Falling upwards, p.18
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       Falling Upwards, p.18

           Richard Holmes
 

  I said to Arago: ‘There is the floating egg which is destined to become a bird! That bird is still inside the egg. But it will soon emerge!’ Arago seized me by both hands, and fixed me intently with his large, luminous eyes. ‘On that day,’ he murmured, ‘Geo will become Demos – the earth will belong to the People.’32

  Hugo signed off with a final farewell to Nadar: ‘I no longer address you personally, brave Nadar the Aeronaut. There is nothing further I can tell you, that you do not already know. Instead, I fling this open letter upon the four winds. I write on its envelope: A tout le Monde!’33 As it turned out, Hugo was far from finished with balloons in 1865. The four winds would soon bring them back to him, as unexpected symbols of liberty, flying above the rooftops of Paris.

  Over the next three years Nadar continued to send the repaired Géant around the cities of northern Europe, as much for tethered publicity displays as for actual flights. They were always accompanied by pamphlet copies of Hugo’s Letter on Flight and his own Droit au vol. Nadar even took the balloon to London, where it was exhibited at the Crystal Palace. The celebrated two-storey gondola was much photographed, and the cause of ‘heavier-than-air’ flight much discussed.

  Balloons and flying became populist symbols again; the propaganda for aviation and republicanism were twinned. During these tours Nadar met many writers and opposition politicians, in exile like Hugo from the Second Empire. Among them were Charles Baudelaire and Armand Barbès, both in Brussels and both old friends from the Panthéon Nadar days. Nadar’s aeronautical fame gave him a certain freedom of manoeuvre. When he was presented to Leopold II, the King of the Belgians, the following exchange took place. His Majesty: ‘You are a republican I suppose, Monsieur Nadar?’ ‘Yes indeed, sire. And you?’ ‘Ah! Monsieur Nadar, my profession absolutely forbids it.’34 Even so, the king could not be persuaded to ascend in the republican balloon.

  The end of the Géant itself was strangely muted. Perhaps this was appropriate for a balloon dedicated to advertising its own superannuation. The last three ascents of the now ancient and creaking campaigner, damaged as much by overland as by aerial travel, took place in Paris during the Exposition Universelle of 1867. Captained by Nadar, it was launched from Les Invalides, amid great celebrations and thousands of spectators, but got little further than the Paris suburbs.

  A balloonist of the new generation, Wilfrid de Fonvielle (1824–1914), who was on board, left a wry account of ‘the three last gasps of the late, great Géant’.35 The old balloon appeared ‘striped like a zebra’, encircled by long bandages of white silk crudely sewn on with black thread to cover some of its ‘many wounds’. Fonvielle dreamed of going as far as the Danube, but finished up at Choisy-le Roi instead, and the balloon leaked alarmingly all the way. White smoke oozed from its top seams, ‘like the steam that issues from the funnel of a locomotive’. Someone joked that it was just the old Géant ‘smoking his pipe’, but it was no laughing matter to Fonvielle: ‘This pipe was being smoked over a barrel of gunpowder.’ It was a relief when the balloon was finally deflated, folded and bagged up. The whole extraordinary legend of Le Géant, so carefully built up by Nadar, seemed finally reduced to a large dirty sack of ‘so much matchwood’. Perhaps, Fonvielle concluded, it had rendered ‘some slight service to the art of aerostation’.36

  3

  Yet the imaginative influence of Nadar’s gigantesque balloon, and the publicity surrounding it, was far more subtle and widespread than this. It elevated and transformed the very idea of travel itself. Jules Verne had been following Nadar’s adventures from the beginning, and in December 1863 published a long article in Musée des familles, ‘Nadar the Aeronaut’, praising his courage and vision. He said that Nadar was the man who had demonstrated that it was not enough merely to ‘float in the upper air’ passively. The true hero would actively ‘fly through it’ with purpose and energy, towards a definite destination. This destination could be a place, real or invented; or it could be ‘adventure’ itself.37

