David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas”

2004

David Mitchell’s novel is probably the best thing I read all year. It was inspired by the interrupted narratives of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but completes all its stories in a nested cycle. This arrangement of narrative, like an onion sliced in half, seems to thematize a postmodern collapse of history and boundlessness of space, forcing us to move first from history to the present to the future, and then back again. Far from being a negative quality, however, Mitchell seems to explore this as a means of creating a story so large that even he, the author, cannot make all its pieces match up (vs. Nabokov). This reminds me of Auerbach on Woolf – the characters being beyond Woolf’s authorial scope, and I want to compare this to The Waves & The Golden Notebook as British novels in 6 voices.

The novel’s complex nuanced overlaps of the pages of the atlas Mitchell creates remind me of the opening critique of the hysterical realist novel by James Wood: Several of the main characters have the same distinctive birthmark, like a shooting star. Mitchell has said,

Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context..

Genealogy is also present throughout the text. Adam Ewing’s son Jackson edits the journals and is the person for whom Ewing wants to improve the world (he becomes an abolitionist). Luisa del Ray is rescued by her father’s friend. Zachry’s son ends the “Sloosha’s Crossin'” tale. Yet it is never a safe origin point, but rather a Foucauldian arrival point of results – it feels temporally lateral, and many  bonds are of affiliation rather than filiation, as in The Waves.

Another theme is the cloud atlas itself. Zachry ends his tale with “Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds” 308. Frobisher critiques Ewing’s journal for being too neatly structured (like Benito Cereno, but also Hawthorne’s birthmark theme?), but he doubts his own ‘gimmicky’ “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey receives the letters, but the novel she appears in is fictional in the world of Timothy Cavendish. His narration, later made into a film, is an actual film when Sonmi sees it. Finally, Zachry believes in Sonmi as a god, but his son watches her on the recovered orison and doesn’t understand her language – she is just “beaut’some, and she ‘mazes the littl’ uns an’ her murmin’s babbybie our babbits. Sit down a beat or two. Hold out your hands” 309. (A ‘babbit’ is an unthinking middle-class man, as in the title of Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel, the same year as Ulysses). This central “ending” questions the whole enterprise of narrative – it is both a force so powerful that it leads us to bind all these lives together, and something so fragile that time can erase its legibility completely.

The structure of Cloud Atlas:

1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1849 – American in Pacific Islands) – journal
2: Letters from Zedelghem (1931 – Englishman in Belgium) – epistolary
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1975- American in LA) – detective novel
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2000 – Englishman in UK) – film script
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 (2200? – clone in Korea) – interview
6: Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After (post-apocalyptic – islanders in Maui) – oral story
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 – Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi; Zachry’s son’s children watch her orison.
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – Sonmi watches archived film version
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – Timothy Cavendish reads and critiques novel
2: Letters from Zedelghem – Sixsmith keeps them and Luisa Rey finds them
1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – Frobisher finds in Ayrs’ library and figures out Henry’s plan (Melville)

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E.M. Forster, “Howards End”

1910

The Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (and their brother Tibby) are half-German intellectuals living in London. They meet the Wilcoxes, wealthy capitalists who have made their money in colonial rubber and are less artistic but more common-sensical. Unlike their grander places in town, etc., Ruth Wilcox’s house at Howards End has been handed down from her family, rather than purchased with the new money of the Wilcoxes. She leaves it to Margaret on her deathbed in a moment of pity that she will be kicked out of Wickham Place (another Jane Austen reference!), but the Wilcoxes throw away the paper on which she writes it (like Middlemarch). The narrator:

“It is rather a moment when the commentator should step forward. Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not. The appeal was too flimsy. It was not legal; it had been written in inllness, and under the spell of a sudden friendship… to them Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir” 114.

Margaret becomes close to Henry, however, and marries him, making the children dislike her. The Schlegels try to help the Basts, a poorer couple, and enlist the help of Henry Wilcox to get him a job. Helen sleeps with him out of pity when this fails and disappears the Europe.

Eventually, we discover that Helen is pregnant. She returns home and says she no longer hates Henry and sees why Margaret married him. She wonders why both times she fell in love it was for a night of loneliness and panic afterwards. Margaret confronts Henry Wilcox, having learned that he once had an affair with Leonard’s now-wife and abandoned her in Cyprus. Margaret urges him to see that this is the same as Helen sleeping with Leonard, but he will not admit it. When Leonard comes to talk to Margaret, he discovers Helen there as well. Charles, one of Wilcox’s sons, attacks him with a sword for his behavior, knocking him into a bookshelf, which falls on him and kills him because of his weak heart. Helen and the boy will live at Howards end with Margaret, who is given the house in the will. The novel ends with “Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox” reconciled (Margaret shivers to learn she was once bequeathed the house, but insists her husband did nothing wrong) and the others come in from the field which will yield “such a crop of hay as never!”

