The Theory Of Clouds

Written by Stéphane Audeguy (trans. Timothy Bent)
Review by Adelaida Lower

“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.” Thus begins an inimitable piece of writing, the first novel of French historian Stéphane Audeguy, awarded the 2005 prize Maurice Genevoix of the French Academy.

Akira Kumo, Japanese couturier, is an eccentric collector with an unclear past. He can’t remember the year he was born, although he thinks it was after World War II. He hates all things Japanese, and has an obsession for clouds. To catalogue his library, dedicated to cloud lore and the history of meteorology, he hires young Virginie Latour, and he tells her stories. There is the tale of the Quaker Luke Howard, a contemporary of Goethe, who named the clouds, and of Carmichael (based on John Constable), a painter who spent the summer of 1812 obsessively painting clouds. Kumo also explains how Napoleon’s disdain for the incipient science of meteorology led to the disaster at Waterloo. Soon, Virginie realizes that these stories are not entirely factual, but she is hooked. Then, just as Kumo begins to put the pieces together of his early years, he sends Virginie to England to purchase the mysterious Abercrombie Protocol, the seminal work of a 19th-century photographer on the skies and weather of all latitudes, a work nobody has actually seen.

Audeguy captivates with the effortless elegance of his style. The Theory of Clouds, however, is anything but simple. As the novel progresses, the distinctive theme reverberates in its spiraling downwards structure. The voice gets sadder. Clouds are quasi-religious. Clouds are beautiful. Clouds are dangerous and destructive. Audeguy’s intense lyricism, so very poignant under the surface, reminds you of Anaïs Nin and Proust. His prose is intimate, ironic, evocative, and powerfully erotic. It can also be coarse. The reader shudders, grimaces, and keeps on reading, mesmerized, expecting some hint, some mournful key to the human condition. Ultimately Audeguy delivers it. Don’t miss this one. Truly incomparable.