Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Balloonist

Rate this book
As in the best of Jules Verne or Albert Sanchez Pinol, The Balloonist is a gripping and surreal yarn, chilling and comic by turn, that brilliantly reinvents the Arctic adventure.

It is July 1897, at the northernmost reach of the inhabited world. A Swedish scientist, an American journalist, and a young, French-speaking adventurer climb into a wicker gondola suspended beneath a huge, red-and-white balloon. The ropes are cut, the balloon rises, and the three begin their voyage: an attempt to become the first people to set foot on the North Pole, and return, borne on the wind. Philip Pullman says in his foreword: "Once I open any of MacDonald Harris’s novels I find it almost impossible not to turn and read on, so delightful is the sensation of a sharp intelligence at work. In The Balloonist , we see all of his qualities at their best."

273 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1976

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

MacDonald Harris

25 books21 followers
Pseudonym of Donald Heiney

Donald Heiney was born in South Pasadena in 1921. Seastruck from the time he read Stevenson at the age of twelve, he went to sea in earnest as a merchant marine cadet in 1942, sat for his Third Mate's license in 1943, and spent the rest of the war as a naval officer on a fleet oiler. After the war he earned a B.A. at Redlands and a doctorate in comparative literature at the University of Southern California. In 1964 he lived with his wife and son in Salt Lake City where he taught writing and comparative literature.

Taking the pseudonym MacDonald Harris for his fiction, his first story appeared in Esquire in 1947. Since then he has published stories in The Atlantic Monthly, Harpers Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as a number of literary quarterlies. His story "Second Circle" was reprinted in the 1959 O. Henry Collection. Private Demons, his first novel, was published in 1961. Mortal Leap, his second, was finished in the summer of 1963 in Rome.

His novel The Balloonist was nominated for the National Book Award in 1977. He received a 1982 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his entire body of work.

Heiney died in 1993, at age 71, at his home in Newport Beach, California.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
38 (23%)
4 stars
65 (39%)
3 stars
43 (26%)
2 stars
11 (6%)
1 star
8 (4%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 41 reviews
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews942 followers
October 28, 2014
There is always a rough edge in tech, where afficionados tinker with half-known science. Nowadays it might seem that physics frontiers are out of reach of amateur enthusiasts, and that you need a doughtnut-shaped tunnel many kilometres long buried under the middle of Europe and gigajoules of energy to find out anything new, but there are still unfashionable and expensive things to do, like scan the sky for approaching asteroids, that are, I believe still more or less in the hands of communities of uncoordinated volunteers. MacDonald Harris has captured the spirit of the optimistic era before WWI when many of the protagonists of STEM fields were 'gentleman amateurs' messing about with magnetic fields and Leden jars, and parties of explorers set out to plant their white male feet on the sketchy bits of the map.

The topic in focus, meticulously researched and painted in thrillingly evocative detail, is ballooning, but not with hot air and burners, but with hydrogen, The delicate matter of managing buoyancy is tortuously clear; I felt it in my belly, and finally in every poetically-sensitve nerve. We spend this novel in the delightfully bizarre psyche of a brilliant scientist-explorer, who, being Swedish and of an obssessive, exacting character, deploys English with unnerving and at times slightly unnatural precision. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the 'spiritual telegraph' he builds to 'listen to' weather at a distance using a 'Bell receiver', a crystal of galena and a coiled aerial, and the Schadenfreude he feels on inspecting a rival method of steering a balloon to his own delicate scheme of trailing guide ropes, and finding it impracticable. It is typical of the major (and the book's style generally) that he dislikes the idea of the zeppellin (which was soon to make deadly contributions to the war) since its cigar shape made it phallic, in contrast to the favoured feminine contours of the balloon.

All this geeky detail, while one of the book's chief pleasures, is co-passenger to the love story that steers the protagonist and his crew through his reveries on the way to the pole. While the major is amusingly resistant to and contemptuous of feminism, he responds to te question of whether a woman can perform some technology related action with the observation that only experts can tell female and male skeletons apart; he cannot locate the impulse towards supporting gender equality anywhere but in physical science. The major is out of his depth in Luisa's feminine world, but that Harris is able to invest this world with such depths as well as limits that are in fierce contention; borders of gender, sexuality and empowerment, makes for a novel that expands internally, beyond the journey that is its ostensible subject, beyond the limits of its narrator's vision. Luisa's intellect is formidable and she seems physically and psychologically indomitable. Savant, person of colour, owning her desires and engineering their fulfilment, she wears the costs of independence, the scars and worse. Harris stays respectfully out of her head.