  Jules Verne (1828–1905) had been an unknown freelance science journalist from Nantes when he first met Nadar in 1862. He was still struggling in his mid-thirties to establish his literary career in Paris, and had been supporting himself with miscellaneous legal work, writing plays, and publishing occasional short articles on travel and invention. For several years previously he had been looking for actual adventures, ‘true stories’, for his magazine articles. He slipped away ‘day and night’ from his job at the Paris Bourse to research at the Bibliothèque Nationale, which offered him ‘endless resources’.38

  Verne saw that travel in general, and ballooning in particular, potentially supplied fantastically rich material. For instance, in 1849 a young French aeronaut, François Ardan, had made the first daring crossing of the Maritime Alps by balloon, starting at Marseille and landing near Turin.39 Verne did not forget Ardan’s name when he later came to invent his scientific daredevil ‘Michel Ardan’, who flies to the moon.

  Verne had also researched Julien Turgau’s vivid study Les Ballons: Histoire de la locomotion aérienne, which had appeared in 1851. It had an inspired Introduction by the visionary poet Gérard de Nerval, and memorable steel engravings of airborne balloons. Equally, his friendship with François Arago’s younger brother, the seasoned travel writer Jacques Arago, turned him towards the idea of fantastic expeditions. Early results were his articles ‘A Balloon Trip’ (1851) and ‘Wintering on the Ice’ (1853). By the end of the decade he was already discussing with Alexandre Dumas fils his new concept for what he called ‘le roman de la science’.40

  When Verne met Nadar and the editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel – another member of the Panthéon Nadar, and the hugely successful publisher of Balzac, Hugo and George Sand – in the autumn of 1862, the crucial moment had arrived. He abandoned a negative, dystopian novella about Paris, and agreed to write instead a high-spirited balloon adventure.fn23 Verne wrote excitedly to his friends at the Bourse bidding them adieu, and putting his future in appropriately commercial terms. He was writing a novel ‘in a new style, truly my own – if it succeeds it will be a gold mine’.42 The contract for Cinq semaines en ballon was signed with Hetzel in October 1862.

  In fact, a crude first version of the story had already appeared as an article in a Swedish magazine under the title ‘In a Hot-Air Balloon Over Africa’. It was never translated, and according to Verne’s wife he had struggled to expand it in a manuscript version with the working title ‘A Voyage Through the Air’. It caused him such despair that he had threatened to burn it.43

  After many talks with Hetzel and Nadar, Verne rewrote and expanded the manuscript in his ‘new style’. Inspired by Nadar’s enthusiasm and Hetzel’s editorial skills, he transformed his flat documentary ‘magazine manner’ into a brisk form of narrative. His chapters became brief and punchy: there are forty-three in the short novel. He added a mass of realistic scientific details and dramatic ballooning incidents: storms, condors, elephants, volcanoes, drought, hallucinations, mirages, wild tribesmen, and of course frequent near-misses and crash-landings.

  Above all he introduced a lively play of comic dialogue among his balloon crew. Verne saw that the balloon basket (like Ardan’s later moon rocket, or Captain Nemo’s submarine) was the ideal enclosed space in which to stage a drama, and draw out contrasting characters under pressure. As Nadar would experience, any balloon flight – especially a long one – was always essentially a piece of theatre. To exploit this Verne introduced three highly contrasted protagonists, and Hetzel soon appended a provocative subtitle: Five Weeks in a Balloon; A Voyage of Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen. The novel was swiftly completed and published in late January 1863, three months after Nadar’s ‘Manifesto’. It was the perfect moment: talk of ballooning and Le Géant was becoming all the rage.

  4

  Five Weeks in a Balloon is Jules Verne’s first true science fiction novel, his first roman de la science. It proved to be the major breakthrough in his career as a popular author. With extraor
dinarily realistic details and statistics, it recounts a purely imaginary balloon expedition westwards across the whole of Africa, starting from the island of Zanzibar, in the Indian Ocean. Zanzibar, then a British colony, lies off the east coast of what is now Tanzania. The protagonists are three unflappable British types, an adventure formula that Verne would develop and repeat in many later books.

