Cloud Sketcher: A Novel

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In a tiny village in Finland, Esko Vaananen is at the brink of despair — he loves a woman he can never have. Suddenly, in the magical light of the aurora borealis, he has a vision of an impossibly tall building rising gracefully from the frozen lake and disappearing into the clouds above him. This pilvenpiirtaja — "cloud sketcher" or skyscraper — sparks a lifelong quest for beauty in Esko. He will pursue and protect these two passions — his vision and his love — no matter how great the cost, for the rest of his ...

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In a tiny village in Finland, Esko Vaananen is at the brink of despair — he loves a woman he can never have. Suddenly, in the magical light of the aurora borealis, he has a vision of an impossibly tall building rising gracefully from the frozen lake and disappearing into the clouds above him. This pilvenpiirtaja — "cloud sketcher" or skyscraper — sparks a lifelong quest for beauty in Esko. He will pursue and protect these two passions — his vision and his love — no matter how great the cost, for the rest of his life. It is a journey that leads him into the Bolshevik revolution and the Jazz Age nightclubs of New York City and to strike a Faustian bargain with a ruthless gangster — all in the pursuit of artistic perfection and impossible, unattainable love.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Richard Rayner's The Cloud Sketcher is an unabashedly romantic story of love, ambition, and predestination set among the skyscrapers and jazz-age nightclubs of New York City in the '20s. As a boy, Esko Vaananen has a vision of a skyscraper (though he doesn't know what one is). Upon arrival in the Big Apple, the shy, mild-mannered young man from Finland is arrested for murder.
Washington Post
Magisterial….completely engaging…an impressive meditation on longing and obsession [and] a searching reflection on the act of creation itself.
USA Today
Breathtaking....a passionate book that threads architecture, war and history through the story of two lovers.
Robert Hass
A book that shines as a consequence of an accomplished writer's deeply felt (and understood moral and spiritual energy.
Kevin Baker
A whirlwind of passion, obsession, war, art, and undying love.
Ric Burns
A remarkable, ravishing book.
Sheri Holman
From the dark backwoods of Finland to the dizzying skyscraper wars of New York City, The Cloud Sketcher is as epic in scope and spirit as the new century it chronicles. A marvelously compelling novel.
Time Out New York
Irresistible. It delivers surprise after surprise, all the way up to the last page...a complex and absorbing story. Rayner's style is winningly animated. He explores the [Bolshevik] revolution's aftershocks in Finland throughly but not dryly. Jazz-age New York, complete with jaded journalists, drug-addicted nightclub singers and power-mad industrial magnates, is an inviting cosmos and a perfect setting for Esko's driving ambition to flourish.
New York Times Book Review
Richard Rayner is a deft and dexterous writer.
Chicago Tribune
No one who opens The Cloud Sketcher will find it easy to stop reading before the last vertiginous page....Passionate and well-researched…remarkable [for] its visceral feeling for architecture… Rayner's eye is excellent.
David Ebershoff
Big, bursting, intricate, and alive.
From The Critics
Rayner, author of L.A. Without a Map, Murder Book and the memoir The Blue Suite, writes in his latest novel about the adventuresome, passionate life and times of a Finnish architect named Esko. Set in Finland around the time of the Russian Revolution and later in 1920s New York, the book is as much a dramatic study of an era as it is a noirish crime and action thriller. We first meet Esko as an adult, but almost immediately the scene shifts to his childhood in frozen, undeveloped Finland. The installation of the country's first elevator ignites young Esko's imagination at around the same time he meets Katerina, the beautiful Russian girl who will become, along with architecture, his life's driving passion. Around this time Esko's father leaves him in the care of a local minister after the death of Esko's mother. Eventually, Esko leaves his troubled past and sets off for New York, where he struggles to realize a double dream: to build skyscrapers and to have Katerina. While a few of Rayner's action sequences generate a bit of real suspense, the story never quite reaches the heights Esko is trying to reach. This story is an interesting idea for a book, but the book never fulfills its promise.
—Dan Koenig