In bequeathing Howards End to Margaret, who will give it to her illegitimate nephew, product of Helen and Bast, Forster suggests a shifting sense of class and inheritance that nonetheless bind the house as a lasting sign of dignity and tradition in the English novel. The relationship between Helen and Margaret also reminds me of that between Jane and Lizzie Bennet in Austen, Ursula and Gudrun in Lawrence, Molly and Anna in Lessing. The heavy weight of (literary) English history is also what kills Leonard – the sword and the pen, the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels of the world united in his downfall.

Howards End parades as a Victorian “novel of manners,” but updates the genre in a number of interesting ways. The omniscient narrator operates more by direct and indirect discourse even than free indirect discourse, and offers Austen-like comparisons of how much different people would enjoy Beethoven’s Fifth, which “will be generally admitted” to be “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man… Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood, Margaret, who can only see the music…” 38. The fact that the plot does not end in Helen’s marriage, but a new kind of family, is more modern, as is the tragic and strange chance death of Leonard.

It would be interesting to place him in a tradition with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and Julian Fellows’ Downton Abbey. Sebastian’s charm leads Charles to the Marchmains, much as Paul involves Helen Schlegel with the Wilcoxes, giving on to Margaret’s fascination with first one, then the other parent. In Fellows’ show, the house (much grander) is more important than all of the American mother’s money used to save it – it confers “history” (what makes this show so strange). Mary and Matthew’s marriage is a sort of twist on the Margaret-Henry Wilcox match.

Virginia Woolf: “The Waves”

1931

The Waves unfolds over 9 episodes corresponding to the time of day, from sunrise to night: 1) childhood, 2) adolescence, 3) young adulthood, 4) adulthood (dinner/voices blend), 5) adulthood (Percival falls from his horse and dies, solace in baby for Bernard, art for Rhoda), 6) maturity, 7) midlife (crisis), 8) old age (dinner/common experience) 9) old age (Bernard alone speaks – language as a fight against death, experience moving beyond language to the direct). (One could also think of this as 9 months of gestation, a womanly cycle of reproduction.) It is loosely constructed, much more than by plot, by the voices of the 6 central characters:

Bernardlanguage & loquaciousness, sees personality constructed by others, not snobby (Forster?)
Nevilleorder & beauty, artistic, gay, classics scholar, in love with Percival
Louisinsecurity & ambition, depressive “T. S. Eliot” figure, Australian, becomes seamy, has affair with Rhoda
Jinny physicality & beauty, dancer, free, sexual
Susan – intensity & attachment, in touch with Nature (farm), maternal, classical figure of femininity
Rhoda – dreamlike abstraction, depressive, split from ordinary life, “Woolfian” suicide

There are also 2 main peripheral characters:
Percival – the “popular boy” the others are friends with, representing monolithic, white, paternal, phallic, British, colonial masculinity and power, the book is at once an elegy to him and an exploration of nostalgia for something one never should have loved. Percival speaks only once, to say “No.”
Old /Dr. Crane – the boys’ headmaster. compare to Mr. Keasey in Ulysses? (Also “service for man who was drowned” – 78).  Perceived as a Kantian negative pleasure, like a tooth removed when he leaves the room (50), pontificating on literature (58).

Woolf herself wrote in her diary that the “playpoem” was not meant to be read as a novel with distinct characters so much as pseudocharacters enacting multiplicity or demonstrating collectivity, representing facets of human experience and thought before they are made into types, characters, or performances. Bernard writes,

“I wish then after this somnolence to sparkle, many-faceted under the light of my friends’ faces. I have been traversing the sunless territory of non-identity… With them I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness… I see Louis, stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet. These are fantastic pictures, these are figments… Yet they drum me alive” 117.

I read this novel as a meditation on language as a surface and a representation that nonetheless orders and constitutes experience.

Bernard: “we are not single, we are one… I have little aptitude for reflection. I require the concrete in everything. It is so only that I lay hands up on the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence” (68).

Woolf begins with the image of the sea,

“indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it… the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually” (7).

