“Cloud Atlas” (Post 3/3)


[Explanation of Reading Journal/Ratings]

Post 1/3

Post 2/3

STORY B: Letters From Zedelghem (2/2)

[99] Frobisher, earlier in the book, caught on that Ewing was being fleeced by Dr. Henry Goose (Post 1, note [24]). Now, he says, regarding doctors:

Never met a quack whom I didn’t half-suspect of plotting to do me in as expensively as he could contrive.


[100] Vocabulary:

Mrs. Willems brought me some kedgeree.



In the West, Kedgeree is a dish consisted of cooked, flaked fish (traditionally smoked haddock), boiled rice, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, curry powder, butter or cream and occasionally sultanas (golden raisins).

[101] Reference:

Maybe Froames asked Adrian for a light one tired evening, or cowered with him as bombs rained down, or shared a Bovril.



Bovril is the trademarked name of a thick, salty meat extract, developed in the 1870s by John Lawson Johnston. Bovril can be made into a drink by diluting with hot water. It can be used as a flavoring for soups, stews or porridge, or spread on bread.

[102] Frobisher/Mitchell addresses a strange male mentality in the off-screen character of Orford, which I ranted about a little while discussing The Magus (Post 3, note [100]):

One encounters buffoons like Orford in your college, who wear an air of deprivation that the war ended before they had a chance to show their mettle. Others, Figgis springs to mind, confess their relief not to have been or service age before 1918 but a certain shame that they feel this relief.



We cut a pack of cards called historical context – our generation, Sixsmith, cut tens, jacks, and queens. Adrian’s cut threes, fours, and fives. That’s all.


[103] Frobisher’s dead bird (Post 1, note [25]):

Dhondt and I jumped out and ran back – to see a monster pheasant, flapping its broken wings. Dhondt blew out an elaborate oath in Sanskrit or something, and gave a ha! of relief that he hadn’t killed someone that also expressed dismay at having killed something. Had lost the power of speech, and dabbed my bleeding tongue on my handkerchief. Proposed putting the poor bird out of its misery. Dhondt’s answer was a proverb whose idiocy may have been deliberate: “To those upon the menu, the sauce is no concern.” He went back to try to coax the Bugatti back to life. Couldn’t fathom his meaning but walked up to the pheasant, causing it to flap ever more desperately. Its medallion breast feathers were matted with blood and fecal spewings. It cried, Sixsmith, just like a two-day old baby. Wished I had a gun. On the roadside was a stone as big as my fist. I smashed it down on the pheasant’s head. Unpleasant – not the same as shooting a bird, not at all.


This is Frobisher’s turning point (and one of the best passages in a book filled with good passages). All of the good for him starts to go bad and he spirals toward his end while working on his masterpiece Cloud Atlas Sextet.


The reduction ad absurdum of M.D.’s view, I argued, was that science devises ever bloodier means of war until humanity’s powers of destruction overcome our powers of creation and our civilization drives itself to extinction. M.D. embraced my objection with mordant glee. “Precisely.”


[105] Not very subtle, but I like the meta touch:

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until its finished, and by then it’ll be too late.


[106] Translate:

Comme c’est charmant!”



French: as it is charming!


A pi-jawed ass or kingly proportions, so busy planning his next boorish interruption that he never listens properly. Pays himself unveiled compliments, beginning “Call me old fashioned but…” or “Some consider me a snob but…”



Nothing is more tiresome than being told what to admire, and having things pointed at with a stick.


[109] Reference:

Mme. van de Velde gave the pinnacle one squint and announced that she would let us young things scramble up there by ourselves and wait in the patisserie across the piazza.



A type of French or Belgian bakery that specializes in pastries or sweets. (The word itself is French for “pastry.”)

[110] A group of children has twice been called a “crocodile.”


A crocodile of schoolchildren clusters around the portrait of the old woman.



Horses, automobiles, cyclists, a crocodile of choirboys.


In the United Kingdom, “crocodile” can informally mean a line of people, especially children, who are walking in pairs.