I would like to talk about vegetarian ideas in The Balloonist. The major describes one of his passengers, the bluff American journalist Waldemer as a lover of machines, and efficiency. Part of this ongoing characterisation consists of: "An animal to him is something to be looked at through a gun sight, something that falls down and turns into meat when the exquisite mechanism of the trigger is actuated"

This reflection is recorded at the start of the novel, when meat-eating is not taking place. However, later Waldemer kills animals for meat, for example a polar bear, and once again the major reflects on this creature as a living being in extraordinary language: "Did the bear ask to show us that he was red inside? He wanted only to be left alone with his wife and children. Did we debate with him like rational creatures whether his life was more important than our own?"

The killing is described in a completely unheroic way. The bear is shot at a distance and seen lying dead on the ice close to his family.

As well as offering me food for thought as a feminist, vegan and physics-fan, Harris offers me rich nourishment as a linguist from cover to cover in this work! Here’s a random sample
Pennsylvania is freckled with iron mills, but muriatic acid was expensive. I was forced to resort to my own pocketbook to buy another demijohn, which had to be brought out from Harrisburg in a wagon. In any case, the ascension was postponed until the next day, when everything in fact worked faultlessly and Waldemer and I soared for an hour over various neat farms divided into rectangles, landing finally in a rye field. Professor Eggert followed us in a shay drawn by an intelligent mare that had learned a good deal about the movements of balloons and was able to trace out their landing places with hardly any guidance from the reins.

Phillip Pullman is a fan, and Harris' influence is detectable in the former's work. If you like Pullman, I daresay you will like this. I'm rounding up from 4.5 stars.

Oh I forgot to mention how funny the book is! It's hard to believe that Harris found room for such hilarity, but he had me chuckling helplessly on the bus over many of the major's thoughts. A multi-layered masterpiece indeed!
Profile Image for Mara.
105 reviews56 followers
October 5, 2012
The book jacket description and the quote from Philip Pullman about not being able to stop turning pages once one starts reading this book led me to expect a very different type of story--a literary "Arctic adventure" that would primarily focus on getting a balloon to the North Pole. Sounded exciting!

Instead the book's primary focus is the tedious love affair between two ridiculously pretentious people, narrated in fittingly pretentious prose. (Needlessly lengthy sentences, no missed opportunity to use a big word, foreign phrases that aren't translated, etc., etc.) Luisa, our protagonist's love interest, is a stereotypically "enigmatic" woman who distracts our scientist hero from his noble pursuit of Science by frequently removing her clothing, breaking his lab equipment, and forcing him to endure long parties supervised by her spinster aunt. The protagonist, meanwhile, is a misogynist who finds Luisa's supposed interest in his work to be laughable even while he finds himself completely unable to resist her feminine wiles. Their endless squabbles get old really fast, and the reader patiently waiting for scenes of Arctic adventure will be waiting a long, long time. They're there, but they're few and far between!

I can understand that people with different literary tastes might love this book, but it definitely wasn't a match for mine.
Profile Image for Sarah.
474 reviews13 followers
April 12, 2017
Yes, hello, do you need a book where half of it is an expedition to the North Pole in a hot air balloon and the other half is a mixed up remembrance of a gender-bending romance? Would you like all of the people involved to be absolute weirdos? How do you feel about page-long walls of introspective text?

Sounds good? Yes?


. . .

It's, uh, it's this one.

. . .

What? Do you need more? Fine.

It took a while to get into, which can be a problem in my current child-related attention deficit problem, but luckily I brought it along while I got my oil changed. Alone. Glory be!

You see, one day I was up in the stacks and a bright red book with a golden blimp* on it caught my eye. "READ THIS BOOK. THE GUY'S DEAD. LAST CHANCE. NOBODY KNOWS THIS GUY. WHAT IS YOU PEOPLE'S PROBLEM? Also, he wrote the The Balloonist."

