The Theory of Clouds by Stephane Audeguy, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
The Theory of Clouds
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The Theory of Clouds

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by Stephane Audeguy

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A kira Kumo, miraculous survivor of Hiroshima, reinvented himself as someone twenty years younger. Now an eccentric couturier and collector of all literature having to do with clouds and meteorology, he hires Virginie, a young librarian, to catalog his library. While she works, he tells her stories of those who have devoted their lives to



A kira Kumo, miraculous survivor of Hiroshima, reinvented himself as someone twenty years younger. Now an eccentric couturier and collector of all literature having to do with clouds and meteorology, he hires Virginie, a young librarian, to catalog his library. While she works, he tells her stories of those who have devoted their lives to clouds: the Quaker Luke Howard, contemporary of Napoleon and Goethe, who first classified clouds; the painter Carmichael (based on John Constable), who spent a year painting clouds; and the mysterious Abercrombie, a photographer who cataloged clouds around the world. Virginie’s trip to London in search of the suppressed Abercrombie protocol becomes a quest no less wondrous and strange than Kumo’s own. Sensual, hypnotic, and filled with stories both true and fanciful, The Theory of Clouds is a masterful first novel.

Editorial Reviews

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Single-mindedness is a virtue with which Akira Kumo, Hiroshima survivor and successful couturier, is intimately acquainted. Reinventing himself, he fled war-torn Japan and moved to Paris, where he established a reputation as a designer with an exquisite eye and a quick hand. Decades have passed since his miraculous survival; he is now wealthy and respected and is finally able to pursue his true passion: collecting every work about clouds and meteorology in existence.

Kumo hires Virginie, a young librarian, to catalog the works he possesses and to track those he has yet to acquire. Virginie's interest in clouds is limited to weather patterns, so she finds Kumo's fascination with them mysterious and unsettling. At work in his library, Kumo regales her with stories of those whose devotion has equaled his own: the Quaker Luke Howard, a contemporary of Goethe's who spent his life classifying clouds; Carmichael, an artist who spent a year painting them; and Abercrombie, a photographer who filled portfolios with his catalogs of clouds. It is not until Virginie embarks on an unexpected trip to London to secure an elusive work of Abercrombie's that she discovers a passion of her own.

Intertwining stories both real and fanciful, Audeguy has fashioned a splendidly original first novel reminiscent of the lyricism of Kazuo Ishiguro and the keen intelligence of Julian Barnes, yet fully his own. (Holiday 2007 Selection)
Ron Charles
Next time you're lying on the grass staring at the sky, consider that one of those puffy white clouds floating overhead weighs millions of pounds. That ordinary miracle comes to mind while reading Stephane Audeguy's strange first novel, which is equally buoyant and weighty, and puts one in the mood for reverie. Winner of the prestigious Maurice Genevoix prize in France, where the author teaches art history, The Theory of Clouds has drifted over to America in an elegant translation by Timothy Bent. The first volume of a planned trilogy, it's an amorphous story, alternately static and turbulent, a subtle mixture of history and fiction, tragedy and comedy, that's likely to look like something different to everyone who reads it…The novel is composed almost entirely of Kumo's stories to Virginie and, later, her stories to him, and yet despite all this talking, The Theory of Clouds contains not a single line of dialogue. Audeguy conveys everything here himself. Part of the book's magnetism, in fact, stems from its unfailingly consistent tone, the kind of quiet voice you can't help but lean in to hear.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

A specialized, sensual history centers this novel from French historian Audeguy, winner of the Académie Française's Prix Maurice Genevoix. Virginie, an aimless young librarian, is hired by Hiroshima survivor and Paris couturier Akira Kumo, who seems much younger than he is, to categorize his obsessive library of cloud and meteorological-related material. While Virginie works, Kumo tells stories of other cloud gazers in history, including the fictional John Constable-like painter Carmichael, who spent a year painting clouds, to the consternation of his father, and the photographer Abercrombie, who left behind the much speculated upon cloud book that bears his name. As Kumo's past begins to come into focus, Virginie is drawn into his life. Audeguy's prose, lyrical in translation, mostly manages to contain sudden shifts of time and explorations of cloud lore. Beautifully written and imaginatively structured, Audeguy's book is as diaphanous as its subject. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Ever since witnessing the cloud that formed over Hiroshima when the atom bomb was dropped, Akira Kumo has been enchanted by clouds. Assisted by French librarian Virginie Latour, Kumo seeks the legendary notebook of cloud study, The Abercrombie Protocol, and attempts to investigate the mystery surrounding its author: in the late 19th century, meteorologist Richard Abercrombie suddenly switched from photographing clouds to female sexual organs. Dotting this adventure tale are anecdotes about historical and imaginary characters, such as Luke Howard, Goethe, William S. Williamsson, and a painter called Carmichael, which provide an overview of the evolution of meteorology. The unusual blend of science and concupiscence stimulates consideration of the need to strike a fine balance between mind and flesh. This debut novel by French author Audeguy, published in France in 2005, is the first of a trilogy (followed by Only Sonand a work in progress) that contemplates "the relationship between man, nature, technology, and history." Audeguy rekindles our appreciation of nature as we face the current climatic dilemma of global warming. Strongly recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Victor Or

