Clouds, secrets and obsessions: a lyrical bit of French eccentricity

The Baltimore Sun

The Theory of Clouds

By Stephane Audeguy

Harcourt / 272 pages / $24

In the midst of our rat-race lives, we are constantly told to remember to stop and smell the roses. But what about stopping to watch the clouds go by? Just as with the perfume of the perfect tea rose or floribunda - which can never be cut and brought indoors without losing both their heady scent and their silken petals - no one can capture the essence of the fleeting cloud. But in his lyric novel, The Theory of Clouds, French historian Stephane Audeguy does his utmost to put that diaphanous sensuality into a context that is almost touchable.

What can be said about clouds, really? That they are fluffy? That they sometimes look like animals or people? That there's intense disappointment when you first fly through a bank of them in a plane and discover they are actually nothing but a gauzy mist? That they can be immeasurably threatening when a storm is brewing and can turn into the peril of a tornado or hurricane? If this is all you can think about clouds, then you have not been caught in their sometimes dangerous web the way Audeguy and his characters, some real, some fictional, have. Audeguy takes the child's imagining of what clouds are and propels it into a cotton-candy world of clouds - real, imagined, metaphoric.

French novels haven't caught the imagination of Americans the way the magical realist oeuvre of Latin American writers or the neo-realist oeuvre of the Italians have. France is in many respects a closed society - for the French, only - and French novels, like French cinema, tend to be so uniquely French that they simply don't translate well - quite literally. (Timothy Bent, however, does a laudable job with Audeguy's work, keeping the lyricism intact.) The Theory of Clouds is no different in that respect; it reads like something from another time, another place and - hyperbole notwithstanding - another universe.

At the center of The Theory of Clouds is Akira Kumo. It is he who propels Audeguy's story-within-a-story forward. A retired couturier, Kumo is a Japanese expatriate living in Paris. He is also the world's premiere collector of books about clouds (there's more than one, you ask?). As owner of the world's largest collection of books - scientific, ruminative, artistic - about clouds he naturally needs a cataloguer, and hires a Frenchwoman, Virginie Latour, to put his library in order.

This is Audeguy's conceit: the man, the girl, the library, the obsession, the secret (with obsession there is always a secret). He puts them together and the tales begin to spin like the clouds around the earth. Kumo lures Virginie into his sensual world of clouds and those who have loved them as he has. Audeguy uses real-life cloud hunters as well as fictional ones to bolster his tale.

The novel begins with one of the actual cloud-watchers. Luke Howard seems an unlikely cartographer of the cloudscape. Howard was a British Quaker, a chemist and an amateur meteorologist. He could not get enough of clouds and as Audeguy reports through Kumo, Howard's obsessive interest in clouds (which he actually spoke about in Meeting, an unheard-of event) led him to write the world's first scientific treatise on clouds, which defined the nomenclature used for clouds, meteorologically: Essay on the Modification of Clouds.

Known as the "father of meteorology," Howard invented those words all children now learn in elementary school: cirrus, stratus, cumulus. He wrote of his most fascinating subject: "Clouds are subject to certain distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which affect all the variations of the atmosphere; they are commonly as good visible indicators of the operation of these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person's mind or body."

Kumo's fascination mirrors that of the men and women whose work he collects. It isn't just the science of clouds that intrigues him - he also loves the artistry of them. Thus, one of Audeguy's characters is a painter named Carmichael - a barely disguised John Constable. Like Howard, Carmichael/Constable is relevant to the cloud mythos in that he was the most famous painter of clouds. The English Romantic painter managed to capture that essence of cloud in his extraordinary landscapes. Kumo is enticed by his work.

And then there is the utterly fictional meteorologist, Abercrombie, whom Audeguy uses as a foil to bolster the impressive nature of clouds and to propel the secret that is revealed at the novel's end.

While the work of Howard is still used in modern meteorology and has yet to be surpassed, Audeguy's Abercrombie wants more: As Kumo wants the definitive library of the clouds, Abercrombie wants to be known for making his own mark on the universe. He strives to create the Abercrombie Protocol - the story of clouds and their descriptions that will supersede Howard and about which everyone will speak.

It's difficult to impart the lyricism and intensity of Audeguy's novel, which is far more than the esoteric history of clouds. The book has its own diaphanous quality, which is not to say that there is no there there; quite the opposite. In fact, Audeguy's tale is as rich in imagination as any child lying on his back on a hill gazing skyward on a beautiful cloud-strewn day.

Kumo has, of course, a secret, one he imparts in a series of letters to Virginie, who comes to not only catalogue Kumo's massive collection, but also to be the conduit for the revelations about what clouds mean to him.

It can be summed up in a stunning descriptive: Kumo is a survivor of Hiroshima, the mushroom cloud that nearly killed him and into which his entire family was evaporated. They quite literally disappeared into that lethal cloud, never to return.

The Theory of Clouds is an incomparably evocative tale of one man's obsession and incredible sadness. When Kumo attempts suicide midway through the novel in a totally stunning turn of events, he expects that he will turn into a cloud as his family did. "He had thought that perhaps when his brain hit the pavement it would make a pretty cloud; this didn't happen."

At one point Abercrombie is describing a substratum of clouds which he has charted through Lisbon, Malta, Cairo, Madras, Sydney. He discovers that "the lesson they taught the viewer had nearly blinding clarity." It's a lesson, for him, about how clouds remain the same while also being different and altering the earth.

In Audeguy's perfect little Proustian exercise, the reader learns something similar: that the cartography of our physical landscape is reshaped by our interior landscape. Kumo's experience with the cloud to end all clouds lures him to all things cloud, and yet he still cannot quite reach them, despite knowing all there is to know about them. Abercrombie is attempting something similar. Whether he will succeed is the book's crescendo.

This is an extraordinary bit of fiction, incorporating layer upon layer of history mixed with that Proustian pathos. This is Swann in love - with clouds, with mystery, with the secrets hidden in the physical world and psychological world. An exquisite, eccentric read.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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