(In a series of nine letters, Robert Frobisher writes to his friend and former lover, Rufus Sixsmith. The year is 1931.)
Frobisher dreamt he was in a crowded china shop, surrounded by expensive antiques. He accidentally knocked over a few of the pieces which broke and rang out a harmonious melody. Frobisher began smashing and throwing more china to continue the music, while his father stood behind him tallying up his bill. Frobisher states: “Knew I’d become the greatest composer of the century if I could only make this music mine” (44).
Frobisher woke in his temporary hotel room in London to his debt collector banging at his door. He had no money to pay his creditors or for the room and jumped from the window onto a drainpipe and made his way to the street below. Frobisher’s witty narrative style offers Sixsmith a play by play account of his thoughts after leaving the hotel which include his anger toward his father for cutting his finances off and his feelings of uselessness now that his reputation within London’s upper circles has been tarnished by both his attitude and debt. He also states that he has been kicked out University and intends to make it on his own as a composer.
Frobisher’s plan is to leave London and find Vyvyan Ayrs, the renowned English composer, who had taken up residence in Belgium before WWI. Frobisher had read an article about Ayrs stating the old man had not composed any new music in years but had drawers full of ideas. Frobisher guiltlessly implies his intention to steal Ayrs’ work, pass it off as is own, only to regain his reputation and then to establish himself as a famous composer with his own work. More than anything he wants his father to admit that he was wrong in disinheriting him.
Boarding a train out of London, Frobisher can only afford a one way ticket; he travels toward the Channel and into France. On board he meets a man who offers him a job in sales, which Frobisher rudely refuses. The train makes a stop and Frobisher stops at the platform, regretting his refusal of the job and contemplates jumping into the black water of the Channel below. He assures Sixsmith he is not suicidal and boards the train. Later he has a sexual encounter with a young steward and describes the boy as no great beauty but an inventive lover.
The train arrives in Belgium and Frobisher departs with his valise and ill thoughts of the Belgians. He buys another ticket for a different train and he arrives in Bruges some time later. There he buys croissants with the last of his money and sleeps at the base of windmill. The next day Frobisher wakes and asks a beautiful girl where he can find a police station, enlightening Sixsmith to the idea that he would like to try sex with a woman at some point. He borrows a bicycle from an understanding police sergeant and heads out to Château Zedelghem, Neerbeke, home of Vyvyan Ayrs, the famous composer.
After a delayed journey he arrives at his destination and asks a valet to find Ayrs so they might conduct business. Ayrs arrives, old and ill, and demands to know who Frobisher is and why he is there. Frobisher makes his introductions, exaggerating his current social status and says he is here to apply to the assistantship position that Ayrs had advertised. Ayrs confronts Frobisher on his lie about the position but is soon beguiled by the young man’s charm and allows him inside.
Ayrs introduces Frobisher to his wife, Jocasta van Outryve de Crommelynck and later to his daughter Eva. Frobisher makes polite conversation, leaving behind the truth of his circumstances and spent the night in one of the chateaux’s many bedrooms with the promise of performing for Ayrs in the morning.
In his next letter, Frobisher pleads with Sixsmith not to send him any more telegrams as they attract too much attention. He relates the story of his successful audition in Ayrs’ music room which resulted in his apprenticeship. Frobisher was not eager to accept the position, his ego having been wounded by Ayrs flippant comments but became satisfied with the arrangement, despite a growing resentment toward Eva who is rude and unresponsive to him, as if she knew he was planning to con her father. Frobisher immediately nixes a plan to steal some of the house’s valuables. Jocasta assures Frobisher that her husband was impressed by his audition but it will take time for him to become comfortable working with Frobisher. She openly flirts with him over dinner and confides that she is disappointed with Eva’s personality and temperament. Eva returns to school in Bruges, where she boards during the week with another family. Frobisher is keen to get rid of her and gets to work on a melody that Ayrs has had “rattling around” in his head (56). Frobisher spent the next half hour deciphering indistinguishable notes for Ayrs who brays at him from the sofa. Miserable, Frobisher begins to regret his scheme and encloses a request for a loan from Sixsmith fearing that Ayrs would soon find him out and he would become destitute, his reputation in shatters.
A follow up letter finds Frobisher in better spirits as Ayrs apologized to him for his bad behavior. Frobisher suspects Jocasta put him up to it, yet he accepts the apology and the mood of the house changes as the two men begin to compose music together. Frobisher is now earning a small salary and a work routine between the men has been established
In the meantime Frobisher, ever mindful of the fickleness of his patron, beings to sift through books in the chateaux’s library, sending titles to Sixsmith and asking him to find a discreet book dealer. He tells Sixsmith about a manuscript he was reading called “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” but cannot find the second half of the book and wants to know what happens to Ewing and reflects that the notary is unaware of Goose’s true nature. He asks Sixsmith to look for a copy in London and says “a half read book is a half finished love affair” (64).