Kirkus Reviews
Age-indeterminate Hiroshima survivor and 20-something librarian form an unlikely alliance while studying cloud-seekers in Audeguy's debut. The shadow of W.B. Sebald looms like cumulonimbus over this novel. In his Paris hotel particulier with its glassed-in third story, Japanese designer Akira Kumo is briefing Virginie, whom he's hired to catalogue his considerable archive on the science and art of cloud observation. Structured as a series of tales exchanged by the pair, the action ranges across two centuries of weather, depicting Quaker missionary Howard, the first man to classify clouds (c. 1802), Carmichael, whose sky paintings eventually drove him mad, and most exhaustively, Richard Abercrombie, an explorer and scientist who journeyed the globe hoping to best his rival, Williamsson, with a photographic atlas of world climates. A mushroom cloud has shaped Kumo's life: His true age (in 2005) could be anything from 71 to 80-plus, due to destroyed birth records, his suppressed memories and his compulsion to continually start anew. Gradually the truth emerges: His parents died in air raids, and his sister was vaporized by the bomb at Hiroshima-Kumo was saved because he was skinny-dipping in a pond. He sends Virginie to London to scout out the missing lynchpin of his collection: the fabled Abercrombie Protocol, supposedly the compendium Abercrombie completed after his world tour. After a brief affair with Abercrombie's grandson, Virginie secures the Protocol. She returns to Paris to find Kumo wheelchair-bound after an abortive suicide leap off his balcony. The Protocol chronicles Abercrombie's disillusionment in a Borneo jungle as he witnesses the death of a noble orangutan at the hands ofboorish Englishmen. Abercrombie, a 49-year-old virgin, becomes a determined libertine: The Protocol, it will appear, is largely photographs of women's genitalia. Bent's supple translation enlivens potentially dry meteorological meditations. Readers might wish for more stage time with Kumo and Virginie, which is not possible in a novel that exalts intersecting motifs over character. Unconventional and memorable.
The Bloomsbury Review

[A] luminous first novel.

From the Publisher


"A cyclonic fiction illuminated by flashes of genius." --Elle

"An impressive first novel . . . Belongs up there with the works of Jonathan Coe, Julian Barnes or Kazuo Ishiguro." --Les Inrockuptibles

"A Proustian first novel, climatic, ambitious, and splendid." --Politis

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
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5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Theory of Clouds

By Audeguy, Stephane


Copyright © 2007 Audeguy, Stephane
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780151014286