More specifically (and probably incidentally) A Crocodile of Choirboys is the title of a 1970 book by C.J. Bradley Robinson. I can’t find much about it but it seems to have been published by an adult press.


E’s character depends on which angle you’re looking from, a quality of superior opals.


[112] Reference:

Mme. van de Velde fanned herself with a menu and ate boule de l’Yser.



A kind of doughnut filled with pastry cream and sprinkled with icing sugar. Best information I could find about it was at this blog.


Anticipating the end of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime (…) The End is what we want, so I’m afraid the End is what we’re damn well going to get.


[114] Translate:

After that kiss, she says, “Vous embrassez comme un poisson rouge!”



French: you kiss like a red poison!

[115] Reference:

Because she prefers travelogues to Sir Walter Scott, prefers Billy Mayerl to Mozart.



Billy Mayerl (1902 – 1959) was an English pianist and composer who built a career in music hall and musical theater and became an acknowledged master of light music. His best-known composition is Marigold (1927).


I, only I, see her smile a fraction before it reaches her face.


[117] References:

A composer might work with a virtuoso musician to explore the boundaries of the playable – like Elgar and W.H. Reed.



Sir Edward William Elgar, 1st Baronet (1857 – 1934) was an English composer. Many of his works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire.

William Henry “Billy” Reed (1875 – 1942) was an English violinist, teacher, minor composer, conductor and biographer (and friend) of Sir Edward Elgar. His book Elgar As I Knew Him (1936) goes into great detail about the genesis of the Violin Concerto in B minor.


“Why would such an artist possibly need to ‘plagiarize’ anything from a copyist who, may I remind him, was unable to obtain even a bachelor’s degree for himself from a college for the terminally privileged?”


[119] An echo from Frobisher of Zachry’s killing of the sleeping Kona:

A blue vein throbbed over Ayrs’s Adam’s apple and I fought off an unaccountably strong urge to open it up with my penknife. Most uncanny. Not quite déjà vu, more jamais vu.



So here was the fearsome en’my. Nineteen – twenty maybe he was. A vein pulsed in his Adam’s apple what was left white b’tween two lizardy tattoos. You found me, yay, so slit me, whispered that throat. Blade me. (…)

I stroked my blade thru his throat. Magicky ruby welled’n’pumped an’ frothed on the fleece an’ puddled on the stone floor.

(p.300 – 301)


Boundaries between noise and sound are conventions, I see now. All boundaries are conventions, national ones too. One may transcend any convention, if only one can conceive of doing so.


[121] A bookend scene to Frobisher’s own start (Post 1, note [17]); the woman in the window is now old instead of young and Frobisher’s charm no longer works:

Behind a grubby window a grandmother was arranging Saintpaulia in a bowl. Tapped on the pane and asked her to fall in love with me. Pursed her lips, don’t think she spoke French, but I tried again. Cannonball-headed fellow with absolutely no chin appeared at the window, spat out brimstone curses on me and my house.


[122] Weird sentence (the [sic] is in the original text):

Reminded myself I’d not committed any crime – va bene, hare[sic]splitter, not a crime against the Crommelynck-Ayrses that I know of.


Frobisher is saying, “All right – I have committed crimes, but not against the Crommelynck Ayrses.” But I don’t understand his use of “hare.” Why is he talking about rabbits?

[123] Reference:

Cold as the Urals.



The Ural Mountains, or simply the Urals, are a mountain range that runs approximately from north to south through western Russia, from the coast of the Arctic Ocean to the Ural River and northwestern Kazakhstan.

[124] Translate:

A surprised butler is never good news. “Je suis desole, Monsieur, mais votre nom ne figure pas sur la liste des invites.”



French: I am sorry, sir, but your name is not on the invitation list.


All those cannibals, feasting on my dignity.


When the cannibals aren’t literal in this book, they’re symbolic; taking emotion, energy, etc.

[126] Is this true?

Franz Schubert maimed his hands by tying weights to ‘em. He thought it’d increase his range at the keyboard.


