3 out of 5 stars.
Tensions rise during a country picnic.
A strange story and, like every other piece in The Ebony Tower, unsatisfying if you want a complete narrative. Fowles leaves every story hanging but “The Cloud” is the most unsettling; it’s downright haunting.
It’s very difficult to get into (some bizarre stylistic choices don’t help) but if you can stick with it until the second half, the payoff is worth it.
O, you must wear your rue with a difference.
(p.219, title page)
I’ve told you before: I don’t know Shakespeare. Finding this reference was a key to unlocking much of this story.
Fowles has cast his tragic figure (Catherine) as Ophelia from Hamlet. In a 1994 letter to the editor in the New York Times, Colin Hugh Buckley does a wonderful job breaking down Ophelia’s line:
The knowledge that rue was widely considered in Renaissance Europe both as a contraceptive and an abortifacient (Science Times, March 8) newly illuminates Ophelia’s final scene in “Hamlet.”
She addresses the Queen: “There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me – we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays. Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.”
Perhaps Ophelia’s deranged state and subsequent suicide are prompted by more than just heartbreak.
Other references to Ophelia will be made (see notes  and ).
 “The Cloud” spends a page in past tense before switching abruptly to present. And the first sentence is extremely difficult to parse:
Already a noble day, young summer soaring, vivid with promise, drenched blue and green, had divided them, on the terrace beside the mill, into sun and shadow.
The switch to present tense:
Annabel looked down there. “Ours will. I’m afraid.”
Paul suggests that Peter and Sally need not come.
Amusing trouvaille at some local sale.
noun – a lucky find.
The scene possessed a strange sense of enclosure, almost that of a painting, a Courbet perhaps.
Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877) was a French painter who led the 19th-century French Realism movement. Committed to painting only what he could see, he rejected academic convention and the Romanticism of the previous generation of visual artists.
“Set us dumb helots free, we collapse into total inertia.”
The helots were a subjugated population group that formed the main population of Laconia and Messenia, the territory controlled by Sparta.
He knows he is known as dynamic. Smart little rhesus, his cage is time. He grins, finger out.
With Peter everything is always about to disappear.
 “The Cloud” reads like a script or play with its lack of dialogue attributes. Fowles usually handles his dislike of “said” by only having two characters interact at a time. He runs into problems quickly in “The Cloud” with five adults interacting (two women, three men); it’s often difficult to tell who’s saying what. In moments without dialogue, the narration reads as direction more than prose:
Swifts scream, high in the azure sky. There is no wind. Paul and the children enter a wood, disappear in the leaves and shadow, then Annabel and her sister follow. The last pair idle in the flowery sunlight. Peter has his arm around the girl’s shoulders, she is speaking.
She invites regiments and rape; Laclos immortalized her.
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741 – 1803) was a French novelist, official, freemason and army general, best known for writing the epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) (1782).
I am not sure which of Laclos’ characters “invite[d] regiments and rape,” and honestly, I’m disgusted enough by the phrase not to care.
Fowles’ males characters, as always, see women as non-human. They are alien, animal; to be documented and dominated. But, in this story (and The Collector, especially), he does show some skill for writing from a female viewpoint. Catherine understands how she is seen and how she is expected to behave:
Paul says, “The mountain bit started with the Romantics, surely.”
She runs a finger down Emma’s hair. It began with Petrarch; but one must not know too much.
Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374), commonly anglicized as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar and poet in Renaissance Italy, who was one of the early humanists. He traveled widely in Europe, served as an ambassador, and has been called “the first tourist” because he traveled just for pleasure, which was the basic reason he climbed Mont Ventoux.
 Fowles tries to give the background and relationships of the characters through dialogue (very playlike, again), but it’s slow going and doesn’t work very well. Especially when it’s so hard to tell who is talking. An exchange/thought like this makes absolutely no sense to me:
“Now you’re being transparent.”
Ridiculous, terrible: one cannot hide the smile.
“ ‘Catherine! I will not have you speaking to your mother like that!’ ”
Wicked Bel, mimicking to pierce, to remind; when one wept with rage, and there was only one sane and understanding being in the world. Toward whom one now reaches a hand, and feels it pressed… and then, how typical, that wicked oblique egocentricity, how cheaply feminine, oh how one hated her sometimes (what had he once said, the obsidian beneath the milk), having one so near bared, and glancing off, as if it was all a joke, just pretending…
Voices are the enemy of thought; not thought; thinking.
