Under his real name, Donald Heiney, Harris (1921-1993) taught writing at the University of California at Irvine, where one of his students was Michael Chabon. As an editor for Book World during the 1980s, I assigned several of Harris’s novels for review — including such major works as “Tenth” and “Herma” — and nearly all of them received rapturous notices. As Pullman says at the end of his introduction to “The Balloonist,” Harris is simply a writer “too good to be neglected.”
So how come you haven’t heard of him? How is it that his books — often loosely fantastic or magic-realist — are out of print? You tell me. One can only hope that Overlook will reissue more of Harris’s highly original work.
“The Balloonist,” set in July 1897, is narrated in the present tense, with abundant flashbacks, by a middle-aged Swedish aeronaut named Major Gustav Crispin. In a three-person balloon, the major, along with an omnicompetent American newspaperman named Waldemer and the youthful, quiet Theodor, aims to sail over the Arctic reaches to the North Pole.
From the start, most people believe that the expedition is doomed to failure. No matter. “I am going forth of my own volition to join the ghosts of Bering and poor Franklin, of frozen De Long and his men. What I am on the brink of knowing, I now see, is not an ephemeral mathematical spot but myself.”
Clearly a philosopher as well as an explorer and a scientist, the major believes that “the outward events of our lives bear little or no relation to what is really happening to us”: The present as much as the past can sometimes seem just a magic lantern show. Given the blurring of what is real and what is remembered, “The Balloonist,” despite its boys’-adventure trappings, quickly becomes a journey into the interior of the self. In this book, to quote an uncannily appropriate line from Wallace Stevens, “Crispin / Became an introspective voyager.”
As “The Prinzess” soars northward, encountering storms of ice and snow, the major re-creates, in vivid detail, the history of the erotic tango of his love affair with an enigmatic 19-year-old named Luisa. Coming from a wealthy, cosmopolitan family in Paris, Luisa is ardently modern, straining against the barriers of what is proper and improper for a well-brought-up young lady.