This story is said of Robert Schumann, not Franz Schubert. There’s sense in having Frobisher make this mistake; it shows his increasing mental flightiness and instability. These lines are in the last group of letters he sends to Sixsmith before his suicide.

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) was a German composer and influential music critic. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. During his studies with Friedrich Wieck, it has been claimed that Schumann permanently damaged a finger on his right hand. Wieck claimed that Schumann damaged his finger by the use of a mechanical device designed to strengthen the weakest fingers, a device which held back one finger while he exercised the others. This claim was discredited by others.

[127] Reference:

Doesn’t know a crotchet from crochet.



noun – (music, British) – 1: a quarter note

2: a perverse or unfounded belief or notion.


[128] Translate:

“May I come in? Je pensais vous render une visite de courtoisie.”

“Most certainly,” I replied, adding rather wittily, “Voila qui est bien courtois, pour un policier.”



French: I thought you render a courtesy visit.

See here who is courteous to a police officer.

I think I might be missing some of the joke here.



Shot myself through the roof of my mouth at five A.M. this morning.


[130] Reference:

Only ornament in my room a monstrous Laughing Cavalier too ugly to steal and sell.



The Laughing Cavalier (1624) is a portrait by the Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals. The title is the invention of the Victorian public and press from its exhibition in 1872-75 after which it was regularly reproduced in print, and became among the best known old master paintings in Britain.

[131] Continuing the motif from note [121].

From my filthy window, one sees the very same dilapidated old windmill on whose steps I napped on my first morning in Bruges. The very same. Fancy that. Around we go.



The lovelorn, the cry-for-helpers, all mawkish tragedians who give suicide a bad name are the idiots who rush it, like amateur conductors. A true suicide is a paced, disciplined certainty.



No, what’s selfish is to demand another to endure an intolerable existence, just to spare families, friends, and enemies a bit of soul-searching. The only selfishness lies in ruining stranger’s days by forcing ‘em to witness a grotesqueness.


Frobisher may be working off a memory/subconscious awareness of events in Ewing’s life (note [146]).

[133] References:

Echoes of Scriabin’s White Mass.



Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915) was a Russian composer and pianist. He is considered by some to be the main Russian Symbolist composer. He was influenced by synesthesia and associated colors with the various harmonic tones of his atonal scale.

The Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, subtitled White Mass was written by Scriabin in 1911. As one of the late piano sonatas of Scriabin’s career, the music is highly chromatic and almost atonal. He wrote it as an exorcism against the darkness of his sixth sonata (which he refused to play publicly and believed to be corrupted by demonic forces).

[134] Frobisher understands Cloud Atlas’s cyclical nature of time better than any other character:

Later, Ewing will sail again, Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again.


[135] Translate:

Sunt lacrimae rerum.



Latin: there are tears

This phrase was also used in The Magus (Post 9, note [411]).

STORY A: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (2/2)

[136] Vocabulary:

An hour later, the Prophetess kedged into Bethlehem Bay.




verb – (with reference to a ship or boat) move by hauling in a hawser attached to a small anchor dropped at some distance.

noun – a small anchor used to reposition a ship or boat by having the anchor’s hawser hauled in.

[137] Two character named Upward appear.


Dr. Upward was one of those Academy Award-winning Asses of Arrogance you find in educational administration, law, or medicine. He visited Aurora House twice a week, and if, at age fifty-five or so, his career was not living up to the destiny his name foretold, it was down to us damnable obstacles in the way of all Emissars of Healing, sick people.



“An idea of Father Upward’s, at the Tahitian Mission.”


[138] Vocabulary:

One Mr. Gosling (…) wrung his hands in oleaginous admiration.



adjective – 1: rich in, covered with, or producing oil; oily or greasy.

2: exaggeratedly and distastefully complimentary; obsequious.

[139] Reference:

“Another Descartes, another Cuvier.”



Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832) was a French naturalist and zoologist. Cuvier was a major figure in natural sciences research in the early 19th century and was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology through his work in comparing living animals with fossils.

[140] Probably not related, but:

Cavendish, in his room at Aurora House:

Picture of cottage captioned: “A House is Made by Hands, but a Home is Made by Hearts.”