  The first is the eccentric Dr Samuel Fergusson, dreamer and explorer, the commander of the expedition, ex-member of the Bengal Engineers, ‘possessed by the demon of discovery’. Florid-faced, calm, stoic, wiry, immune to any disease or privation, Dr Fergusson has ranged restlessly through India, Australia and America, and has ‘dreamed of fame like that of Mungo Park and Bruce, or even – I believe – like that of Selkirk and Robinson Crusoe’.44 For Fergusson the balloon is the application of pure science to exploration. He is the prototype of all Verne’s cerebral adventurers.

  Next is his bluff and fearless friend Dick Kennedy, a big-game hunter and ‘a Scotsman in the full significance of the word, open, resolute, and dogged’. They had met in India where Kennedy ‘was hunting tigers and elephant and Fergusson was hunting plants and insects’. Kennedy is shrewd and practical, and thinks Fergusson’s African balloon project is obviously mad. But when he finds he cannot prevent it, he decides to join Kennedy out of blind loyalty. ‘“Rely on me,” said Fergusson, “and let my motto be yours: Excelsior!” “Very well, old man, Excelsior!” answered the sportsman, who didn’t know a word of Latin.’45 Excelsior means, of course, Ever Higher!

  Finally, as the catalyst between the two, Verne conjures up their small Cockney manservant, Joe. In recognition of Victorian class distinctions, Joe has no surname, but he is far from being a cypher in the plot, or mere ballast in the balloon. (Indeed, he is the forerunner of Passepartout in Around the World in Eighty Days.) Smart, resourceful, quick-thinking and sharp-tongued, he is also a formidable gymnast, and so perfectly adapted to life in a balloon basket: ‘Jumping, climbing, somersaulting, performing a thousand impossible acrobatic tricks, were child’s play to him.’ More than this, he is one of Nature’s enthusiasts: fascinated by science, in love with balloons (‘beautiful things’), and above all loyal to his master: ‘If Fergusson was the brilliant brain of the expedition, Kennedy was the brawny arm, and Joe was the dexterous hand.’46

  The novel opens with a remarkably convincing account of Dr Fergusson being summoned before the Royal Geographical Society in London, from whom he hopes to raise funds. However, satirical elements soon surface. Verne hints at his wide background reading by making disguised reference to Poe’s balloon hoax story of nearly twenty years previously:

  ‘Perhaps this incredible scheme is only intended to hoax us,’ said an apoplectic old Commodore. ‘What if Dr Fergusson didn’t really exist?’ cried another malicious voice. ‘Then he’d have to be invented,’ replied a waggish member of this learned Society. ‘Show Dr Fergusson in,’ said Sir Francis simply. And the doctor entered amid a thunder of applause, and without the least show of emotion … His whole person exhaled calm gravity, and it would never have occurred to anyone that he could be the instrument of the most innocent hoax.47

  Verne then presents the mass of historical, scientific and statistical data that he was learning to deploy, sometimes quite mischievously, in order to provide the necessary frame of realism. Chapter 4 is a short history of African exploration, from Bruce to Speke; Chapter 7 a short treatise on balloon theory and practical navigation by east-to-west trade winds (which John Wise would have recognised). Some of it is straight-facedly pedagogical in tone: ‘By giving the balloon a capacity of 44,847 cubic feet and inflating it not with air but with hydrogen which is fourteen and a half times lighter than air and weighs only 270lbs, a change of equilibrium is produced amounting to a difference of 3,780 lbs, which constitutes the lifting force of the balloon.’48

  Other sections slip into pure romance, as when Dr Fergusson harangues Kennedy on the beauty and convenience of balloon flight. Here one can hear the voice of the authentic balloon geek. It is a voice partly inspired by Nadar, but also going back to the very roots of the aeronautical tradition and eighteenth-century ballomania.

