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The Balloonist

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  152 ratings  ·  40 reviews
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
Hardcover, 273 pages
Published 1976 by Farrar Straus & Giroux, Inc.
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Average rating 3.68  · 
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 ·  152 ratings  ·  40 reviews

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Oct 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of physics, polar exploration and Phillip Pullman
Shelves: stem, feminism
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 ...more
Sep 25, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Dec 29, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
WTF. The only reason I gave this two stars was because the ending, where (view spoiler), was extremely satisfying. ...more
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
Sam Benson
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 a ...more
Jeffrey Schwartz
Mar 17, 2018 rated it liked it
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 w ...more
Daniel Polansky
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. ...more
Dec 18, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Pamela Huxtable
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. T
Dec 29, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction-poetry
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. ...more
Robert Hyde
Hi. Just to let admirers of this amazing book know that we have republished it this week with a new intro by Philip Pullman. See
Robert Hyde
Amy Munoz
Jun 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 a ...more
Jul 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
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.
Sep 29, 2020 rated it did not like it
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
Colin Gray
Feb 03, 2021 rated it liked it
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.
Shannon Carney
Dec 29, 2019 rated it it was ok
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.
Dec 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Jun 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Not something I would normally read but so well written I couldn’t not read it. Definitely makes you think.
Carole Storey
Jan 06, 2020 rated it it was ok
What was the point?
Aug 30, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, review
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 ...more
Joe O'Connell
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 ...more
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. Thi
Sep 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 h ...more
Apr 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 bal ...more
Jun 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Leslie Ann
Sep 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
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. ...more
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.
Robert Hyde
Nov 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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!
May 20, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
As far-fetched and wonderfully fictitious as the idea of a voyage to the North Pole via balloon sounds, it was actually attempted in 1897 by S. A. Andrée (see Alec Wilkinson’s The Ice Balloon). The Balloonist draws from that expedition, but adds its own developments in the theme of Victorian ideals crashing into the modern, or rather the blank unforgiving Arctic nature actually ruling all.

Annie Camp
Jan 26, 2014 rated it liked it
There were some beautiful sentences and unique evocative phrases but overall this book was a bore. It was difficult for me to read more than 20 pages without falling asleep. I also resent being sent to my dictionary for unnecessary words over and over. I disliked both the narrator and his love interest and found it difficult to care what happened to either of them. I can see it being appealing for a certain type of reader but not my cup of tea.
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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 t

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