Ewing, on Raiatea:

I was treated to “O! Home is Where Thou Art Loved the Best” accompanied by Mrs. Horrox on an upright piano whose past was more glorious than its present.


There’s a complementary irony in these platitudes appearing in places of sadness and entrapment.

[141] Three characters reference Herman Melville:

Frobisher compares Ewing to Melville’s Captain Delano (Post 1, note [24]).


I explained, yet again, that the gangster-chic market was saturated; and that even Moby-Dick bombed in Melville’s lifetime.



I recall the crimes Mr. Melville imputes to Pacific missionaries in his recent account of the Typee.



Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is the first book by Herman Melville, published in 1846. Considered a classic in travel and adventure literature, the narrative is partly based on the author’s actual experiences on the island Nuku Hiva in the South Pacific Marquesas Islands in 1842. Typee was Melville’s most popular work during his lifetime; it made him notorious as the “man who lived among the cannibals.” Typee’s narrative expressed sympathy for the so-called savages, while criticizing the missionaries’ attempts to civilize them.

[142] Vocabulary:

Pocock, dressed in absurd robe with a squilgee wig.



noun – a variant of squeegee.

[143] Reference:

Next, Guernsey appeared, dressed as Queen Amphitrite.



In ancient Greek mythology, Amphitrite was a sea-goddess and wife of Poseidon. Under the influence of the Olympian pantheon, she became merely the consort of Poseidon, and was further diminished by poets to a symbolic representation of the sea.

[144] Vocabulary:

My doctor is kept busy by much erysipelas & bilious cholera on the Prophetess.



An acute infection typically with a skin rash. Also known as “ignis sacer”, “holy fire”, and “St. Anthony’s fire” in some countries.

[145] Vocabulary:

By the afternoon watch the seamen were flown. A regular saturnalia.



noun – the ancient Roman festival of Saturn in December, which was a period of general merrymaking and was the predecessor of Christmas.

an occasion of wild revelry.

[146] This may be why Frobisher is so careful in his suicide preparations and leaves his body for strangers to find (note [132]):

Rafael has hanged himself. Hanged, by means of a noose slung over the mainmast lower yardarm. He ascended his gallows between the end of his watch & first bell. Fate decreed I should be amongst his discoverers. (…)

My mind burns with the question, Why? (…)

Henry says I cannot flagellate myself whene’er innocence falls prey to savagery, but how can I let this be? Rafael was Jackson’s age. I feel such impotence, I cannot bear it.

(p.498 – 499)


No state of tyranny reigns forever.


[148] Frobisher’s initial read of Henry Goose as a fraud (Post 1, note [24]) is finally confirmed by Ewing:

The doctor was a poisoner & I his prey. Since the commencement of my “Treatment,” the doctor had been killing me by degrees with his “cure.”

My Worm? A fiction, implanted by the doctor’s power of suggestion! Goose, a doctor? No, an itinerant, murdering confidence trickster!


[149] Vocabulary:

Autua gripped the atrabilious Hollander’s shin.



adjective – (literary) – melancholy or ill-tempered.

[150] Vocabulary:

A pair of women whose paint & tournure advertised their ancient calling peered at me.



noun – a pad or frame worn under a skirt and puffing it out behind.


History admits no rules; only outcomes.

What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.

What precipitates acts? Belief.

Belief is both prize & battlefield.


[152] It may mean nothing but our first narrator’s name starts with “A” (Adam, the “first man”) and the last narrator (chronologically) starts with “Z” (Zachry).

I’d recommend Cloud Atlas to anyone who enjoys reading. Basically, to anyone who reads at all.

The short-story length sections stand on their own; the five-hundred pages are hardly felt. By the time you get to the difficult style of “Sloosha’s Crossin’”, you’ll be invested enough in the other five stories to push through.

And as a reader, you get the gift of a unique story that begs to be re-read almost as soon as you finish it the first time.

Next week, Peter Beagle’s first novel A Fine and Private Place.


4 thoughts on ““Cloud Atlas” (Post 3/3)

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