|Adam Ewing •|
1 & 11
2 & 10
|Luisa Rey •|
3 & 9
|Timothy Cavendish •|
4 & 8
5 & 7
(The letter themselves are dated from July 29, 1931 to December 12, 1931)
The first portion of "Letters from Zedelghem" is told in a series of nine letters written in 1931, by Robert Frobisher to his lover, Sixsmith. In his first letter, Frobisher is in London skipping out of a hotel in the middle of the night because he is too broke to pay his bill. Although he is the son of a British nobleman, he has been disinherited and has run through his credit, luck, and the goodwill of his friends.
Frobisher is a music student, who has been kicked out of school. With the few pounds he has left, he takes the ferry from Dover to Ostend (Belgium) with the idea of arriving at the doorstep of aging and wealthy composer, Vyvyan Ayrs, at his Chateau outside of Bruges. The plan is that the ailing Ayrs take on Frobisher as his musical aide, allowing Forbisher to hide, and Ayrs an Indian summer to his career.
Frobisher borrows a bicycle from the local constabulary and makes his way to Chateau Zedelghem. There, he presents himself to Ayrs and makes his proposition. Ayrs likes him well enough to suggest he stay the night, and Ayrs will test Frobisher's musical ability the following morning. However, Ayrs does not appear at dinner. It seems that he has a recurring migraine. Frobisher acquaints himself with the household, including getting to know Ayrs' wife, Jocasta, and his seventeen-year-old daughter, Eva.
The second letter, dated two weeks later, describes the ups and downs of Frobisher's audition. After he finishes playing for Ayrs, the master asks that he stroll the Chateau's grounds while Ayrs decides his fate. Grumbling under his breath, Frobisher agrees and wanders outside. There, he encounters Ayrs' daughter, Eva, who speaks only in French (although she has studied English). The meeting leaves Frobisher with a mediocre impression of the heiress.
Frobisher becomes more and more acquainted with the household and with Ayrs' wife, with whom he often dines alone, owing to Ayrs' illness and feeble appetite. The morning after his audition, Ayrs' summons Frobisher to write down a melody Ayrs has had running through his head. Presumably, he has been hired as the assistant. He ends his second letter with a post script, imploring Sixsmith for a loan.
The following day, Ayrs' formally offers him a position and even mentions a salary, much to Frobisher's relief. The pair settles into a daily work schedule, starting each morning and ending by one in the afternoon. Frobisher begins to enjoy the food, wine, frequent guests, and the routine of Zedelghem. Although Eva Ayrs is still rather cold to him, Frobisher can't help admiring her intelligence and poise.
At the end of the third letter, Frobisher tells of his explorations through the Chateau's extensive library. He's found and is reading a partial journal by a nineteenth-century notary named Adam Ewing (the hero from the previous chapter). He asks Sixsmith to find a complete copy for him. He also includes an inventory of the oldest of the Chateau's volumes and asks for prices. It seems that he is planning to sell off some of the Ayrs' library for profit.
Frobisher's fourth letter to Sixsmith begins with the announcement that he and Ayrs have just completed their first collaboration - a tone poem. He also tells Sixsmith that he has become the Chateau's "golden boy" and even Eva, who is soon bound for school in Switzerland, is forced to put up with him. He goes on to write that the mistress of the Chateau, Jocasta, has begun to subtly flirt with him. He is flattered, but doesn't know quite what to make of it. She is giving him presents, so far an elegant jacket that belonged to a much younger Ayrs. Ayrs, on his part, gives Frobisher a gun, a Luger that was left behind when the Prussians occupied the Chateau during World War I. Frobisher ends the short letter by thanking Sixsmith for his work finding a buyer for the purloined library volumes and adding that he has begun to compose his own music again.
The next letter tells the tale of Frobisher's affair with Mme. Ayrs. She has been visiting him every three or four nights for weeks now. Frobisher doesn't think that Ayrs knows, but is rather sure that the butler is aware of what is going on. He is wary, however, of Eva and worried that she senses that something is awry between her father and him.
Frobisher makes plans via Sixsmith to meet the book dealer, Jansch, in Bruges and hand over the books stolen from the Ayrs' library. He promises to send Sixsmith's share of the profit to him as soon as the transaction is completed. Frobisher's sixth letter congratulates Sixsmith on his cunning in crafting a fake letter from Frobisher's father's solicitor so that he might have an excuse to visit Bruges for the day alone. En route, he returns the bicycle he borrowed from the constabulary his first day in town. He then meets Jansch in a shady bar where he won't be recognized and sells him the books from the Chateau. He also accepts Jansch's offer to make more money by performing a sexual favor.
Leaving Jansch, he shops in town and settles in a park to await Hendrick, the butler, who will drive him back to the Chateau. He encounters Eva, who is with a seemingly much older man. He thinks he has something "on" her, but when he confronts her, she tells him that the man is the father of the family with whom she stays in town during the week. Frobisher (rather insincerely) apologizes.
The seventh letter finds Frobisher extremely vexed. Jocasta has become demanding and the affair is more troublesome than enjoyable. However, he is in somewhat of a rough situation, since he is a guest at the Chateau. He tells Sixsmith of the events of the previous evening, when Jocasta hid in the bed covers while Ayrs and Frobisher worked on a bit of music in Frobisher's room. Quelle farce!
