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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 ...
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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.
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.
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)
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"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).
Posted September 8, 2002