Now, I can't tell you why I thought it would a good idea to go get two books when I can barely read one these days, but there I was with a bare yellow cover I didn't even notice the title had been embossed into until I finished reading it. Which is to say, I went in blind. Had I read the bright red book with the glowing reviews and therefore developed some reason to trust its recommendation? No. Did I look up some critical reviews and make a decision based on their opinions? Not really. Have I been disappointed by random books plucked off the shelves before? Yes.**

Nevertheless, I found myself reading about this orderly man going about his orderly ways with his competent, yet colorful companions and then . . . he does . . . an insignificant thing, but a bonkers one. And from there, complementary oatmeal creme pie in my belly, tire fumes in the air, I had to know what the heck was going on.

So I read the book. Ta-da! Now I know and you don't and I won't tell you! Ha-ha! Find your own oatmeal creme pie, sucker!

* The Carp Castle

** Jose Builds a Woman
Profile Image for Sam Benson.
97 reviews
October 12, 2014
I wound up enjoying this book a lot more than I initially expected. Its prose is easy to read (and peppered with creative metaphors) yet sometimes challenging to follow. It's an internal monologue and so much of it takes place in memory, dream, or fantasy. The protagonist is pretty unlikeable throughout, being a prime specimen of Victorian misogyny and male privilege as he relives/recounts his relationship with a rather unconventional woman. He is obsessed with his self-concept as a scientist and his "fate" to make the voyage during which the book takes place - into the unknown, to face his own mortality. But all of that pretension is degraded slowly by the chaos that Luisa brings to his life, bringing into question his concept of who he is, what gender means, and what decides our destiny in life. I was completely unconvinced for most of the book that the relationship with Luisa and his retreats into memory/daydream were real vs representations of his own existential struggle, but that ambiguity made it kind of fun. Anyway...short, interesting, and enjoyable!
Profile Image for Jeffrey Schwartz.
28 reviews6 followers
March 17, 2018
Like many people, when I saw that Philip Pullman had written an introduction for this book I was immediately intrigued. Alas, MacDonald Harris is no Philip Pullman. The first 150 pages are tough but rewarding; the way Harris twines his plots creates a unique reading experience, continually lurching us between the present-tense narrative of an arctic balloon expedition and the tumultuous past-tense romance between our narrator and a vivacious young woman named Luisa. But about two-thirds of the way through the book the pace lags, which is forgivable, and Harris pulls the rug out from under us, revealing that two characters are actually the same person, which is less forgivable. This twist is handled so sheepishly, it's almost as though Harris is embarrassed to have resorted to such narrative trickery and doesn't want to completely acknowledge what he's done until the novel is nearly over. The prose and imagery are frequently beautiful, but those looking for a Pullman-esque arctic adventure would be better served elsewhere.
Profile Image for Daniel Polansky.
Author 27 books1,129 followers
November 15, 2019
An obsessive explorer battles the Arctic elements, his patriarchal limitations, in this gorgeous and peculiar novel. Lyrical descriptions of nature interspersed with a compelling an idiosyncratic romance. Excellent stuff, I'll be looking for more from the author.
Profile Image for Natalie.
134 reviews6 followers
December 19, 2012
I picked this up on my boyfriend's bookshelf, with the tantalizing premise of an artic explorer to the North Pole by hot air balloon. I wasn't expecting the beautiful language, the unusual and catch-me-off-my-guard metaphors, that I couldn't have predicted, but couldn't have been more precise. He once described a man yodelling as separating egg yolks in one's mouth. The story itself is a past-brought-to-the-present narrative of the mind, and slips back between and forth between past and present without any barrier. This, at times, makes it confusing, along with morphing identities of several characters. It circles round beautifully, and while ending with a certain gravitas does not disappoint. I found it a good read. Thank God for the feather bed.
Profile Image for Pamela Huxtable.
795 reviews40 followers
June 10, 2013
This novel defies classification. It feels like it could be steampunk, with the science and very Vernian approach to the plot driving story of a balloon expedition to the Noth Pole. But the author also explores sexual roles and communication within the strange love affair between the 2 main characters.