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.
           On a Sunday in June, sometime around 5 p.m., the Japanese couturier Akira Kumo was speaking with a young woman whom he had just hired to catalogue his book collection. Kumo and the young woman were sitting in the loftlike top floor of Kumo’s hôtel particulier on Rue Lamarck in Paris; it was here that he had installed his library. The windows, including those in the north-facing bay windows that led to a small balcony overlooking the street, were made of double-paned glass, filtering out damaging rays and urban noises while offering a commanding view of the lead-gray Paris roofline. Above the roofline was an expanse of sky in which the clouds, always the same and always changing, drifted by, indifferent to the landscape over which they passed. Virginie Latour was examining the spines of books. She was only half listening to what the couturier was telling her—something about London at the turn of the nineteenth century. When he started talking about clouds, however, Virginie offered him her fullattention.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, Kumo told Virginie, a number of unheralded and seemingly ordinary men across Europe began gazing up at clouds in a way that was serious and respectful yet also filled with longing. They looked at clouds as if they were in love with them. One was an Englishman named Luke Howard.
            Luke Howard lived in London, where he worked in an apothecary. He also belonged to the Society of Friends, known more commonly as the Quakers. Howard was the kind of man impossible not to admire, for he devoted himself to his one god with the quiet constancy of the truly innocent. Once a week—sometimes more frequently—he took part in one of those meetings that are to Quakers what mass is to Catholics (though this is not a comparison that a Quaker would approve of; Quakers read the Bible incessantly and it says nothing regarding either clergy or pope). On November 25, 1802, Howard and his fellow Friends gathered in the small room situated directly over the laboratory where he worked during the day. They sat in a circle, in silence. Any participant in these meetings had the right to speak—so long as he had something to say. This was why, quite often and indeed typically, no one said anything at all. Now and again a line of thought might take hold. An actual discussion? A rarity. And when, most unexpected and unfortunate, an outright argument erupted, the meeting leader would immediately demand silence. Remaining silent was one of Howard’s great talents, one he had nearly perfected. So admirably did he not speak that it opened up space in his capacious heart for the Creator of All Things—first and foremost—and secondly for the welfare of his fellow man and, lastly, for the study of clouds.
           The meeting on that November day was by general consensus very satisfactory indeed. There are many qualities of silence—Quakers are excellent judges in the matter—and they agreed that the silence at this particular meeting had been among the very finest. When it was over, Howard accompanied the participants down to the front door to bid them good-bye. Last to take their leave were his closest friends, with whom he chatted amiably about various matters for a few minutes. One of them enquired as to whether he had decided upon the subject of the lecture he was to present at the next meeting of their scientific society. Howard replied that he had not settled upon one; there were several possibilities. He was not being truthful and his friends could sense this—Howard had no notion of how to lie—and chided him gently for it. But they didn’t press him, and eventually they went on their way. Howard returned to his room, settled himself before a venerable-looking if worn desk, and set to work.
           His friends had been right, of course. From the very moment he had learned it was his turn to give the next lecture, Howard knew precisely what his subject would be. Clouds. More than simply talk about clouds, however, he intended to speak for them, and in a manner never before attempted. Until then, clouds were seen merely as symbols of something else: the gods’ displeasure or delight; the weather’s whims; premonitions of good or ill. They were not accorded an existence independent of anything else. Howard felt deeply that this was not how clouds ought to be understood. It was essential they be appreciated for themselves; that they be, in a word, loved.
           Luke Howard looked at clouds in a way no one had since the days of antiquity: He contemplated them actively rather than passively. Clouds, he believed, were composed of a unique material that was in perpetual transformation; every cloud was the metamorphosis of another. Their formations thus needed to be seen in a whole new light. Moreover, these formations needed names. A Frenchman had previously tried to name clouds, but he used native terms for them. Howard opted for Latin, hoping that this would encourage scientists of every nationality to adopt his system.
           Is it not amazing how self-evident everything seems following an invention of this magnitude? Rudolf Diesel’s motor, or the principles behind fixed images established by Niepce and Daguerre. These are now so familiar to us that we can manipulate them. What is impossibly hard to imagine is that moment when a scientific discovery is first announced to the world. Whatever it is, or whatever it does, the discovery has to seem simultaneously self-sufficient and insufficient. In the case of clouds, language lies at the heart of the matter. And baptizing this new entity isn’t like baptizing a person, who at birth receives a given name and a family name with which they can do whatever they want. Some drag their names through the mud; others carry theirs to the very heights of society’s lists; a few manage to do both simultaneously. But entities—things—have an existence independent of a name and can go for centuries without it, though one might be out there somewhere, waiting for the scientist or the poet to seize upon it.
           Discovering the name that facilitates comprehension of the thing named was Howard’s great gift. Today, thanks to him and his typology, we see clouds with him: cumulus and stratus, cirrus and nimbus.
           In 1796, at Number 2 Plough Yard in the Lombard Street neighborhood—not far from the Thames—Howard and his friends had founded a scientific organization—really a kind of debating club—they called the Askesian Society, a name deriving from the Greek askesis, meaning “application,” chosen to encourage them in their efforts. The society’s rules were quite simple. Once a year each member was required to give a lecture; in the event he could or would not, he would be fined an amount sufficient to cover the costs of the refreshments and the wood burned in the stove to heat the room. The neighborhood around Lombard Street was home to a small community of Quakers, bankers, and tradesmen, many of whom avidly followed the proceedings of the Askesian Society.
           Around eight o’clock in the evening of December 6, 1802, Howard opened the door to the laboratory. He was wearing a plain, dark suit, a round hat, and black cravat; his shirt linen was white. Number 2 Plough Yard was an old building of three floors and had what some might call a forbidding appearance: The façade consisted of bare stone and its front bay windows were mostly obscured behind shutters. It had been rebuilt following the Great Fire more than a century before and untouched since. The owners had opened an apothecary on the ground floor, and during the day it hummed with activity. Howard normally could be found in the laboratory downstairs, working on preparations and tinctures, and it was in that laboratory that this meeting of the Askesian Society was convened.
           By this hour the apothecary had been closed for some time. Howard went down the steps leading to the laboratory, which was located to the right of the staircase. His audience had already gathered and the room was crowded. There were five rows of five chairs, on which sat the women, children, and elderly men; along the sides and at the back of the room, their hats in their hands, were the men. Howard recognized a number of faces, including those of his fellow society founders, but their familiarity only augmented his shyness. Sitting on the right-hand side, as was their custom, were his closest associates—William Allen, a doctor, and William Haseldine Pepys, a naturalist; to their right was the society’s secretary, Richard Phillips. All three wore dark suits and white shirt-linen; their hats poised on their knees.

© Editions Gallimard, Paris, 2005
English translation copyright © 2007 by Timothy D. Bent
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Excerpted from The Theory of Clouds by Audeguy, Stephane Copyright © 2007 by Audeguy, Stephane. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

STEPHANE AUDEGUY lives in Paris, where he teaches the history of cinema and arts.

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