Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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"The Theory of Clouds", Stephane Audeguy

July 3rd, 2009 · No Comments · Literature, Philosophy

the-theory-of-cloudsSynopsis: Parisian survivor of Hiroshima and owner of the world’s largest collection of manuscripts concerning clouds hires an unassuming librarian to catalogue his collection. As the librarian learns about the men of history who had become obsessed by clouds, she is tasked with locating the mysterious Abercrombie Protocol, an attempt by a obscure 19th century meteorologist to document every variation of cloud…

My Take: The best way to describe The Theory of Cloudsis to say that it is French. Very French. By that, I mean that “The Theory of Clouds” conforms to all of the most stereotyped clichés of Frenchness – pretentiousness, sensuality, ambition, obscenity and richness.

Unsurprisingly, it sharply divided audiences when it was released. In France, it was widely lauded and the novel was awarded the prestigious Prix Maurice Genevoix from the French Academy. In the United States, the much anticipated English translation did not meet with universal critical or commercial success.

Strangely enough, I originally picked up this book based on the strong recommendation of economist/blogger Tyler Cowen who lauded Audeguy as a French Ishiguro. I can see what he was saying to an extent, as with Ishiguro, Audeguy eschews linearity in his story telling, infusing large parts of his prose with retrospective, melancholic reflection. In this regard, Audeguy’s layering and inter-weaving of the modern day narrative of Akira Kumo and his private librarian, Virginie Latour with historical and faux-historical interludes is one of the strengths of the book. This style allows Audeguy to pepper the novel with interesting real-life factoids (such as the story of Luke Howard, a Quaker apothecary and member of the Royal Society who devised the names for clouds that are still used today) while maintaining a beautiful, poetical narrative progression.

Where Audeguy departs from Ishiguro however is in his inability to keep his feet on the ground and his insistence on turning the book into a highly conceptual wank-piece. Don’t get me wrong. I like a bit of surrealism in my reading and I definitely like writing that presents the reader with layers of meaning to explore. HOWEVER, I have to say that I was left a little bit confused when the plot began to pivot around a book full of close up photographs of vaginas and the execution of an orang-utan. Too pretentious by half me thinks. Like I say, very French.

On the whole, “The Theory of Clouds” has enough engaging prose to make it a worthwhile read. However, it’s just a little too conceptually ambitious for me to whole-heartedly recommended it.

Highlight:

“Men are destroyed, and destroy each other, over basic things – money or hatred. On the other hand a really complicated riddle never pushed anyone to violence; either you found the answer or gave up looking. Clouds were riddles too, but dangerously simple ones. If you zoomed in on one part of a cloud and took a photograph, then enlarged the image, you would find that a cloud’s edges seemed like another cloud, and those edges yet another, and so on. Every part of a cloud, in other words, reiterates the whole. Therefore each cloud might be called infinite, because its very surface is composed of other clouds, and those clouds of still other clouds, and so forth. Some learn to lean over the abyss of these brainteasers; others lose their balance and tumble into its eternal blackness.”

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