As the days pass Frobisher and Ayrs finish a collaborative tone poem. Frobisher attributes the best ideas to himself. He is thrilled that the poem is going to be read at a festival. Jocasta is so happy with him that she offers him a bigger bedroom. Jocasta continues her flirtations with Frobisher behind her husband’s back, to the amusement of the young composer, who beings having sex with her soon there after.
Now lovers, Frobisher spends most of his free time at night with Jocasta in bed who tells him Ayrs suffers from syphilis and that she cannot conceive another child by him. Frobisher encourages Sixsmith to try sex with a woman at least once and tells him not to be jealous.
In his next letter Frobisher tells Sixsmith about his encounter with Otto Jansch, the book dealer, who he arranged to meet in in Bruges. Frobisher has the pilfered manuscripts form the châteaux secreted away on his bike in fear that Eva will find out he what he has done. In Ayrs’ old clothing, he arrives in town and returns the bicycle the policeman lent to him. He exchanges kind words with the officer over a mutual love of music and goes to meet Jansch in a bar. He follows the book dealer to a room upstairs where they agree on a price for the books. Jansch propositions Frobisher, offering him extra money for sex. Frobisher agrees and leaves the rooms an hour later. He puts the money in a local bank and then goes to church but is too aroused by the stained glass saints to pay attention. He meets Eva on a walk with an older gentlemen and assumes she is having an affair, which she denies, saying the man is her chaperone in the city. Frobisher is distrustful and on the lookout to blackmail Eva.
That night he is almost caught with Jocasta in his bed by Ayrs who needs to share his late night inspiration for a song with Frobisher. Ayrs hums the notes and Frobisher is absorbed by the oddity of its rhythm. He barely notices the butler’s knowing look at the bedcovers were Jocasta hides. Ayrs tells Frobisher that he dreamed of a garish underground café, sometime in the future, where the waitresses all had the same face and drank soap. The music in the café was that which he had just shared with Frobisher. Ayrs left and Frobisher returned to bed and to Jocasta only to be interrupted again by the old man. Ayrs, mostly blind, sat at the foot of Frobisher’s bed and demanded to know if his wife had made sexual advances toward him. Frobisher denied that she had, while in reality Jocasta’s head lay on his thigh under the covers. To save face, Frobisher expressed his loyalty to Ayrs. Then truthfully reflects that it is his belief that he and Ayrs were meant to be together as mentor and apprentice in order to collaborate and produce beautiful music. Pleased, the old man leaves. Jocasta departs as well, disgusted with the pair of them.
Frobisher’s thoughts turn philosophical as he ponders Ayrs’ view of civilization, comparing it to a temple where the soldiers and peasants are the cracks in the flagstones and the statesmen, scientists, and composers are the architects, masons, and priests. To Ayrs the role of the composer to is make the world more beautiful and to achieve a sense of immortality on the part of the artist as his or her work will live on long past their mortal deaths. Frobisher disagrees, stating that music is only written to forestall the onset of one’s internal winters.
Soon after, a famous composer, Sir Edward Elgar comes for a visit and Frobisher sits in silent rapture watching he and Ayrs talk of their past triumphs. Elgar was very impressed with the work Ayrs was doing with Frobisher, calling their sextet daring. Frobisher was unsurprised but hurt when Ayrs accredited himself with most of the work. When Ayrs asks Frobisher to stay another year to complete their latest composition, Frobisher does not answer right away, hoping the old man will admit he needs help.
Growing tired of Jocasta, he hates when she plays with the comet shaped birthmark in the hallow of his shoulder (asking Sixsmith if he recalls it) and will not tell her he loves her despite her adoration. He fears Eva will sniff out their affair as soon as she returns from her trip to Switzerland. Frobisher agrees to stay on with Ayrs at least until the summer, half out of fear of what Jocasta might do if he left.
Letters from Zedelghem Section One Analysis
As a character Robert Frobisher has few redeeming qualities. He is both arrogant and self absorbed, refusing to adhere to social norms common to his station, including education and family loyalty. In Frobisher’s mind; however, he is the hero of his own tale, fighting against what is expected of him, choosing instead to seek pleasurable gains. Frobisher’s motivations are twofold: He seeks his father’s approval and wishes to make a name for himself as a composer. His half-realized plan to infiltrate the home of Vyvyan Ayrs would have fallen flat had Ayrs not invited him in and later agreed to take Frobisher on as an assistant. Frobisher’s tendency to allow his moods to dictate his motivation and willingness to chance fate lends a fluency to his letters, as if the reader were also taking part in his exploits. The dramatic narrative style coupled with the section’s letter format offer a one way look into Frobisher’s time in Belgium, providing just enough detail to assure his former love that he is taking advantage of the situation while also painting a flattering picture of himself while doing so. Perhaps Frobisher, who often manipulates others for his own gain, hopes that Sixsmith will relay the news of his apprenticeship to his family, especially his estranged father. Coincidently, Frobisher’s need for parental approval has shifted to the unwitting Ayrs, who has little time for the young composer’s fantasies or his deceptions.
