TagDavid Mitchell

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)

Cloud Atlas is a novel that feels like a turning point. I can imagine people reading it at the time of its publication, seeing its structure – six novellas, moving forward in time from the mid-1800s to a post-collapse future, each one (bar the sixth) split in half by the next as we approach it – and thinking: where can David Mitchell go from here? What structural theatrics could follow that? From the vantage point of eight years and two more novels, we know that Mitchell turned to ostensibly more conventional narratives; so his third novel still feels like a significant moment in his career even now.

In his World Book Night programme last year, John Mullan held up Cloud Atlasas an example of an unconventional novel which has nevertheless been immensely popular. It’s not hard to see why so many people have been taken with Mitchell’s book: it’s highly entertaining. Mitchell’s control of voice and tone in all the stories – be they pulp thriller, science fiction, or period journal – is superb. The author is also adept at bringing characters to life in relatively few words; such as Robert Frobisher, the composer who flees to Holland in 1931, and whose letters to a friend form the second novella:

When insolvent, pack minimally, with a valise tough enough to be thrown on to a London pavement from a 1st or 2nd-floor window. Insist on hotel rooms no higher. (pp. 43-4)

Just about the only segment of Cloud Atlas which doesn’t quite work for me is the present-day tale of Timothy Cavendish, an elderly publisher who gets inadvertently ‘checked into’ an old people’s home when he’s expecting a hotel. Whilst I’ll concede that Mitchell’s parody of contemporary literary fiction is on the button, this was the only narrative which annoyed rather than engaged me – because it’s the only one of the six to exaggerate the form it embodies.

The title of Cloud Atlas recurs in the novel several times, most literally as the name of a piece worked on by Robert Frobisher; but also in Timothy Cavendish’s wish, as he thinks back on happier times in his life and longs to find that place again, for ‘a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable’ (p. 389). From that point of view, Mitchell’s book is an aerial view of human history. It speaks to the existence of repeating patterns, reflected in the twist in each plot, and the ways in which groups and individuals prey on each other throughout the narratives.

But the structure of Cloud Atlas also speaks to the distinctiveness of times and experiences: the world of each novella is imagined so solidly that it emphasises the distance between them all, heightening the feeling of disconnection when the narrative we’ve just read is mentioned as a text in the following one. When a group of 19th-century characters discuss a future in which all peoples will know their place on the ‘ladder of civilization’ (p. 507), they have no notion of how different from that the reality will be – but we’ve seen it in the sixth novella, which returns to the same Pacific setting as the first, several centuries hence. The islanders of that latter time worship a goddess named Somni, whom we know as the artificial-human protagonist of the previous tale. Each story shapes its own world, even as we see the links between them.

One life may be a drop in the ocean, muses 19th-century notary Adam Ewing at novel’s end, ‘[y]et what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?’ (p. 529). The drops of story in Cloud Atlas coalesce into a majestic whole.

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 1

For the past week-and-a-bit, I’ve been at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, my first time going to such an event. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and the rather tight separation between writers and audience (no real opportunities for interaction apart from Q&As at the end of each session, and signings afterwards) was a little disconcerting at first (I guess that’s the only practical way to run things with so many events and speakers). The Festival was quite celebrity-led (then again, isn’t contemporary publishing the same?); but, generally speaking, they were interesting celebrities, and there was plenty of other stuff going on. All in all, I had a good time, and went to a nicely varied programme of events.

I never had internet access while I was away, otherwise I’d have blogged about the Festival in more detail while I was there. Instead, I present the edited highlights, which are pretty long as it is…

Friday 9th

6.00 pm: My first event, listed in the festival brochure as ‘The Man Booker Winner’, who of course in the end was Hilary Mantel.

I haven’t traditionally had much luck with Booker titles (of all the nominees, and one winner, that I’ve read, I can only truly say that I liked Animal’s People by Indra Sinha), but I certainly became interested in reading Wolf Hall after hearing Mantel read from it, and speak so enthusiastically.