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Taking early skyscrapers' unlikely assault on the heavens as its central metaphor, this transatlantic Great Expectations of the jazz-age '20s spins a captivating, if somewhat improbable, tale of a disfigured Finnish boy's life quest for fame as an architect and his elusive true love. In 1901, three events shape 11-year-old Esko's future. He is burned and blinded in one eye in a fire. News reaches Esko's remote Finnish village of the country's first elevator--an invention that immediately captures the boy's imagination. Then months later at the village fair, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful Russian girl, Katerina Malysheva, the unattainable daughter of the czar-appointed provincial governor. The years find Esko pursuing his dream as a draftsman in Helsinki, and Katerina engaged to Esko's best friend and colleague, Klaus. Surviving the Bolshevik revolution and Finland's own bloody civil war, Esko emigrates in 1922 to New York, where he works as a riveter on skyscrapers and saves the life of Paul Mantilini, who later becomes a powerful bootlegger. Esko gains an entr e into New York's architectural world through a newspaper design contest and learns that Katerina is gaining fame in that city as a photographer. When he finally finds Katerina again, Esko has achieved a measure of professional success, but she is engaged to Manhattan blueblood Andrew MacCormick, who offers to finance the building of Esko's skyscraper. After he is arrested for MacCormick's murder, Esko seeks help from his gangster friend. Ultimately, Esko must put a price on his dreams, personal loyalties, honor and life. While the broad strokes of the story have often been seen before, Rayner (whose memoir, The Blue Suit, was widely praised) vividly captures details of Finnish culture, history and landscape and the developing architectural aesthetic of the age. This is an old-fashioned novel in the best sense: full of incident and passion, presenting a slice of history and relating a gripping story. (Feb. 11) Forecast: The generally unfamiliar territory of this novel should be an enticement to readers searching for a new fictional landscape. In addition, Rayner may flash on readers' radar screens as the author of Los Angeles Without a Map, which was made into a movie with Johnny Depp, and Murder Book, soon to be filmed by John Malkovich. Its confidence in this book's breakthrough potential--backed by a 6-city author tour--has inspired HarperCollins to sign Rayner to write a sequel. Foreign rights have been sold in France, Germany and Finland. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Taking the iconic images of the 1920s and 1930s--gangsters, Prohibition, the Depression--and further enlivening the text with architects, rebels, and a beautiful woman, Rayner has written a sort of Fountainhead for Everyman. It's a glorious adventure story about a young Finn whose early contact with an elevator convinces him to construct buildings so high that they tickle the clouds. Surviving Finland's early brush with the Bolsheviks, he begins his architectural career, but soon the re-emergence of his first sweetheart drives him to New York City, where he meets other architects, gangsters, capitalists, and her. Anyone who enjoys the historical re-creations of writers such as E.L. Doctorow will swoon over the love story, sway to the girders' dance, and sob over the cruel fate of these passionate people. Rayner, whose earlier Murder Book and The Blue Suit received critical attention, has done a lot of research and evokes with lavish grace the era and its events. A sure bet for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/00.]--Barbara Conaty, Library of Congress Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060956134
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in England, Richard Rayner now lives in Los Angeles. His previous books include the memoir The Blue Suit and the novels The Cloud Sketcher, L.A. Without a Map, and Murder Book. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and many other publications.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It began with news of an elevator, in 1901 an instrument unknown, unheard of, undreamed of in the tiny Finnish village where Esko grew up, as close to the Arctic Circle as to the capital Helsinki. At that time, at the beginning of the fresh century, the village was almost untouched by the modern world, by a future that would, in a few years, sweep aside a way of life unchanged for hundreds. In 1901, when Esko was eleven, the village boasted no railroad and one telephone, which resided, crownlike, atop a narrow throne of solid oak in the study of the vicarage, the only house with electricity for fifty miles. Armies of spruce and pine creaked with snow during the frozen, infinitely long winter, trees that towered above a narrow, deeply rutted track that led into and out of the tiny village of Pyhajarvi. The track ran past a small general store that smelled of leather and mildewed potatoes and burlap. It weaved its way among four graveyards lit at Christmas time with ice lanterns, thousands of ice lanterns, one beacon for each departed soul, flickering bravely in the northern dark. But the track did not run between the sparse scattering of farms set among forests so dense, wild, and uncharted that strangers required a guide to show them the way from one farm to another. There was a lake, twenty miles long, frozen eight months of the year, and you had to be a local to find it among the trees. There were bears, wolves, and mountainous warm smelling ant heaps where a booted foot might sink up to the thigh. It was a world of poverty, famine, frequent suicide, a world where most recalled how it was to have to eat bread made from pine bark. Despite thisthere was no complaint, indeed little dialogue at all, except when coaxed from gruff throats by vodka. The villagers had wary eyes and faces that aged quickly in this place where the ownership of land and winter were the most pressing realities: land that was miserable to work even if it belonged to you, and it almost certainly didn't. The villagers cared little for history or events in the world beyond. They were foxy, hard, and sly- fatalists who for the most part smiled and shook their heads at displays of hope or statements of ideals, these being considered the province of fools and very dangerous men. Esko's father, Timo Vaananen, was known to be one such dangerous man.