The book jacket says this novel was nominated or the National book award, but in checking the National Book award web site, I see that it did not make it to the finalist round. I'm not surprised. The layers of complexity, and the contrast of the Victorian expedition with a modern love affair put this book in a category of its own.
Profile Image for Michael.
476 reviews1 follower
November 13, 2009
Not a bad writer, but he uses a lot of unnecessarily big words. Never use a fifty-cent word when a ten-cent word will do, that's what I say. I finished the first hundred pages or so without much interest except in the love scene. If you're into historical fiction and antiquated navigation technology, then this book is for you.
Profile Image for Oriana.
Author 2 books3,265 followers
Want to read
September 10, 2007
This book was recommended by Philip Pullman (whom I adore) in a Guardian article on forgotten treasures. Apparently it's out of print, but if Philip liked it, I'll have to try to find a copy.
185 reviews
June 3, 2017
I stumbled across this book and it looked intriguing. Written in the 70's and touted as a "cult classic". It had many, if not most, of my favorite elements: Historical fiction with plenty of vivid descriptions of places, decor, clothing, landscapes. A scientific expedition, with details of the emerging science of aerial ballooning. Feminism. Wry humor. And, a torrid, complicated affair. It was never formulaic or predictable - in fact the last third of the book was exactly the opposite. I loved all the twists and turns. If the book had engaged my heart more it would have earned a 5.
3 reviews
July 18, 2018
I really enjoyed this book! It was definitely odd, and I don’t think I’ll ever come across another book quite like it. Loved the ending that I didn’t see coming.
Don’t read this book if you’re looking for something to keep you on the edge of your seat about an exciting expedition to the Arctic. This is more about Gustav’s relationship with a woman. Some of the language was confusing, but I did really enjoy this book, even if it’s not what I expected.
Profile Image for Katie.
12 reviews1 follower
September 29, 2020
I was excited to read this book, but unfortunately I was disappointed. It was hard to follow, going from present to past with no good transition. Trying to figure out if a character was two separate people or just one, writing in French with no translation. I could go on and on. Not the best read and I would not recommend
Profile Image for Colin.
33 reviews
February 3, 2021
A balloon trip to the north pole by three explorers which takes place in 1897.There is a second story within, as the main character re tells how he met his young female girlfriend, and the earlier balloon trip that they took together from Sweden to Finland.

Although it sags and lags in places it is a well told story with a slight twist at the end.
Profile Image for Shannon Carney.
86 reviews2 followers
December 30, 2019
Chalking it up to an issue of “just not my style.” It was well written, but I had a terrible time trying to stay engaged and focused on what was going on. Maybe worth a re-read once I clear out some more of my “To Read” list.
Profile Image for AVid_D.
465 reviews3 followers
December 5, 2017
This is a strange book - part adventure story, part curious romance - both comic and philosophical. I don't know if I would be safe recommending it to anyone yet I really liked it.
Profile Image for Elstirling.
286 reviews6 followers
June 15, 2019
Not something I would normally read but so well written I couldn’t not read it. Definitely makes you think.
171 reviews
August 3, 2022
This book grew on me. It’s the kind of book that you want to reread after you finish
Profile Image for John.
Author 71 books73 followers
December 3, 2015
There are two claimants for the honour of being first to have reached the (Geographic) North Pole: the expeditions led over the ice by Frederick Cook in 1908 and by Robert Peary the following year. Gustav Crispin, the balloonist narrator of MacDonald Harris’ novel, also starts out with the intention of reaching the North Pole – but a decade earlier, in July 1897. Harris does a wonderful job of evoking that whole era of polar exploration, and the sense of uncharted and inhospitable vastnesses on our planet. The considerable dangers involved in the voyage, and its use of very new and experimental technology, are vividly described. Leaving from Spitsbergen in the balloon Prinzess (sponsored by a Hamburg brewery) the trio carry with them in the confined gondola not only their scientific equipment and everything else necessary for survival, but the personal, mental, baggage of their very different backgrounds and histories. It is Crispin’s baggage that is opened and given a particularly thorough examination, whether or not it’s wanted on the voyage.

