David Mitchell’s ambitious 2004 novel, combining six unique stories into one overarching plot. I borrowed it from the library, then promptly went out and bought a copy for myself.
5 out of 5 stars.
I avoided Cloud Atlas for years because every description was so reliant on the gimmick (the nested stories) that I assumed the content would be weak in comparison (or Infinite Jest-ly dense). Cloud Atlas sounded like a book to be endured and not enjoyed.
Sometimes it’s very nice to be wrong.
This is not a hard book to read as far as language or plot is concerned (except for “Sloosha’s Crossin’,” Post 2, note ). Mitchell is not showing off or elevating himself above the average reader; he’s using his tools to tell each story the way it needs to be told, the characters always coming first. Cloud Atlas has emotional resonance without ever feeling like its pushing an agenda.
It’s a magic trick. And, like the best magicians, Mitchell makes it look effortless.
Here’s the gimmick (don’t get too hung up on it): The six stories take place in different time periods (1850s, 1930s, 1970s, early 2000s, dystopian near-future, post-apocalyptic far-future). The first half of each story is given chronologically. Then, after the entire post-apocalyptic story is told, the stories conclude in reverse chronology, ending in the 1850s where it began.
The idea that a character with the same soul exists in each time is flirted with but no overarching narrative voice steps in to confirm or deny. You can make Cloud Atlas as deep or shallow as you want; dig deeply for every connection or walk away after one reading thinking it was just a nice collection of short stories.
Each story is told in a different style with its own nuances, vocabulary tics, and genre devices.
STORY A: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1/2)
Ewing’s story is presented in first-person journal entries.
One must be cynical as Diogenes to prosper in my profession.
Diogenes of Sinope (~412 – 323 BC) was a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynic philosophy. Also known as Diogenes the Cynic.
An unseen hand emptied a tankard of sheog over my person.
Looks like Mitchell made this one up (or at least his spelling). Google’s results for “sheog” are from other Cloud Atlas readers. From context, it’s an alcoholic drink of some sort.
No more tatterdemalion a renegado I ever beheld, but Mr. Evans swore the quadroon, Barnabas, was “the fleetest sheepdog who ever ran upon two legs.”
noun – a person in tattered clothing; a shabby person.
noun – (dated; offensive) – a person who is one-quarter black by descent.
The Moriori lived as primitive a life as their woebegone cousins of Van Diemen’s Land.
I know “Van Diemen’s Land” as the title of a traditional song. Because I associate the song with U2, I assumed Van Diemen’s Land was Ireland. (Wrong!)
Van Diemen’s Land was the original name used by most Europeans for the island of Tasmania, now part of Australia. In 1642, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman named the island Anthoonij van Diemenslandt in honor of Anthony von Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, who had sent Tasman on his voyage.
Mr. D’Arnoq encountered Harewood five years ago, penurious in a Bay of Islands tavern.
adjective – (formal) – 1: extremely poor; poverty-stricken.
2: parsimonious; mean.
“Think on the treaties you Americans abrogate & renege on, time & time & time again.”
verb – (formal) – repeal or do away with (a law, right, or formal agreement).
One needs not be an Aesculapian to glean Cpt. Molyneaux is a slave to gout.
adjective – (archaic) – of or relating to medicine of physicians. (From Aesculapius, the name of the Roman god of medicine.)
First one, then ten, then hundreds of faces emerged from the perpetual dim, adzed by idolaters into bark.
noun – a tool similar to an ax with an arched blade at right angles to the handle, used for cutting or shaping large pieces of wood.
With Mr. Roderick lodged in their fo’c’sle, they cannot yarn freely over a bottle.
noun – the forward part of a ship below the deck, traditionally used as the crew’s living quarters.
a raised deck at the bow of a ship.
“You are no valetudinarian viscount with banknotes padding his pillows!”
noun – a person who is unduly anxious about their health.
adjective – showing undue concern about one’s health.
My senses grow alert, yet my limbs grow Lethean.
noun – (classical mythology) – a river in Hades whose water caused forgetfulness of the past in those who drank of it.