This severe place had its hothead- Timo- as well as a building of true magnificence. Viewed from afar, the old wooden church seemed to have two towers, both painted red ochre, one peeping over the shoulder of the other like a parent. Moving closer, you saw that the two towers belonged to two different buildings: there was the church itself, with a twenty-four-cornered ground plan in the shape of a crucifix and a steeply pitched roof giving rise to a dome like an onion; and there was the bell tower, strangely taller and more slender, elegant, with a steep shingle roof and a needlelike spire shooting out of the bell compartment. In years past Esko had climbed the stairs and the narrow ladder that led to the top of the tower with his friends, so they could play hide and seek among the ropes and bells, and with his mother, so they could stand together and admire the midnight sun as it dipped toward the lake and then, at once, miraculously, began to rise again. By the summer of 1901, however, his life had taken a different turn, and he didn't go to the bell tower anymore. When he did happen to notice it, it seemed ominous to him, a warning, saying don't stray, don't go too far.

When they finished supper on that June night Esko cleared and washed the dishes, anxiously hoping to be done and escape, to flee before his father was ready to begin. No such luck: Timo was brisk and determined, decisive as ever. He put a book with a pebbled brown cover on the table, then a glass, then a bottle of schnapps, which he uncorked with a pop and placed beside the glass. Then Timo nudged the glass. Then he poured the schnapps, knocked it back, slopped in another shot, and one more, and commanded Esko to sit. "Now we learn," he said.

Timo Vaananen's mission was to teach Esko everything. At the village school, where Timo was one of the two teachers, this wasn't so bad. In school, at least, learning did not involve slaps. There was safety in numbers, and surrounded by the other kids, his head always deep in a book, Esko had only to pretend to negotiate the laws of geometry, algebra, trigonometry, the triumphs and sadnesses of Finnish history, the subtleties of Swedish, Finnish, and, because it was now the law, Russian, and the dirgelike chanting rhythms of "Kalevala," the national epic poem. "Kalevala" had Vainamoinen, the poet, the sorcerer who creates the world and defeats his enemies through the power of song; it had Aino, a beautiful maiden who spurns him; it had Lemminkainen, a fellow who lies and kidnaps and plays tricks; it had the doomed and sad Kullervo. Esko looked at "Kalevala" and saw a world that was familiar to the one he knew. In 1901, a time of simmering rebellion and nationalistic fervor, there were those who preached that the poem was also the literally true account of Finland in times gone by, an idea that appealed to little Esko, and one that appalled Timo, who preferred his history tinged a different color.

At night, at home, now that school was out, there was no pretense of scientific or scholarly rigor. Timo came on full and furious. Sometimes he stared silently at Esko for minutes on end, daring him to give a wrong answer.

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Interviews & Essays

Author Essay
Ten years ago I was sent to Finland to do a newspaper story on a weird little film festival up in Lapland, in the Arctic Circle, at midsummer, the time of year when, if you happen to be in those parts, it never gets dark.

While I was there, beneath the midnight sun, my life changed; in fact, it changed twice.

First, I became friendly with Aki and Mika Kaurismaki, brothers and filmmakers. Some of their titles include Drifting Clouds, Helsinki-Napoli, and the various Leningrad Cowboy films (the Leningrad Cowboys being those Finnish rockers who never take off their shades and all of whom have yard-long quiffs atop their heads). The Kaurismakis are, if you will, the Finnish Coen brothers -- droll, deadpan guys. The older of the two, Mika, turned my first novel, Los Angeles Without a Map, into a movie starring David Tennant, Vincent Gallo, Julie Delpy, and Johnny Depp.

But another, far more important thing, also happened. I met my future wife.