What starts as something of a romp (and never quite stops being one) becomes much more. The story alternates, seamlessly, between an account of the voyage itself and the multifarious scientific and other preparations for the expedition. Gradually, Crispin reveals more of himself and the highly complicated circumstances that, with a glacier’s inevitability, brought the crew together. The network of connections between them is sketched with a light touch by a sure hand. Slowly, the bare white spaces – within and outside – are explored. Witty, unpredictable, poignant, The Balloonist is a ‘contemporary’ episode of secret history as polished and fresh from the mint as Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. First published in 1976, this attractive reprint – part of an on-going programme from Galileo – is highly welcome. Hopefully it will help gain MacDonald Harris (the pseudonym of Donald Heiney, who died in 1993) many more appreciative readers.
Profile Image for Joe O'Connell.
13 reviews
March 13, 2021
I came across this book whilst researching Salomon A. Andree's ill-fated arctic expedition. I had never read any of MacDonald Harris' work before, but what a joy it was to discover an author of such talent. The events of the Andree expedition serve as a narrative railroad for the book, upon which Harris substitutes the men of history for his own creations, chiefly the Swedish scientist Gustav, and he interweaves the fictional expedition between a series of romantic and scientific encounters with the irresistible yet perplexing Luisa/Theodore. I loved the humour that came from Major Gustav's worldview being challenged at every turn, the dry appraisals of his companions (Luisa/Theodore and the American journalist Waldemer) and the intimacy that came from spending time with the three adventurers in the tiny confines of the balloon basket. As I understand it, no two Harris novels are the same, so whilst I'm not sure what to expect from reading some of his other work, I am excited to do so.
Profile Image for Susan.
1,179 reviews46 followers
August 31, 2018
Second reading August 2018. I read this book for the first time 40 years ago. The idea of traveling to the North Pole in a balloon fascinated me. Now, 40 years later, I find that the idea still fascinates me. I absolutely loved my second reading of this book. I found so much more in it this time. I loved the discussions, the symbolism of red and white, the role of women changing. Wonderful, wonderful book. So happy that I got the courage to give it a second reading.

First reading: circa 1977. This book captured my imagination at a particular time in my life. I am afraid to read it again, because every time I reread a book I loved, I wonder what I loved about it.
Profile Image for Brendan.
43 reviews1 follower
September 20, 2011
This novel, inspired by an actual attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon in the 1890’s, is a well-wrought tale of adventure that includes a rather odd but memorable love affair. Harris seems very much forgotten, and yet he wrote to some acclaim in his day and is cited by authors such as Philip Pullman as an influence on their work (most obvious perhaps in Northern Lights). He is very adept at describing the science of the day along with the practice of ballooning, but surprisingly he is at his best with his creative rendering of the erotic.
Sentus Libri 100 word reviews of overlooked books.
Profile Image for John.
540 reviews34 followers
April 4, 2012
This book is a curiousity that is well worth reading. The two main protagonists are well-drawn and likeable characters, and the book is a kind of game with the reader who has to work out exactly what the connection is between the scenes when the two lovers establish their very modern realtionship (the book is set in nineteenth century Europe, among the middle classes) and the slightly later events of the highly unlikely balloon expedition to the north pole. Both the technical descriptions of ballooning and the story of the developing love affair, are well done and slowly draw the reader in. That there will be a denouement is certain but its nature isn't revealed until the last 2-3 pages.
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 6 books88 followers
June 29, 2012
I rarely adore a book, but I adored The Balloonist, in all its carefully-restrained, ironical, acerbic strangeness. It's a story about an obsessive, driven, romantically obtuse late-Nineteenth Century explorer on an expedition to the North Pole - or is it? No, it isn't. It's a monstrous, improbable, gravity-defying metaphor. And one of the best Mad Narrator novels ever. The twist at the end will rip your head off.
Profile Image for Leslie Ann.
1,403 reviews29 followers
September 21, 2012
I heard about this book from a list of Philip Pullman's favorite books, and indeed, this book is impeccably written. The book is about a balloon expedition to the North Pole, with a love story thrown in for good measure. What else to think about as you float northwards? Although the story at times was slow, the short length (<300 pages), fin-de-siecle setting, and wit kept me going. Plus, there's a nice twist at the end.
Profile Image for Les .
254 reviews76 followers
Want to read
November 2, 2012
I really am enjoying this when I have been reading it and yet it has been given shortshrift. I have not gotten far and remember little of the last 30 pages because how I have been reading it.

It was a terrific gift from Gloria and has high recommendations from friends and MH's other writing.

I will return to this when I can start over, immerse, and zip through it.

Feeling lame about this, but want to give it the due it deserves.
2 reviews2 followers
November 8, 2012
A superb read by one of America's great, prolific (but neglected) novelists. 3 men attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon in 1897. Actually a true story but no-one realised this when the novel was first published in 1976.
Its just been re-issued by Overlook with a Philip Pullman foreword. Pullman is big fan of this writer.
The novel is incredibly well crafted and there's a big twist which you may not get until quite late in the book.
Read it!
Displaying 1 - 30 of 41 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.