Cloudspotting

The story related by Stéphane Audeguy’s beguiling novel The Theory of Clouds begins with the moment humans stopped looking at the clouds as harbingers of divine will and first saw them as objects of scientific inquiry. The story concludes in the present day, when global warming means clouds are once again forces of mythic violence.

The telling of this story of disenchantment takes place in a small private library in Paris owned by Akira Kumo, a Japanese fashion designer with cloud problems of his own. He tells the story of the modern theory of clouds to Virginie Latour, a cloud-like character who seems unaffected anything that happens to her. Ostensibly Virginie has been hired to help Kumo catalogue his vast collection of books about clouds, but she actually functions as his amanuensis. It’s through Virginie that Kumo’s story unfolds to a tragic end.

The story begins with a British Quaker named Luke Howard, a contemporary of Goethe. Howard, a real person, was a member of the last generation of people who could balance religion and science. Howard conferred on clouds the names we still use: stratus, cirrus, cumulous, and so on. Soon after opening his eyes to clouds as material things to be classified and understood rationally, Howard retreated back in to his fierce religion, his vision so clouded that he doesn’t recognize Goethe when he sees him.

Luke Howard initiated the serious study of clouds, and he was also the first person to lose his mind to them. The next figure in Kumo’s narrative is a fictional artist named Carmichael, modeled after John Constable, who spent a year painting clouds. A solitary figure in the Romantic manner, Carmichael goes insane trying to capture clouds’ protean forms. The doomed Romantic painter is followed by Richard Abercrombie, a fictional late Victorian with a vast family fortune and an empirical cast of mind. Abercrombie confidently ventures off to an expedition intended to photograph every kind of cloud in the world: "No one, as yet, had set off to look at the infinitely changeable landscape of the clouds, in all the latitudes, over every ocean and every mountain." Abercrombie gets halfway around the world before his gaze turns earthward to the inner atmospheres of all the women in the world. The record of his expedition is a book of pornographic scribbles. It’s the last addition to Kumo’s collection of books, and its logical end.

The only story Kumo does not relate to Virginie is his own story about clouds, which he had repressed and only comes to discover through his exercise in the Enlightenment mania for cataloguing. When Kumo happens to discover that he’s actually much older than he had long believed, his own cloud story presents itself in all its madness. As a young boy in Hiroshima he and his sister take a brief swim in a river before school. Kumo watches his sister dress on shore, dives for a moment, and resurfaces to find his sister literally vaporized by Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on August 6, 1945. Kumo is traumatized by the sight of the mushroom cloud, only to patiently recreate the experience many years later in his Paris library. When his story is complete–when he has properly plotted out his life within the larger plot of the Enlightenment’s obsessive attempts to master nature–Kumo throws himself from a library window. It’s left to Virginie to scatter his ashes in a megastorm over Hampstead Heath, a sort of holy ground to the cult of clouds.

Audeguy’s narrative voice, rendered with consummate skill by translator Timothy Bent, is a pleasurable combination of the historian crossed with the fabulist: one half Thomas Pynchon, one half Jacques Barzun. The novel is a classical framed story, this one centering around a recovered trauma. Usually I dislike the vulgar Freudianism of recovered trauma stories in which a character’s inner torments are magically resolved when a childhood memory is brought to consciousness–think of Pat Conroy’s execrable novel Prince of Tides, along with Barbra Steisand’s utterly absurd film adaptation. And while Kumo’s forgetting of a huge chunk of his life seems implausible, Audeguy manages to make the device work by seamlessly integrating Kumo’s story with the stories of all the other men who have gazed for too long at the fullness of the sky, only to see what’s missing inside themselves.

Update: Paul W. Tibbets Jr., the pilot of the Enola Gay, from which the Hiroshima bomb was dropped, died today.

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