The Theory of Clouds by Stephane Audeguy
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Washington Post Book World
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 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 catalogue 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 Book World.