Re-Reading Cloud Atlas Part I
By Kim Hollis
October 29, 2012
Letters from Zedelghem
“Letters from Zedelghem” is an epistolary reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh. Whereas Adam Ewing’s section of the book is written in diary form, the second section is composed of letters written by Robert Frobisher to his Cambridge classmate/friend/lover Rufus Sixsmith.
Not only is this particular novella full of humor, it’s also very musically inclined. Frobisher is a composer with a stunningly comprehensive knowledge of the talented men who came before him. Music is metaphor for almost everything Frobisher discusses in his letters; his chosen profession consumes him.
It was while reading this portion of Cloud Atlas that I began to wonder if Mitchell might be writing a book… about writing a book. There are certainly signals that this is a possibility. Early in Frobisher’s letters, he mentions imagining the “Sea Symphony,” created by someone he refers to as R.V.W. These initials refer to British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the text of the work comes from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” in particular the sections “Song of the Exposition,” “On the Beach at Night Alone,” “After the Sea-Ship” and “A Passage to India.” Ideas in these poems include an ars poetica (a poem about the creative process), the notion that everything is connected, departing a boat (we leave Adam’s boat and move to Frobisher’s Belgium setting) and finally, the question “What is the present after all but a growth out of the past?” Some digging is required, but given the relative obscurity of R.V.W., I have to imagine Mitchell’s intentions are hiding in plain sight.
Of particular note with regard to this novella’s place within the overall book, Frobisher actually finds Adam Ewing’s journal, reading it, critiquing it, and realizing that the “doctor” is duping the hero. At this point, we have opened the Russian nesting dolls and pulled out the second one. If we at any point doubt that this was Mitchell’s idea, he reinforces it by naming one of Vyvyan Ayrs’ symphonies “Matryoshka Doll Variations.” Additionally, Frobisher’s own composition, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” has the same design as Cloud Atlas the novel. Robert describes it thus: “In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued in order.” The book is similarly structured, with each story interrupting the previous one, all the way to the sixth story. Then we go backwards until we are back to the beginning.
Perhaps the most likable character in the book, Robert Frobisher is hilarious and eloquent. What makes him particularly intriguing is the fact that he is a flawed character, yet his charisma draws people to him (including the reader).
In stark contrast to Ewing’s piousness, Frobisher is quite a rogue. Within the first few pages of our meeting him, he has had a frisky encounter with a steward. He’s highly critical of all who he comes into contact with (he calls the aforementioned steward “spud-faced”), not to mention a thief (stealing books for profit from the man who offers him a position as an amanuensis in his home). Frobisher makes a cuckold of Ayrs, sleeping with the man’s wife and then falls in love with Eva, daughter of Ayrs and Jocasta Crommelynck.
I mentioned Frobisher’s musical knowledge and it is indeed prolific. He uses “gnossiennesque” (derived from a term to describe certain piano compositions by Erik Satie) as an adjective at one point and describes his impromptu job interview with Ayrs by saying, “Our overture proceeded more or less like this.” He has comprehensive knowledge of baroque guitar suites, Bach motets, dodecaphonists, Balakirev juvenilia, and Sir Edward Elgar (the composer of Pomp and Circumstance). When Elgar pays Ayrs a visit, Frobisher describes the sounds of their napping: “Made a musical notation of their snores. Elgar is to be played by a bass tuba, Ayrs a bassoon.”
Frobisher’s exceptional talent ultimately leads to the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” that gives Mitchell’s novel its title. Although he is seemingly not remembered in the same way as Ayrs or even Elgar, his rare creation resonates.
Ultimately, Robert Frobisher kills himself, which I find troublesome and perhaps not consistent with the development of his character. Suicide recurs over and over again throughout the novel, generally as an act of release by someone who is being subjugated by a more powerful figure. I suppose that’s somewhat true for Frobisher, though it takes a deep read to understand the darkness of his relationship with Ayrs and the reasons why he might want to find some way of establishing himself as independent. Whatever the reason, I find it hard to believe that he’d commit suicide over Eva’s rejection of him, so I reject that particular notion altogether.
Of all of the novellas in Cloud Atlas, “Letters from Zedelghem” is the perhaps the one with the least well-defined villain(s). Depending upon your viewpoint, you might see Frobisher as the bad guy. He’s certainly a thief and a con artist, and he sleeps with his employer’s wife with absolutely no guilt at all. I do feel as though Ayrs and his wife are the true villains, though. Ayrs takes advantage of Frobisher’s talent, stealing the younger man’s creations and rationalizes incorporating them into his own musical compositions. Clearly, Frobisher could never have come up with such ideas on his own, so Ayrs can easily take credit. Robert is tormented by the idea that his employer is plundering his talent.