(p.228 – 229)
 Fowles metafiction again (see also “The Enigma,” Post 4, note ):
One is given to theories of language, of fiction, of illusion; and also to silly fancies. Like dreaming one is in a book without its last chapters, suddenly: one is left forever on that last incomplete page.
Yet still one lies, as in a novel by an author one no longer admires, in an art that has become obsolete.
Perhaps continuity is simply having wishes.
Bel’s freckled-milky skin as she smiles, her vacant Juno smile, beneath the wide brim of her rush hat; it has fenestrations, an open lattice around the crown. Nuclei, electrons. Seurat, the atom is all. The first truly acceptable island of the day. En famille; where children reign. For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy. Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes.
Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891) was a French post-Impressionist painter and draftsman. He is noted for his innovative use of drawing media and for devising the painting techniques known as chromoluminarism and pointillism. (Both techniques focus on painting in dots, which is the link Fowles is making to atoms.)
“My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone” or “Bonny Sweet Robin” is an English popular tune from the Renaissance. It is suspected that the character Ophelia, of Hamlet, sings the last line of the tune (“For bonny sweet Robin is all my job”) during her madness. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare’s choice of the song was meant to invoke phallic symbolism.
…I’m still a bit confused.
Ah, ca ira, ca ira. Les aristocrats, on les pendra.
“Ca ira” (“it’ll be fine”) is an emblematic song of the French Revolution, first heard in May 1790. At later stages of the revolution, more aggressive stanzas were used, including the one Fowles quotes, which translates to:
Ah! It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine. The aristocrats, we’ll hang them!
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight. Goonight.
From T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (II. A Game of Chess) (found on poetryfoundation.org):
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.
According to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land Wiki:
These few last lines of the poem alludes [sic] to a fictional character in “Hamlet” called Ophelia. She was mad and bewildered after her dad’s death (…) Everynight, Ophelia sings songs about death and maidens losing virginity while she gives flowers to girls. To end her songs, she always announces, “Goodnight, Goodnight, Goodnight.”
Sally turns, whitebodies her willowy way back toward Bel; a w-girl now.
Very hard to search for this with these keywords and not much context. I’m assuming it’s slang. Can anyone help?
Option 2: Fowles’ use of “w” words in the sentence (whitebodies, willowy, way) makes Sally a “w-girl.”
“This stuff’s marvelous. What is it?”
Rillettes are a preparation of meat similar to pate. Commonly made from pork, the meat is cubed or chopped, salted heavily and cooked slowly in fat until it is tender enough to be easily shredded, and then cooled with enough of the fat to form a paste. They are normally used as spread on bread or toast and served at room temperature.
“Have you got a cigarette, Paul?”
Gauloises (“Gaul women” in French) is a brand of cigarette of French manufacture. Traditional Gauloises were short, wide, unfiltered and made with dark tobaccos from Syria and Turkey which produced a strong and distinctive aroma.
“I’ve lost all sense of the past. Everything is present.”
Another touch of meta, possibly, considering the story is told in present tense.
“Like Mr. Micawber? Something will turn up?”
Wilkins Micawber is a fictional character from Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, David Copperfield. He was incarcerated in debtors’ prison after failing to meet his creditors’ demands. Micawber is known for asserting his faith that “something will turn up.” His name has become synonymous with someone who lives in hopeful expectation.
(I am more woefully unversed in Dickens than in Shakespeare.)
What bishop carries gelignite – or would hand it over in his cathedral?
Gelignite, also known as blasting gelatin or simply jelly, is an explosive material. It was invented in 1875 by Alfred Nobel.
Paul is adumbrating an angle for the program.
verb – (formal) – report or represent in outline.
foreshadow or symbolize.
Though ca va de soi the puritanical side also allows one to despise their politics.
French: It goes without saying
We’ve had to evolve the whole constitutional gallimaufry (one of his odd words) (…) against our real natures.
noun – a confused jumble or medley of things.
(United States) – a dish made from diced or minced meat, especially a hash or ragout.
“Just thinking of what Barthes said (…) He analyzed tourist guides. In a book of essays.”
Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) was a French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician. His 1957 book Mythologies is a collection of essays taken from Les Lettres Nouvelles, examining the tendency of contemporary social value systems to create modern myths.
That strange divide between young children and non-mothers.
“I don’t like it when you’re unhappy.”
“I don’t like it either, Emma. But sometimes you can’t help it.”