Deception, a major theme in Cloud Atlas is Frobisher’s forte. He is a master manipulator but he may not be as skilled as he believes himself to be. Ayrs asks Frobisher if Jocasta has made sexual advances toward him. Frobisher denies the accusation even with Jocasta hiding beside him in the bed. Note that Ayrs does not ask if Frobisher has made advances toward his wife but the reverse. Ayrs unconsciously reveals that Jocasta has committed adultery before and perhaps, Ayrs is not as blind as Frobisher believes. The butler certainly is not blind and he is loyal to Ayrs, suggesting that it may only be a matter of time before he will inform Ayrs of Frobisher’s deception. Note too that Eva shares a last name with her mother not Ayrs and Jocasta admits that Ayrs could no longer father a child, hinting that Eva may not be his biological daughter. Frobisher’s theft of the books in the châteaux appear amateurish by comparison. He fears Eva will uncover his secret as she is the only one in the household, except some of the staff, that has not warmed to him to some degree. By the end of the first section, Frobisher’s deception is beginning to unravel.
The reader is left to wonder what would happen to Frobisher if he failed in his attempt to become a successful composer. He hints at thoughts of suicide on the train platform near the English Channel and later compares death to an “internal winter” when discussing the afterlife with Ayrs. The master composer offers a different outlook, describing the death of an artist as a chance at immortality provided their work lives on after their mortal life has ended. Frobisher is intrigued by this concept and given his tendency toward depression and sullenness the idea of his suicide and the theme of death remains fresh in the reader’s mind as the story progresses.
A small but important detail of Frobisher’s character, and his connection with the other sections of the novel, is mentioned in passing by Jocasta while in bed together. Frobisher has begun to grow tired of their affair and he dislikes it when she plays with the comet shaped birthmark on his shoulder. As an aside, he asks Sixsmith if he remembers the birthmark, drawing the reader’s attention to the importance of the moment. The comet-shaped birthmark is a visual indicator to the reader that the character who has the birthmark is the reincarnation of the shared soul of most of the main characters in Cloud Atlas. The significance of its shape is not mentioned only its importance toward the connection between characters. The fact that Frobisher does not like Jocasta to touch it may indicate that he feels guilt concerning their deception of Ayrs or he may feel the birthmark is a reminder of happier times spent with Sixsmith who he seems to truly care for.
Frobisher’s comet-shaped birthmark is not the only indicator of his shared past life experiences. While looting the château’s library he comes across a copy of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, the same journal detailed in the first section of Cloud Atlas. Frobisher does not spend much time writing about Ewing to Sixsmith but mentions that he thinks Goose is deceptive, an interesting observation because as the Cloud Atlas reader is aware, Goose’s true nature is revealed in the second half of the journal. Is it possible that Frobisher, as Ewing’s reincarnation, is sensing a connection between himself and the journal and somehow remembers Goose’s deception? Perhaps, but like most of Frobisher’s narrative his thoughts are turned inward and he wants only to see how the story ends for the sake of his own curiosity. The author’s attempt to connect Ewing and Frobisher through the comet-shaped birthmark and the reading of the journal feels half-hearted, an afterthought of a brilliant mind trying to connect scenes and characters that may not have originally began life as extensions of one another. At times Cloud Atlas appears in tone and structure to be like a collection of vignettes than a connected novel and no more so than in Frobisher’s first section which lacks the truth-seeking, spiritual connectedness of most of the other stories.
The only other instance in the first section of Letters from Zedelghem that connects itself to any other story in the novel, apart from the brief mention of Ewing’s journal, is Ayrs’ description of the futuristic restaurant with servers who all have the same face and are listening to Ayrs’ music. He is describing the restaurant featured in An Orison of Sonmi-45One which takes place many years in the future and in another corner of the world. Ayrs said he dreamed of the restaurant and recognized the music playing there as his own. Shocked by the dream he rushed to Frobisher to unburden his mind. Note that in both Ewing and Frobisher’s tales there is one other character that seems to know the main character on a spiritual level. Although Ayrs has been dismissive of Frobisher, he agrees that they were meant to come together to compose music, just as Autua knew he could trust Ewing even though they had never met before. The connection between the main characters is indicated through their shared birthmark but what if other characters in the novel are also connected through shared life experiences? This avenue of inquiry cannot be fully explored in all of the novel’s sections but it is most evident in the relationships between Ewing and Autua and in Frobisher and Ayrs.