A decade later we have two children, both born in Santa Monica, both bilingual in English and Finnish; so that in all ways, wherever I am, I'm perpetually surrounded by sounds and echoes and memories of Finland -- a small faraway country that boasts Nokia, the Northern Lights, innumerable forests, and a lot more lakes than there are even in Minnesota. A part of me has become, I guess, a surrogate Finn -- there's something about the otherness and sheer extremity of the place that haunts and obsesses me. We spend our summers there, and it was on one of those trips, when we were heading back to Helsinki from to the remote village where my wife grew up, that I first paid attention to Helsinki's railway station -- an architectural masterpiece from the turn of the last century in the style of art nouveau, or jugend as they call it in Finland. The architect's name, I discovered, was Eliel Saarinen, a friend and contemporary of the composer Jean Sibelius.

But the first seed of The Cloud Sketcher was planted only when I discovered that Saarinen had entered the Chicago Tribune Skyscraper Competition of 1922 and placed second with a design proclaimed the best by no less an authority than the great American architect Louis Sullivan. The contest was actually won by Raymond Hood, who got to build his skyscraper on Michigan Avenue (Chicagoans these days refer to it as the Bat-Tower), and went on to become the most celebrated New York skyscraper architect of the era. Hood's first high-rise in Manhattan, the American Radiator Building on Bryant Park, clearly owed a lot to Saarinen's Chicago design, as Hood himself acknowledged. Indeed, virtually every skyscraper built in America in the 1920s -- and there were a lot, courtesy of the boom -- was indebted to Saarinen. And yet, even though he moved from Finland to America, Saarinen never got to build a skyscraper himself.

Right there, I thought, was an interesting and dramatic basis for a story: A man obsessed with skyscrapers sees his best design praised and stolen and begins to fear that he will never fulfill his professional dream. What, I wondered, might such a man do to get what he wanted? And what inspired him to have that dream in the first place? At which point I began to think in fictional terms, and my leading character, Esko Vaananen, was born -- a Finn who comes to New York dreaming of finding his lost love and building a skyscraper.

Soon I was finding out all I could about the financing of New York's glittering Art Deco spires. The raising of these structures, I learned to my delight, was a cutthroat business in which just the sort of shenanigans I describe in the book did, indeed, go on. Jazz Age gangsters were involved, not to mention financiers with even fewer scruples. Take the Empire State Building: The lot on which the skyscraper was raised changed hands six or seven different times in the late 1920s before the final plan began to grow out of the ground, leaving behind various unhappy architects whose buildings were never built and some lucky speculators who made money by selling their options without ever getting their hands dirty.

Architecture is not, never has been, and never will be, a young man's profession. Architects really have to learn how to do this stuff, otherwise their buildings fall down and have a tendency to hurt people. Ray Hood, for instance, had built very little before he won the Chicago contest, but he was already in his 40s when he did. He'd been around a while.

So obviously, the same had to apply to my fictional Finnish hero, Esko, and then the question came up: What had he been doing in Finland before he came to New York? He was already an adult, obviously, and presumably already a qualified architect. In particular, what had he been up to back in 1918, when there was a failed Bolshevik-style revolution in Finland (it happened on the back of the one in Russia) and a vicious civil war in which more people died after the fighting was over than during the fighting itself? Consider that for a moment. It means, basically, that the conservative White winners assembled lots of the leftist Red losers and simply shot them in the head or let them starve to death in camps. Finland carried the scars for decades. When I first asked my father-in-law to tell me about the Finnish Civil War he looked at me without blinking and said: "What civil war?" The subject, in other words, is still a touchy one.

But great material for fiction! And so into The Cloud Sketcher went Esko's experiences in the Finnish Civil War, and a linear story began to take shape in a nonlinear way. Since the novel is in large part a love letter to my wife and to her country, and to my own adopted one (I'm an Englishman happily transplanted to America), I always knew that the writing would be richly, unapologetically romantic. The real heartbeat of the book is, I hope, an emotional and passionate one: the tremendous journey that a damaged man takes in pursuit of his dreams and the sadness of how both he and the dreams can't help but change as he approaches them. (Richard Rayner)