And from nowhere, storied; granted a future peripeteia.
noun – (formal) – a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances, especially in reference to fictional narrative.
She watches her aunt’s face almost as if the prince and princess as well as phonemes might come from her mouth.
noun – (phonetics) – any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat.
One doesn’t have to believe stories; only that they can be told.
“Neither the prince nor she would ever grow older. They would stay seventeen forever, until they met again.”
“Was it very long?”
Catherine smiles down. “It’s still. All these years and years. They’re both still seventeen. And they’ve never met.”
He reads The Scholar Gipsy aloud.
“The Scholar Gipsy” (1853) is a poem by Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888), based on a 17th-century Oxford story found in Joseph Glanvill’s The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661). It has often been called one of the best and most popular of Arnold’s poems. It tells the story of an impoverished Oxford student who left his studies to join a band of gipsies.
 Reference (another connection to Hamlet, though through Bel, not Catherine):
If only it hadn’t to be all Hamlet, that wretched intellectual sob story, all walls and winds and winter puns. Willful flights from all simplicity. Absurd, to cast oneself as Hamlet; Ophelia perhaps, that one couldn’t help at times. (…) When Bel was at Somerville there had been an attempt at it: a female Hamlet. Absurd. One kept on thinking of pantomime principal boys, instead of Sarah Bernhardt as one was meant.
Sarah Bernhardt (1844 – 1923) was a French stage across who played leading roles in some of the most successful French plays of the late 19th century. She played the lead role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and often played other male roles.
Above the scrub and talus below.
noun – a slope formed by an accumulation of broken rock debris, as at the base of a cliff or other high place, also called scree.
A trim-bodied man of below average height, he turned and gazed up at the cliff over his head, and wondered comfortably if he was safe from falling rock.
Il faut philosopher pour vivre. That is, one must not love.
French: It is necessary to philosophize to live.
Burn dry and extirpate; ban; annul; annihilate. I will not return. Not as I am.
verb – root out and destroy completely.
 Fowles shifts third-person perspectives between the five adults, but tends to use “one” instead of “he” or “she,” which stands out awkwardly to a modern reader. Was this normal in the mid-seventies? A Britishism?
One didn’t realize how large they were until one was down among them. Here and there the spaces between were choked with scrub. Here and there the spaces between were choked with scrub. One had to go back, find easier passages.
Then he nearly trod on a snake.
It was gone almost before he saw it. But some sort of pattern on its back? He was almost sure. It must have been an adder. It would certainly be an adder when he got back to tell them.
She turns on her stomach and lies on her elbows. He sits beside her, well well well, and unscrews the cap from the tube.
He sits arrested, halfway through the squeeze; as if he has come to an unexpected fork in a road; as someone arguing will suddenly see a concealed refutation of his own case in his previous statement.
A hoopoe, cinnamon, black and white, swoops down across the water.
(p.269 – 270)
The hoopoe is a colorful bird found across Afro-Eurasia, notable for its distinctive “crown” of feathers.
A cloud, but a mysterious cloud, the kind of cloud one will always remember because it is so anomalous, so uncorresponding with the weather knowledge that even the most unobservant acquire. It comes from the south, from behind the cliffs where Peter climbed, and whose closeness, at the picnic place, must have hidden what on a plain would have been obvious long before; so that it seems to have crept up; feral and ominous, a great white-edged gray billow beginning to tower over the rocky wall, unmistakable bearer of heavy storm. Always predicted by the day’s stillness and heat… yet still it shocks. And the still peaceful and windless afternoon sunshine about them seems suddenly eerie, false, sardonic, the claws of a brilliantly disguised trap.
Peter says, “Christ. Where did that come from?”
(p.271 – 272)
That’s one of the few “says” I noticed in the entire story, by the way.
They disappear among the poplars. The meadow is empty. The river, the meadow, the cliff and cloud.
The princess calls, but there is no one, now, to hear her.
The Ebony Tower sees itself as Serious and Literary, with all the pretentions you’d expect from such an attitude. But Fowles has a magic that works on me. It won’t work on everyone. Test the waters to see if it’s your thing. Start with “Poor Koko” and “The Enigma.” If you’re still on board, try “The Cloud.” Only go to “The Ebony Tower” if you want to experience all of Fowles (and even then, read The Magus first). “Eliduc” is only for those specifically seeking a modern-ish translation of Marie de France.
Next week, William March’s debut novel of World War I, Company K.