2: (usually lowercase) forgetfulness; oblivion.
Seems to share similar roots to the word “lethargy”, which comes from a base meaning “forget.”
STORY B: Letters From Zedelghem (1/2)
Robert Frobisher’s story consists of letters written to his friend and lover, Rufus Sixsmith.
I would have read a full book about Robert Frobisher. He’s quick and witty and writes in a propulsive, breathless tone. He felt more alive than any other character in Cloud Atlas (and there are many good characters here).
Still can’t believe it. I, a Caius Man, teetering on the brink of destitution.
Gonville and Caius College (often referred to simply as “Caius”) is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. It is the fourth-oldest college at the University of Cambridge and one of the wealthiest.
My daydream had me (…) persuading Vyvyan Ayrs he needed to employ me as an amanuensis.
noun – a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.
Arrive in that six o’clock in the morning gnossiennesque hour.
The Gnossiennes are several piano compositions written by the French composer Erik Satie in the late 19th century. The works are for the most part in free time and highly experimental with form, rhythm and chordal structure. The form as well as the term was invented by Satie. The word appears to be derived from “gnosis” (the common Greek noun for knowledge), though some believe it’s derived from Cretan “knossos” or “gnossus”, linking the Gnossiennes to the myth of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur.
This is a nicely elegant term to describe a city’s early-morning, just-waking feeling. It also expresses Frobisher’s way of finding elements of music and composition in everything.
 The most pleasant surprise when reading a ‘literary’ or ‘classic’ book is finding a sense of humor. Mitchell nails it with Frobisher (which makes the second half of his story so emotionally effective).
Aroma of fresh bread led me to a bakery where a deformed woman with no nose sold me a dozen crescent-moon pastries. Only wanted one, but thought she had enough problems.
“Je ne parle pas flamand.”
French: I do not speak Flemish.
Girls fascinate in different ways. Try ‘em one day. Tapped on the pane, and asked in French if she’d save my life by falling in love with me. Shook her head but got an amused smile.
This has a parallel in Frobisher’s second part (Post 3, note ). Frobisher’s story is the only one to fold back on itself, much like Cloud Atlas as a whole. Ewing, Rey, Cavendish and Zachry end up somewhere different than where they started (and Somni is in a prison all along) but Frobisher’s adventure sets off and concludes in a hotel room. We see the changes in him by how he enters and exits Bruges.
“Are you mad?”
Always a trickier question than it looks. “I doubt it.”
She cantered around me like Queen Boadicea, pointedly unresponsive.
Boudica (d. ~AD 60) was a queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. The absence of native British literature during the early part of the first millennium means that knowledge of Boudica’s rebellion comes solely from the writings of the Romans.
An idler and a sluggard are as different as a gourmand and a glutton.
Rather doubt her interest in the Frobishery’s memsahibs was genuine.
noun – (Indian; dated) – a married white or upper-class woman (often used as a respectful form of address by nonwhites).
Acquaintances from Ayrs’s salad days in Florida or Paris.
Where does this come from and what does it mean, exactly?
“Salad days” is a Shakespearean idiomatic expression to refer to a youthful time, accompanied by the inexperience, enthusiasm, idealism, innocence, or indiscretion that one associates with a young person. A more modern use, especially in the United States, refers to a heyday, a period when somebody was at the peak of their abilities – not necessarily in that person’s youth.
The phrase was coined in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in 1606. Cleopatra says:
My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood
“What in the hell are you doing down here?”
Eva replied with fury! “Ce lac appartient a ma famille depuis cinq siecles! Vous etes ici depuis combien de temps exactement? Bien trois semaines! Alors vous voyez, je vais ou bon me semble!”
French: This lake has belonged to my family for five centuries! You’re here exactly how long? A good three weeks! So you see, I go where I please!
 Each consecutive character comes in contact with the story before in some way. Frobisher finds the first part of Ewing’s journal and tells Sixsmith:
Ewing puts me in mind of Melville’s bumbler Cpt. Delano in “Benito Cereno,” blind to all conspirators – he hasn’t spotted his trusty Dr. Henry Goose [sic] is a vampire, fueling his hypochondria in order to poison him, slowly, for his money.