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Reading Group Guide

"Katerina was his passion and his flaw; his inspiration, his blindness; his history; his future; she was the million stars that pricked and made brilliant his soul" (p. 328).
For a little boy, eleven years old at the beginning of the 20th century, great dreams begin with simple things. A clipped-out newspaper story about a new invention called the elevator inspires a passion to build skyscrapers, or as they are called in Finland, "cloud sketchers." And with an equal force, a beautiful little girl's hand mirror becomes his talisman for a grand, impossible, and ultimately tragic love. Yet, when Richard Rayner's epic novel opens, it is already 1928, the luxury liner Ile de France is docking, and Esko Vaananen, a famous architect, is about to be arrested for murder. What brings him to this crossroads and has entangled him in a homicide is the tale of a child who becomes a man driven to do extraordinary things. Rayner's rapidly unfolding narrative, filled with sharp surprises and unexpected encounters, flashes back to Esko's childhood in a tiny Finnish village as close to the Arctic Circle as Helsinki. There Esko has already been burned - literally and figuratively - by a tragedy that has left his face badly scarred, his mother dead, and his father a political fugitive. Then, as the Russian Revolution spills over into Finland with horrific results, Esko is swept along on this great tide of history into a fateful encounter with Katerina Malysheva, the exquisitely lovely child of a Russian aristocrat. When she gives him her mirror at their first meeting, Esko - a disfigured,impoverished village boy - falls in love and seals his fate. Traveling from war torn Europe to glittering Jazz Age Manhattan, Esko pursues his twin visions - to build a modern skyscraper that will change the New York skyline and to find Katerina. That quest will lead the introspective, tall, blond young man to make painful choices involving his art and ethics, and ultimately into pacts with different kinds of devils, such as a ruthless land speculator named MacCormick who can finance his building project and a Mafioso chieftain Paul Mantilini who can save his life. Rayner's riveting plot and lush prose plunges readers with equal ease into the quiet snowbound expanses of Finland, the bloody battle of Tampere (the defining battle in the Finnish Civil War), and the sexy rhythms of Harlem speakeasies in a seamless narrative that covers 30 years. It is also a fascinating treatise on modern architecture, especially that of New York City, that exposes the human drama behind the structures that have awed the world - and the human cost of transforming grand visions and magnificent dreams into stone and steel. Discussion Questions
  • Rayner writes "Architecture never lies. It invariably expresses both its own era and the character of the men who build it" (p. 4). How did Esko's skyscraper reflect his character? Take a building you particularly like, and discuss how it reflects its era and what it might reveal about the person who envisioned or designed it.
  • As a young boy Esko asks, "What does an elevator mean?" In light of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers - arguably the world's most iconic skyscrapers - has the "meaning" of skyscrapers changed?
  • Would you describe Esko's love for Katerina as an obsession? If so, how does obsessive love differ from other types of love? How does it differ from his feelings for his wife Anna? Does obsessive love have any positive characteristics along with its more obvious destructive ones?
  • What about Katerina? Is she credible? Do you think she is more a symbol than a woman? What are her motives for choosing men?
  • Esko is undoubtedly a genius. But what is his tragic flaw? Can you name some contemporary, real life men or women who also seem to possess a tragic flaw along with their genius or talents?
  • When Esko is designing Katerina's penthouse, he begins with a coffeepot. Why? He also says "it would be inappropriate to turn from views of Manhattan's increasingly Babylonian skyline…and see a Louis XVI sofa" (p. 270). Do you agree that design - whether it is of a building or a sofa - needs to reflect its environment or era, and that furnishings and architecture and environment should be homogeneous?
  • When Esko dreams of his skyscraper, he notes that although humans finally possessed the technology to build tall buildings, no one knew what they should look like (p. 269). The contest in the Gazette is won by a design that is pseudo-Gothic. What do skyscrapers look like today? Why do you think they have evolved this way? Do you see any alternatives - or new directions?
  • One of the heroes of the story is W. P. Kirby. How would you characterize his relationship to Esko? Why is he in the story at all? Is he essential to the plot? Does his death doom Esko? If not, what does lead to Esko's ultimate downfall?
  • Part of the enjoyment of a historical novel is discovering new facts and details about a faraway place or era. What information did you enjoy discovering in The Cloud Sketcher?
  • What do you make of Joseph Lazarus? Is he the villain of the tale? If not, who is?
  • If some writers do appeal more to women than men, or vice versa, do you think The Cloud Sketcher would have a great impact and find a greater audience among men or women? Why?
About the Author: Richard Rayner's previous books include the memoir The Blue Suit and the novels Murder Book, Los Angeles Without a Map, and The Elephant. His work appears in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Talk, and many other publications. He met his wife, Paivi Suvilehto, in Finland in 1990. He lives in Los Angeles.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2002


    Stylistically the book was wonderful, as it was conceptually. The plot seemed a bit contrived at times, but nothing is ever completely perfect.

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