7.30 pm: Leaving the Town Hall, I realise that I’ve just passed a fellow Huddersfielder, the poet Simon Armitage. He is today’s Guest Director (there’s one for each day of the Festival, who has programmed three events for that particular day).

Saturday 10th

11.30 am: I have the morning free, so I’ve been to look around town. As I’m going into the Town Hall, I think back to seeing Simon Armitage last night, and wonder if I could play a little game of ‘Guest Director bingo’, just to see how many of them I could spot over the ten days. At the precise moment I think this (and I swear I’m not making this up), I reliase that today’s Guest Director, Richard Eyre, has just walked past me. That makes up my mind: the challenge is on!

1.30 pm: Off to the Centaur pavilion (what a great pun) at the racecourse to see Michael Palin. He talks about his career in the 1980s, the period covered by the new volume of his diaries. Much as I like Palin’s work (he’s one of the few writers I’ll be seeing who I’ve actually read), I’m more familiar with his travel programmes than this part of his career, so it’s interesting to hear his behind-the-scenes tales of (mostly) the films he made at that time.

4.00 pm: Marcus Chown, the New Scientist‘s cosmology consultant, talks about his latest book, which (says the brochure) ‘looks at what the everyday world tells us about the universe’. The discussion about science is interesting, but I don’t gain much sense of what the book is actually like.

6.30 pm: Readings and discussion from the novelists Diana Evans and Patrick Neate. The latter, I would say, is the better reader; but both books sound interesting, and so my ‘would like to read’ list grows a little longer.

8.45 pm: Quite interesting stuff from John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, the creators of QI. They can’t talk about their new book, because it’s not finished yet; nevertheless, their enthusiasm is infectious.

Sunday 11th

10.00 am: Am I cheating in my game of Guest Director bingo if the only time I see them is when I know I’m going to? Well, it’s my game, with my rules, so I decide that the answer is no. So, here is today’s Guest Director, Sandi Toksvig, interviewing the novelist Kate Mosse. Actually, it’s less of an interview than a chat between friends — and less informative (to me, as someone who has never read Mosse but thought about it) as a result.

12.00 pm: The first of several occasons when I miss out on an event to which I wanted to go. There were no tickets left for Harry Hill; disappointing, but never mind.

4.00 pm: Back to the vast (and full) auditorium of the Centaur, where Mark Lawson is interviewing Mitchell and Webb. I’ve never really watched them, but find them quite funny here; and the talk of how they work as a double act is interesting.

7.30: Time for something different — two hours of dynamic storytelling by the excellent Ben Haggarty. He weaves a wonderful tale that begins with his visting a freak show at a carnival in America, and ends on the moon, where he discovers the truth about his profession. I don’t know how often Haggarty tours, but if he comes anywhere near you, go and see him.

Monday 12th

10.00: A talk by David Elder about an anthology he has put together of writing about Cheltenham. This was one of the events I was less sure about, didn’t know quite what to expect, and ultimately I found it a bit dry. To be fair, I would probably have got more out of it if I were a Cheltonian.

Lunchtime: I’ve been wandering around, trying to find somwhere nice to have lunch, and end up going from one side of town to the other. It’s good for my game of Guest Director bingo, because at one point I pass a group of people which includes today’s Guest Director, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

4.00 pm: A conversation between P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. As with the Toksvig/Mosse event yesterday, these two are good friends; and, though the talk is interesting enough, I once again feel that the writers’ fans will have got more out of it than I did.

8.45 pm: I did want to see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall now, but the event had sold out. Instead, I’m at the interview of another Channel 4 presenter, Kevin McCloud, who is talking about European architecture and the idea of the ‘Grand Tour’. He’s a marvellously entertaining speaker, even breaking into spontaneous impersonations of Brian Sewell and Prince Charles. I’m not particularly into architecture, but McCloud makes the subject interesting; and he’s not the only person who will do so this week — but that can wait for another instalment…

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