(The “[sic]” is in original text; Frobisher knows “Henry Goose” is a false name and is probably not even a doctor.)
While reading Ewing’s first part I didn’t consider that Henry might be a fraud. I took Ewing’s trust of him at face value. The suggestion that Ewing was being poisoned is a very interesting seed for Frobisher to plant and it turns out (though we have to wait another 400 pages to find out) that he is correct.
We might also come to think that Frobisher was quick to see through Henry because he experienced the event himself (when his soul was in Ewing). Frobisher makes a later allusion to distrusting all doctors (Post 3, note ), which suggest a holdover from Ewing.
As for the reference:
“Benito Cereno” is a novella by Herman Melville, a fictionalized account about the revolt on a Spanish slavery ship captained by Don Benito Cereno, first published in 1855. Captain Amasa Delano sees Cereno’s ship in distress and offers help and assistance, slowly realizing that something strange is going on around him. In a book about Melville, Johannes Bergmann said that the novella has “unreliable, even deceptive narration.”
Ayrs and I completed our first collaboration, a short tone poem, “Der Todtenvogel.”
German: the dead bird
This foreshadows a later event for Frobisher (Post 3, note ).
I was studying rare Balakirev juvenilia in my room.
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev (1836 – 1910) was a Russian pianist, conductor and composer known primarily for his work promoting musical nationalism and his encouragement of more famous Russian composers.
Adultery is a tricky duet to pull off.
Does she want to ruin herself? Is she one of these libertarian suffragette Rossetti types?
Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830 – 1894) was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children’s poems. She is famous for writing Goblin Market and Remember.
Rossetti and her brother Dante show up in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
“Sneak, you call me? ‘Une moucharde’? Ce n’est pas un mot amiable, Mr. Frobisher. Si vous dites que je suis une moucharde, vous allez nuire a ma reputation. Et si vous nuisez a ma reputation, eh bien, il faudra que je ruine la votre!”
Meekly, she inquired, “Avez-vous dit a ma mere ce que vous avez vu?”
French: ‘An informer’? This is not a friendly word, Mr. Frobisher. If you say that I am an informer, you’ll hurt my reputation. And if you harm my reputation, well, I’ll have to ruin yours! (…) Did you say to my mother what you saw?
“You’re my Verlaine.”
“Am I, young Rimbaud? Then where is your Saison en Enfer?”
Paul-Marie Verlaine (1844 – 1896) was a French poet associated with the Symbolist movement.
Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891) was a French poet who is known for his influence on modern literature and arts, which prefigured surrealism. Rimbaud was known to have been a libertine and restless soul, having engaged in an (at times) violent romantic relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine.
Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) is an extended prose poem written and published in 1873 by Rimbaud. The book had a considerable influence on later artists and poets, including the Surrealists. Rimbaud worked on the poem during the most violent part of his relationship with Verlaine (between work on A Season in Hell, Verlaine shot at Rimbaud in a hotel room, hitting his wrist with a bullet). In the fall-out of the Verlaine relationship, Rimbaud’s reputation suffered and in anger, he burned his manuscripts and likely never wrote poetry again.
This is a damn dark comparison for Frobisher to make with Ayrs.
 Frobisher’s breathless, quasi-carefree style recedes when he discusses music and composition. Mitchell manages these shifts in such a natural way, it’s as if Frobisher himself is unaware of his change in tone.
How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.
They fenced over such topics as (…) whether Webern is Fraudster or Messiah.
Anton Webern (1883 – 1945) was an Austrian composer and conductor. He was an exponent of atonality and twelve-tone technique.
Webern was also referenced in The Magus (Post 2, note ). Hopefully I’ll remember him after this.
The two old men nodded off like a pair of ancient kings passing the aeons in their tumuli.
noun – an ancient burial mound; a barrow.
Made a musical notation of their snores. Elgar is to be played by a bass tuba, Ayrs a bassoon. I’ll do the same with Fred Delius and Trevor Mackerras and publish ‘em all together in a work entitled The Backstreet Museum of Stuffed Edwardians.
