The Theory of Clouds.
Stéphane Audeguy, translated by Timothy Bent
Harcourt. 2007. 266 pp.
On the surface, Stéphane Audeguy's elegantly written novel, The Theory of Clouds is about a woman, Virginie Latour, who is hired by wealthy designer Akira Kumo to catalog his literary collection on clouds and meteorology. Kumo is a typical collector however and clearly obsessed with his passion, so large sweeping passages of the book are given up to his lectures on his favorite subject. Audeguy weaves these historical passages, on figures and events both real and fictional, into the text with the lightest of hands. Each plot digression carries Virginie further into the mysteries of predicting the weather, a seemingly mundane profession which nonetheless achieves heights of artistic beauty in Kumo's stories. What she does not know, as she surveys and records her employer's books, is the great secret he is hiding and the tremendous pressure it has placed on him to live his life with this lie.
At first, Virginie is patient with Kumo's idiosyncrasies out of gratitude for her job. Soon enough however she finds herself enthralled with his stories and avidly follows along as he details the unique personalities who occupied the earliest years of meteorology. Audeguy casts a spell over his readers with these "history lessons," luring them into the lives of men like Luke Howard who in the early 19th century did actually invent the form of cloud classification that we still use today. But the author goes beyond Howard, including his own inventions of colorfully infatuated men who were gripped by the vagaries of weather and sensitivities found in cloud formations. He does return more than once to real men of science however, providing numerous historic revelations to readers who will find themselves increasingly mesmerized by the likes of Howard (who influenced Goethe), Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who coined the term "weather forecasting," and Lewis Fry Richardson, a man whose invention to measure wind speed and hygrometry was credited with helping the British spread poison gasses more effectively in World War I. After he learned about the consequences of his design, Richardson never invented anything again and spent his life trying to understand and prevent war.
After listening to his tales and spending time with his collection, Virginie finds herself increasingly consumed by Kumo's passion and willingly embarks on a journey to obtain the most unique meteorological text of all: the "Abercrombie Protocol." The text proves to be far different from what she expects however and immersing herself in the author's life proves transformative in ways Virginie never could have expected. Audeguy includes numerous flashbacks to Richard Abercrombie's life and his attempt to predict the movement of clouds while also finding peace far from science, in other places, and other women. This provides yet another example of how hard it can be to shake an obsession, and further, how enlightening it can be to seek answers beyond the ordinary.
Ultimately though, The Theory of Clouds is about Akira Kumo who slowly reveals just how his life was changed because of the action of clouds over his town of Hiroshima in August 1945. That long suppressed tragedy is in many ways the heart of the book and the source from which so many other lives and scientific discussions stem from.
The Theory of Clouds is a quiet book that contains a powerful emotional presence. The people—both real and fictional—that Audeguy writes about will linger long after the final page is turned. There is far more here than one expects and Kumo's heartbreaking struggle to survive his sorrow is masterfully told.
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