Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Theory of Clouds by Stéphane Audeguy

There is something about clouds that is magical and inspiring, that is one of the premises of this book which I agree with. Just the word cloud in the title of a book draws me in such as Russell Bank’s Cloudsplitter, which is really about building skyscrapers or Amanda Filipacchi’s Vapor which is about a scientist trying to become a cloud. Actually Theory… strongly reminds me of the latter, in that it includes an unconventional love story and a slight suspension of reality.

Akira Kumo is a wealthy man living in Paris, who at the end of his life has amassed a collection of writings about clouds in any form. He hires a librarian, Virginie, to organize things, but really to listen to his stories, which are all of people who have embraced clouds in an extreme manner. They are the people in the books that surround them, his stories bring the books to life.

The people are varied and fascinating, though all are presented as eccentric. They include Carmichael, who obsessively painted clouds; Luke Howard who gave clouds names that are still used today; Lewis Fry Richardson, a Quaker mathmatician who discovered a calculation to measure global wind movements in hopes of helping sailors and farmers. Instead the British government used it to determine when poison gas would be most effective in WWI. Then there is Richard Abercrombie who set out to photograph all the different sorts of clouds around the world and ended up with a very different sort of photographic record. This Ambercrombie Protocol acts as a type of Grail in the novel and Virginie’s search for it leads to more than one discovery.

There’s all sorts of weather facts and oddities sprinkled through the novel. One of the most exciting chapters is about the volcanic explosion of the island of Krakatoa in 1883 and it’s effect on the climate. The reader is continually amazed at the discoveries, inventions and rivalries that marked the early days of weather exploration. On the one hand, it’s astonishing what was done with such limited access and knowledge, on the other the history of meteorology is so recent, compared, to say, the history of art. The reader comes away having learned quite a bit about this intriguing subject.

There are sexual “interludes” throughout the book, but most of the time they haven’t much to do with the stories and feel pasted on.They don’t really serve any purpose.There are only several instances where the sex actually is part of a romance. Most of the time it’s with nameless prostitutes or native women who basically serve as body parts, not as real partners or even individuals in some cases. This aspect smeared through most of the book and gave it a tawdry feel. It’s the main reason I cannot give it my whole-hearted approval despite the appeal of the rest of the novel.

This strange book ends with Kumo’s childhood fully explained, his survival after Hiroshima, when a cloud of another kind changed his life. Only that one wasn’t magical at all.

Harcourt Books (translated from the French La Théorie des Nuages) 2007 266 pp. ISBN 978-0-15-101428-6

10 comments on “The Theory of Clouds by Stéphane Audeguy

  1. Emily
    December 6, 2007

    This sounds truly fascinating. How do all the separate stories hang together . . . or don’t they?

  2. Leena
    December 6, 2007

    Thanks for this review, Jackie. The book does sound intriguing – in fact it sounds exactly like I expected ‘Cloud Atlast’ to be, and was slightly disappointed that the latter wasn’t about clouds at all. (But only momentarily so, as ‘Cloud Atlas’ was such a brilliant book.)

    I suppose one might skip the unnecessary ‘interludes’…

  3. Jackie
    December 7, 2007

    The stories do hang together, surprisingly. Because they are all taken from books in Mr. Kumo’s library, we learn about them as he tells Virginie the contents of his collection. He’s the link to all of them.

  4. RosyB
    December 8, 2007

    Interesting review and subject but am still left wondering what the book is really about (clouds, I know!). It sounds like lots of pieces and I can’t quite make sense of how they all fit together.

    What – would you say – do the stories, taken together with the faceless prostitutes, the facts on clouds and the life of this man, add up to would you say? What does the book leave you with? Are the clouds used to represent something? Are the emotionless sexual interludes showing us something about the character, about the theme? Somehow I can’t quite get an impression of what this book is at the moment. Is it very disparate? Do you think this is a book that actually works?

  5. Jackie
    December 8, 2007

    I suppose the book would’ve worked better as a series of short stories, as it feels a bit chopped up anyways, but I didn’t find that disruptive. Overall, it’s about the history of weather forecasting & the fascination with clouds. The clouds themselves represented ambitions and dreams. The sexual interludes might not have bothered someone less prudish, but as I said, they didn’t add anything & actually took away something. Perhaps the author thought the weather angle was too dull & wanted to add a titillating aspect?
    I would say that if approached with a flexible mind that this unconventional book works. It sounds stranger in description that it is in the reading.

  6. RosyB
    December 8, 2007

    Thanks Jackie. I have to admit to being curious and quite like things that mix up subjects and story – unless it’s done in that really glib way. You have piqued my wonder with this one though..

  7. Eva
    December 12, 2007

    I was wondering about the naked woman in the cover (until the end of this review). Based on what is writtern about its structure, can’t decide if I find it interesting or not…

  8. marygm
    December 13, 2007

    There you go, a book that combines physics, philosophy and sex. Gotta be French!

  9. Jackie
    December 14, 2007

    And here I was trying so hard to avoid national stereotypes!

  10. Sam Ruddock
    August 6, 2009

    I love this book. It is the only book I have ever finished only to immediately turn back to the beginning and start again. While I admit that most of the sex scenes are thoroughly pointless and add nothing to the overall novel (particularly one at the beginning involving a strange masturbation ritual) these passages are easily lost amid the wonderful stories and dreamlike prose.

    What I liked most about it is the way that it merges biography and invention, fact and fiction. The stories Akira recounts begin as factual stories about the people who first studied the clouds, but invisibly somewhere in the middle they begin to leave reality and take on a magical, mythical bent. This blurring of fact and fiction mirrors the structure of the cloud, which we learn can be seen as infinate since it is impossible to determine where one ends and he next begins.

    The prose lies somewhere between the wonderful lilt of W.G. Sebald and the fantastic emotional undercurrents of Kazuo Ishiguro. The writing translates beautifully, with some truly amazing pieces of linguistic discription, such as:

    “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.”

    and

    “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.”

    I could write for ages on The Theory of Clouds. It is a book which captured both my heart and mind in a way no other book ever has. While it has its flaws (I like sex in books but these are very French smut in character and add nothing to either plot of character) these are subsumed by the absolutely magnificent aspects.

    This is the book I always wanted to read but didn’t think would be out there. This comment may not make any sense as I am tired, but if anyone cares you can read my full review at: http://bookstimeandsilence.blogspot.com/2009/04/theory-of-clouds-stephanie-audeguy.html

    Love it, and glad you liked it too Jackie

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This entry was posted on December 5, 2007 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction in translation and tagged , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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