Fred Delius (1862 – 1934) was an English composer.
Delius is not an off-hand reference for Mitchell/Frobisher to make. Like Ayrs in Cloud Atlas, Delius contracted syphilis during his younger years and suffered from the effects in later life (becoming paralyzed and bind). He completed some late compositions with the aid of an amanuensis, Eric Fenby.
Trevor Mackerras is an invention of Cloud Atlas. Frobisher tells the musical policeman he meets in Bruges:
“I am – I was – a student of Sir Trevor Mackerras at Cauis college.”
STORY C: Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1/2)
Rey’s story is told in the third person, present tense.
 Opens with the recipient of Frobisher’s letters, and a damned good line:
Rufus Sixsmith leans over the balcony and estimates his body’s velocity when it hits the sidewalk and lays his dilemmas to rest.
Buenas Yerbas isn’t Cambridge.
While Buenas Yerbas is a fictional Californian town in Cloud Atlas, Yerba Buena was the original name of the Spanish settlement that would later become San Francisco (the city that Ewing resides in). The name means “good herb.”
“The key to fictitious terror is partition or containment: so long as the Bates Motel is sealed off from our world, we want to peer in, like at a scorpion enclosure. But a film that shows the world is a Bates Motel, well that’s… the stuff of Buchenwald, dystopia, depression. We’ll dip our toes in a predatory, amoral, godless universe – but only our toes.”
“Believe nothing till it’s officially denied.”
“Anything is true if enough people believe it is.”
 I like this style of stage direction. It can easily be overdone or feel too stylized but Mitchell is very good in Rey’s story to use it to good effect. It puts action into this speech (instead of passive boredom) and lets us know immediately that Grimaldi is our Bond villain:
Alberto Grimaldi scans his audience. In the palm of my hand. “Some bury their heads in the sand. Some fantasize about wind turbines, reservoirs, and” – wry half smile – “pig gas.” Appreciative chuckle. “At Seaboard we deal in realities.” Voice up. “I am here today to tell you that the cure for oil is right here, right now, on Swannekke Island!”
“Sixsmith’s role was to give the project his imprimatur.”
noun – an official license by the Roman Catholic Church to print an ecclesiastical or religious book.
a person’s acceptance or guarantee that something is of a good standard.
A Sephardic romance (…) fills the Lost Chord Music Store.
Sephardi Jews (also known as Sephardic Jews or simply Sephardim) are a Jewish ethnic division whose ethnogenesis and emergence as a distinct community of Jews coalesced in the Iberian Peninsula around the year 1000. They established communities through Spain and Portugal.
 After Sixsmith’s death (a gunshot wound to the head in a hotel room, an echo to Frobisher which we haven’t yet been shown), Rey is given the letters from Frobisher which were in Sixsmith’s possession. She learns that Frobisher composed a piece called the Cloud Atlas Sextet and is told:
“He was a wunderkind, he died just as he got going. (…) Cloud Atlas Sextet must bring the kiss of death to all who take it on.”
 First overt reincarnation reference:
Luisa has reread Sixsmith’s letters a dozen times or more in the last day and a half. They disturb her. A university friend of Sixsmith’s, Robert Frobisher, wrote the series in the summer of 1931. (…) It is not the unflattering light they shed on a pliable young Rufus Sixsmith that bothers Luisa but the dizzying vividness of the images of places and people that the letters have unlocked. Images so vivid she can only call them memories. The pragmatic journalist’s daughter would, and did, explain these “memories” as the work of an imagination hypersensitized by her father’s recent death, but a detail in one letter will not be dismissed. Robert Frobisher mentions a comet-shaped birthmark between his shoulder blade and collarbone.
“Hey,” he says to hide a jab of guilt, “you’ve had your hair cut short.”
Luisa isn’t very surprised. “Don’t all dumped women?”
“Your car, your” – he does a Hollywood SS officer accent – “ ‘Volkswagen.’ What’s it’s name?”
“How do you know my Beetle has a name?”
“All Beetle owners give their cars names.”