Frobisher's eighth letter relates the details of a visit to the Chateau by Sir Edward Elgar, a composer friend of Ayrs, of about the same age and health. Ayrs compliments Frobisher to Elgar, saying he is a valuable "aide de camp," which secretly pleases Frobisher. Three days later, Ayrs asks him to stay an additional six months with an increase in pay. Frobisher, although inwardly ecstatic, agrees to give him an answer in several days. He doesn't want to appear too eager. The last letter of the chapter finds Frobisher lamenting ever getting involved with Jocasta. In passing, he mentions a birthmark the shape of a comet in the hollow of his shoulder, a connection to the previous chapter. He has agreed to stay on at the Chateau for another six months.
In the second half of the tale, Frobisher is well embedded into the Ayrs household. He is assisting the maestro regularly with his work, bedding Ayrs' wife, and systematically selling off the Chateau's library. At the beginning of the second set of letters, Ayrs has taken ill, and Frobisher has time to work on his own music.
In his free time, he arranges for his acquaintance, Morty Dhondt, to drive him to the nearby World War I allied cemetery. He is searching for his brother, Adrian's grave, but it isn't there. The outing leaves Frobisher discouraged and depressed. He discusses the inevitability of war with Dhondt.
When Ayrs is able to work again, he "borrows" a refrain from Frobisher's "Cloud Atlas." Frobisher is upset at the plagiarism, but Ayrs is haughty and insists that since the young man is in his employ, he has purchased all that Frobisher creates. The dispute causes a major rift between the two musicians, but it is lightly patched, and their work continues, but Frobisher resolves to guard his own work more carefully.
Eva, the Ayrses' daughter, returns from her schooling in Switzerland. Eva has acquired more grace and manners while away at school, and she is much more polite to Frobisher. He visits her occasionally in Bruges, at the home of her weekday host family, the van de Veldes. On one such visit, Frobisher and Eva visit one of the medieval towers in Bruges. The rest of the group balk at the tall, winding staircase, so only Eva and Frobisher climb to the top. There Eva tells him about her love for a "tall, dark, handsome, musical foreigner." Frobisher believes she is talking about him and allows himself to feel all of the emotions for her that he has been suppressing. He becomes increasingly smitten with Eva.
Inevitably, Ayrs and Frobisher part ways. The final blow is Ayrs' asking him to compose a short movement so that Ayrs can take it over and call it his own. Ayrs said that's what apprentices do. Frobisher strongly disagrees and moves out of the Chateau. The parting is not amicable, and Ayrs vows to ruin him so that no musician on the Continent will hire him.
In parting, Frobisher throws out that he has been sleeping with the master's wife. Ayrs laughs and says that he's known about it all along. He's even encouraged it. In packing his things, Frobisher "borrows" Ayrs antique Luger and leaves a note in Eva's room, bidding her to meet him at the tower in Bruges. He also finds the second half of the "Journal of Adam Ewing," holding up the bed post. He takes this with him also.
During the days, Frobisher works on his "Cloud Atlas" sextet and in the evening, he goes to the tower, hoping to see Eva. Night after night, she fails to appear. Desperate, and certain that his note and subsequent letters have been intercepted, Frobisher goes to visit Eva at the van de Veldt townhouse in Bruges. They are in the midst of a party and Frobisher is denied entrance.
At the front of the van de Veldt's house, Frobisher makes a scene and demands to see Eva. She finally appears and is appalled by his appearance. She says that she has received his embarrassing letters and introduces him to her fiancé, a "tall, dark, handsome, and musical" Swiss man! Frobisher proceeds to get into a fight with the man and is thrown unceremoniously off the property. The incident causes his hotelier to give him notice. Frobisher doubles his effort to finish "Cloud Atlas."
The final letter outlines his intention to shoot himself in the head with Ayrs' Luger. He thanks Sixsmith for traveling to Bruges to find him and rescue him and apologizes for hiding from him. With this last letter, he sends the completed manuscript of "Cloud Atlas" and the two portions of "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing."
- This chapter is tied lightly to the previous one (The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing) by Frobisher finding the first half of Ewing's journal in the Zedelghem library.
- Rufus Sixsmith makes another appearance as an old man in the 1970s in Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.
- The last half of "Letters from Zedelgheim" is tied to the previous chapters in several ways. The reader learns that Frobisher has the repeating comet-shaped birthmark, also found on Luisa Rey, Meronym, Cavendish, and Sonmi. Frobisher also becomes interested in the "Journal of Adam Ewing," which he finds at the Chateau.
- When Vyvyan Ayrs comes to Robert in the middle of the night with a haunting tune in his head, he recouts that it came from a dream in which he was in a "nighmarish cafe, brilliantly lit, but underground, with no way out." He continues to describe the waitress all having the same face and ate Soap. His dream comes from Sonmi-451's story.
- In Frobisher's final letter to Sixsmith, he describes what must be a dream, seeing Rufus on the balcony, leaning over, and gazing at the sea shortly before Robert kills himself. This mirrors the opening of the first Luisa Rey story, with Sixsmith on a balcony contemplating suicide before noticing a young woman, Rey, on the neighboring balcony.
- While leaving Zedelghem, Frobisher experiences an "unaccountably strong urge" to cut sleeping Vyvyan Ayr's throat. This may be linked to Zachry's murder of the sleeping Kona in "Sloosha's Crossin'".