I’m one of the biggest fans of Calvin & Hobbes, ever. I think Bill Watterson (here is the transcript of a rare interview; and a review he authored, of the creator of the legendary Peanuts comic strip, Charles M Schulz) is one of the greatest drawers of maniacal contortions of the human face who ever lived.
In one particularly memorable strip, Calvin – yes, hyperactive, tear-around, destructive Calvin – gazes at some clouds, and one of them morphs into a mocking caricature of his face. He solemnly points out to his mum: “That cloud does impressions.”
Over this past Sunday I read a novel called The Theory of Clouds. It is a strange book, translated from the French. Before I read this review, I hadn’t noticed that there was no dialogue at all in it. In it, an old man, a survivor of Hiroshima, starts collecting all the books about meteorology that he can, and being fabulously wealthy, he amasses a great collection. He engages a young woman to catalogue it, but spends his time telling her about the luminaries of the meteorological world: Luke Howard, whose system for naming clouds we still use today; the painter known only as Carmichael, “obsessed with capturing clouds on canvas”; Richard Abercrombie, who toured the world intending to photograph all the different sorts of clouds in the world. All these characters, protagonists in their own way, populate the book like whimsy, yet leave their imprints because of their passion for clouds. Little by little, the young woman too is drawn into this love affair with those titanic wisps of often white and sometimes grey and pink.
And why, for him, the old man, are clouds important? Sure, they are harbingers of weather, halting wars and parching fields of gold and flooding plains of plenty. But, long ago, the old man had a sister, whom he loved, dearly dearly. One day, as they often did, they went for a short skinny-dip in the Ota River off a little detour on the way to school, a little guilty pleasure they sometimes indulged in before class. The swim was short; all too soon it was time to dress up and head off. His sister went ashore to change, and suddenly, along the path came their feared principal. She spotted them. His sister covered herself with one of her shoes. He dived into the depths of the Ota; maybe she hadn’t seen him. And at that moment, Little Boy exploded over Hiroshima, reducing his sister to vapour.
Maybe, after a while, after he forgot about that, and after he remembered it in his old age, he looked for her somewhere in the unchanging, ever-changing clouds, and maybe, that is why he attempted suicide twice, succeeding at the second attempt, succeeding in having his will executed, succeeding in getting the young woman to toss his ashes into the greatest storm to rock Britain in ages, succeeding in being set free to, with a little luck, play again with “the vitrified traces, still radioactive, of a little girl vaporized on the banks of the Ota River”.
Oh. And the relevance of Calvin and his quote on clouds? Other than as a segue, entirely arbitrary. I am just full of appreciation for the existence of this book, because it gave me the chance to read it and blog about it, and in doing so mention one of my favourite comic strips.