She goes on to call it “a thin veil,” “the green surface,” and a “surface” on the same page. When, after the sunrise interlude, the characters speak for the first time, Bernard sees a ring, Susan sees a slab of pale yellow, Rhoda hears a chirp, Neville sees a globe, Jinny sees a crimson tassel, and Louis hears stamping. Interestingly, the two “depressive” characters hear, seemingly a more spiritual connection with their surroundings (Re: Kant on how we hear reason speaking to us), whereas the other four see, and the girls see in color (Re: Kant on how we see the beautiful, and especially the sublime, and how the beautiful is more about the bounded outline, whereas color is merely an accessory – see 85).

Bernard and Susan often mirror/repeat each other as ideal types of British masculinity and femininity? Rhoda and Louis are more antisocial and demonstrate the artist’s tendency. Finally, Jinny and Neville both buck gender stereotypes, queering the possibilities of performance (dance, sex, criticism) that they engage in. Percival, who does not speak, seems to represent a sort of Althusserian ISA – a patriarchy or power never seen, but always present and part of one’s self-awareness or self-policing. At the end of the novel, Bernard thinks,

“And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome… Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on the nape of my neck is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill with Susan’s tears. I see far away, quivering like a gold thread, the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she leapt” 289.

This picks up on Clarissa’s faceting and her sympathetic experience of Septimus’ death in Mrs. Dalloway. Bernard’s final thoughts of his being are wonderfully feminizing: “Immeasurably receptive, holding everything, trembling with fullness, yet clear, contained – so my being seems, now that desire urges it no more out and away… now that he is dead, the man I called ‘Bernard'” 291. The book ends with Bernard having to confront materiality again and heading out “like Percival,” as a youth against death, to write. The last line is The waves broke on the shore 297. If the other six are one, Percival is the troublesome mirror they all look into: a kind of national ideology, sometimes lovely and leading, sometimes violent and brutish.

The characters emphasize divergent subjectivity but similar diction and expression. Their perceptions unfold as the idea from Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction” of recording atomized experience in the order in which it occurs. I would like to compare their 6 similar but separated voices to the 6 parts of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, all parts or forms of one Anna or the 6 different voices of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (who speak differently, but may all be the same psyche).

Surfaces:
The female body itself as a surface: Jinny after kissing Louis:

“Now I smell geraniums; I smell earth mould. I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of light. I lie quivering flung over you” (13).

Louis on Rhoda: “Her shoulderblades meet across her back like the wings of a small butterfly” (22), like when he thinks “they skim the butterflies from the nodding tops of the flowers. They brush the surface of the world” (12).

Bernard: “rich and heavy sensations form on the roof of my mind; down showers the day” (26)/ “drop that forms on the roof of the soul in the evening is round, many-coloured” (80).

Faceting:

Susan: “I saw her kiss him… She danced in flecked with diamonds light as dust… Jinny’s eyes break into a thousand lights” (15).

Louis: “From discord, from hatred… my shattered mind is pieced together by some sudden perception” (39).

Bernard: “I am not one and simple, but complex and many… I am only superficially represented by what I was saying tonight. Underneath, and, at the moment when I am most disparate, I am also integrated” (76-7), see also 80.

As in other Woolf, the images around waves and water seem to concern solitude and drowning (often Rhoda). On the flip side, plants, leaves, and trees seem to connote connectedness – rootedness but also striving (see Louis, 11-12).

Language: 

Though the shifting perspectives are represented as things characters have “said,” much is internal, some is aloud. Importance of direct speech, vs. free indirect discourse? Stream of consciousness as a kind of speech (Woolf sees mind processing world, at least consciously, via language?). Bernard’s speech is imagined as a continually unfolding story (69).

Bernard: “we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory” (16).

Susan: Rhoda dreams, Louis regards, Bernard moulds, Neville finished, Jinny spins, I am not afraid (25-6).

“Bernard says there is always a story. I am a story. Louis is a story” (37)/ “Among the tortures and devastations of life is this then – our friends are not able to finish their stories” (39).

Neville: “I shall be a clinger to the outsides of words all my life” (48). His elision of language around homosexuality (51).

Bernard: “My charm and flow of language, unexpected and spontaneous as it is delights me too. I am astonished, as I draw the veil off things with words, how much, how infinitely more I can say I have observed… images and images” (84).

Faces: 

As sources of misreading (30) – faces of people (affect) and clocks (time).

Misc.

Bernard on shopgirls (86)/ Kracauer.