed Abercrombie protocol becomes a quest no less wondrous and strange than Kumo's own. Sensual, hypnotic, and filled with stories both true and fanciful, The Theory of Clouds is a masterful first novel.
"'A specialized, sensual history centers this novel from French historian Audeguy, winner of the Acadmie Franaise's Prix Maurice Genevoix. Virginie, an aimless young librarian, is hired by Hiroshima survivor and Paris couturier Akira Kumo, who seems much younger than he is, to categorize his obsessive library of cloud and meteorological-related material. While Virginie works, Kumo tells stories of other cloud gazers in history, including the fictional John Constable — like painter Carmichael, who spent a year painting clouds, to the consternation of his father, and the photographer Abercrombie, who left behind the much speculated upon cloud book that bears his name. As Kumo's past begins to come into focus, Virginie is drawn into his life. Audeguy's prose, lyrical in translation, mostly manages to contain sudden shifts of time and explorations of cloud lore. Beautifully written and imaginatively structured, Audeguy's book is as diaphanous as its subject. (Sept.)' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Next time you're lying on the grass staring at the sky, consider that one of those puffy white clouds floating overhead weighs millions of pounds. That ordinary miracle comes to mind while reading Stephane Audeguy's strange first novel, which is equally buoyant and weighty, and puts one in the mood for reverie. Winner of the prestigious Maurice Genevoix prize in France, where the author teaches art... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) history, 'The Theory of Clouds' has drifted over to America in an elegant translation by Timothy Bent. The first volume of a planned trilogy, it's an amorphous story, alternately static and turbulent, a subtle mixture of history and fiction, tragedy and comedy, that's likely to look like something different to everyone who reads it. At the center is a fabulously wealthy clothing designer in Paris, a Japanese man named Akira Kumo. Nearing retirement, he has just hired Virginie, a young librarian, to catalog his book collection, which contains 'every single work devoted to clouds and more generally to meteorology written over the course of the last three centuries.' But on her first day she discovers that the mysterious Mr. Kumo is in no hurry whatsoever, despite the fact that he's paying her an exorbitant salary. 'He was a small man, wizened, almost spectral,' Audeguy writes, 'and moved with the languid elegance of an iguana.' For reasons that are never clear — indeed, clarity is not a deep concern for this author — Mr. Kumo would rather tell Virginie stories about some of the pioneers of modern meteorology, particularly Luke Howard, an early 19th-century Quaker who loved clouds and developed the classification system we still use today. Librarians, weather, Quakers — talk about sexy! But in fact, sex is second only to clouds as the novel's focus. In a supremely bizarre tale of the erotic adventures of an early 20th-century meteorologist, the fascination with cumulonimbus slips into a thunderous fixation on female anatomy. Weird? Definitely. But Audeguy is doing something oddly alluring, even if you're not French. As her weeks with Mr. Kumo pass by, 'Virginie began to understand that these stories, though not exactly fictional, were embellished, sometimes improvised.' We hear of Luke Howard's 12-year engagement to his chaste fiancee; his close encounter with the German poet Goethe; his parallels with the (fictional) English painter Carmichael, who 'rendered clouds with greater majesty' than anyone else ever has. All the characters in 'The Theory of Clouds' remain distant, emotionally impenetrable in a way that seems downright un-American, but nonetheless their elliptical stories are enchanting, the way they drift into one another, growing less coherent and more absurd. Periodically, we hear startling details from Kumo's past in Hiroshima and aphoristic pronouncements on the nature of clouds: 'Like all things so simple and sublime, clouds pose dangers.' Before long, we can't help feeling like Virginie, who 'had fallen under the spell of his resonant voice, which seemed somehow to float, while he talked and talked.' The novel is composed almost entirely of Kumo's stories to Virginie and, later, her stories to him, and yet despite all this talking, 'The Theory of Clouds' contains not a single line of dialogue. Audeguy conveys everything here himself. Part of the book's magnetism, in fact, stems from its unfailingly consistent tone, the kind of quiet voice you can't help but lean in to hear. A number of American authors, such as E.L. Doctorow, Kevin Baker and Lalita Tademy, have produced spectacular historical novels that mix fact and fiction, but Audeguy is up to something more delicate, more akin to what German writer Daniel Kehlmann did last year in 'Measuring the World,' his quirky story about the real-life 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. Audeguy isn't trying to bring history alive; he's borrowing bits and pieces of history to pursue his own larger philosophical concerns. Indeed, the second half of this novel focuses almost exclusively on the efforts of an iconoclastic meteorologist to devise a theory of the natural world that unites all forms of matter and knowledge. Slowly, the climate of the story turns cooler, and the horizon grows dark. Kumo tells Virginie about the eruption of Krakatau in 1883, the poison gas of World War I, the giant mushrooms over Japan in 1945 — horrifying and deadly clouds that blast away our romantic image of 'diaphanous puffs.' Again and again through Kumo's recitation of history, the pioneers of meteorology find their peaceful work co-opted for the prosecution of the most ghastly acts of war. It's enough to drive a cloud-watcher stark raving mad, and yet, as always, those giants in the sky 'floated by, indifferent as ever to human activities.' Sit back, stare up at this book: The weather's fascinating. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Slyly fabulist in the manner of Paul Auster, and expressing great feeling for life and scorn for arrogance, Audeguy's witty, erotic, and expansive novel subtly contrasts humankind's love for nature and pursuit of scientific knowledge with our thoughtless pillaging of the living world and tragic habit of war." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Unconventional and memorable." Kirkus Reviews
"This is an extraordinary bit of fiction....An exquisite, eccentric read." Baltimore Sun
"[A] novel of great ambition. It may be read simply for the stories of its many characters....But it is as intricately plotted as any thriller, with gems skillfully embedded throughout." South Florida Sun-Sentinel
The novel tells the story of Akira Kumo, a retired couturier living in Paris, owner of the world's largest collection of books about clouds, and Virginie Latour, whom Kumo hires to help catalogue his library. While they work he tells her the story behind three figures in particular, all British, all obsessed by clouds: Luke Howard, a real-life Quaker who in 1802 wrote the first treatise classifying clouds (we still use it today); a painter named Carmichael, clearly based on John Constable, one of the most famous cloud painters of all time, and a fictional amateur meteorologist named Richard Abercrombie, who aspires to write the definitive book on cloud description, which would come to be known in cloud circles as the Abercrombie Protocol. Kumo sends Virginie Latour to London to buy the Protocol. By the end of the novel, we learn the Protocol's great secret; we understand what binds these men together; and and we learn that Kumo himself is a survivor of the Hiroshima blast, in whose cloud his family vanished.
Akira Kumo miraculously survived the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. Now an eccentric couturier living in Paris, he has the worlds largest collection of literature on clouds and meteorology, which he hires Virginie Latour to catalog. As they work, he tells her the stories of those who have devoted their lives to clouds: the English Quaker who first classified clouds, the painter who became obsessed with capturing clouds on canvas, and the wealthy late-nineteenth-century amateur meteorologist Richard Abercrombie, a photographer who may have created the only definitive catalog of clouds—but only one copy exists, and it has never been seen. Kumo sends Virginie to London to track down the fabled Abercrombie Protocol, a quest both surprising and wondrous, where love, like clouds, forms and transforms lives.
Sensual, hypnotic, deeply erotic, The Theory of Clouds is a novel of clouds—both historical and imaginative—and how they shape our passions, our storms, and our stories.
About the Author
Stephane Audeguy lives in Paris, where he teaches the history of cinema and arts.
Table of Contents
The Study of the Skies 1
Toward Other Latitudes 89
The Abercrombie Protocol 179
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