  I don’t intend to stop until I reach the West coast of Africa! With my balloon there will be nothing to fear from either heat, torrents, storms, the simoon, unhealthy climate, wild animals or savage men. If I’m too hot, I go up. If I’m too cold, I come down. If I meet an impassable mountain, I fly above it; a precipice, I sail over it; a river, I float across it. If I encounter a storm, I ascend above it; a torrent, I flit over it like a bird. I travel without fatigue and halt without need of rest. I soar over new cities. I fly with the swiftness of a hurricane. Sometimes I rise to the very edges of the breathable atmosphere. At others, I descend to skim over the earth at a few hundred feet, so the great map of Africa unwinds beneath my eyes like the mightiest atlas in the world.49

  Launched from Zanzibar, they do indeed follow ‘the great map of Africa’ along the westward line of the upper Nile into the African interior. But nothing goes as Fergusson had prognosticated. The picaresque adventures and mishaps of their balloon, the Victoria, unfold one after another, helter-skelter, practically without pause for breath – or hydrogen. Verne, brilliantly inventive and bold in his plotline, gives a new meaning to the term suspense. The crew suffer from fever, are towed by a runaway elephant, attacked by condors, worshipped by witchdoctors (who think they are the moon come to earth). They rescue a missionary from cannibals, sail through a hail shower, survive a huge electrical storm, overfly an active volcano, escape from clouds of locusts, beat off ‘incendiary pigeons’, and find the source of the Nile, though not necessarily in that order. In the end, with no more hydrogen left, they turn the Victoria into a Montgolfier. By burning dry grass beneath the canopy, they just manage to escape the final wave of ‘infuriated natives’, and skim across a river into French-occupied Senegal and safety.

  Infuriated natives in fact feature regularly throughout the novel. Long before, Shelley had imagined that ‘the shadow of the first balloon’ crossing Africa would be an instrument of liberation and enlightenment. But for Verne the balloon is more a symbol of imperial command, and scientific superiority.fn24 Cinque semaines is paradoxically a work of colonial exploitation, as much as exploration. It is blatantly – almost naïvely – racist throughout, and observations such as ‘Africans are as imitative as monkeys’ occur regularly throughout the story.51

  Balloon height gives the crew not only safety, but also moral superiority. To them, tribesmen are savages, and the wildlife – the elephant, the blue antelope – is there largely for big-game hunting. De haut en bas gains a literal force. Africa, and Africans, can become just ‘scenery’. It is the recognisable beginnings of a safari culture. Yet it is perhaps also relevant that this is a Frenchman writing about British imperialists, and their very balloon is named after their Queen.

  The Victoria passed close to a village which the doctor recognised from the map as Faole. The whole population had turned out, and howled with rage and fear. Arrows were vainly shot at the monster of the air soaring majestically above all this impotent fury. The wind was blowing them south, but this did not worry the doctor, as it would enable him to follow the route taken by Captains Burton and Speke. Kennedy had now become as talkative as Joe. ‘A bit better than travelling by coach,’ he observed. ‘Or by steamer,’ replied Joe. ‘I don’t know I think much of railways, either,’ continued Kennedy. ‘I like to see where I’m going.’ ‘Balloons is priceless,’ agreed Joe. ‘You don’t feel you’re moving at all – the scenery just slides under you. Just begging to be gawped at!’ ‘Yes, a splendid view! Like dreaming in a hammock.’ ‘What about some lunch, sir?’ said Joe.52

  Nevertheless, by using the balloon to open up a new, exotic world – with its special geography, anthropology, natural history, geology and climate – to a popular readership, Verne had a surprise best-seller on his hands. The book was quickly translated throughout Europe, an
d Verne was able to follow it up with astonishing rapidity. He had found his path, and from that point on he published two or more books a year for the next decade.

  It was an amazing output. The most successful titles became equally celebrated in English as in French (and eventually as films). They included Voyage au centre de la terre (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1864); De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865); Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1869); and Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872). Hetzel quickly saw the enormous potential of the series and began to publish it collectively as Voyages Extraordinaires (Astonishing Voyages). From then on Verne could live on his writings, and his reputation was made.

  Verne continued to work for Nadar’s Society for the Promotion of Heavier than Air Locomotion, of which he eventually became Secretary. He also immediately repaid his fictional debt to Edgar Allan Poe, by publishing a short study, Edgar Poe et ses oeuvres, in 1864. He had, after all, trumped Poe by producing probably the most famous of all imaginary balloon flights of the nineteenth century, to which he later appended his Pacific balloon story The Mysterious Island, of 1875. Yet the novel is in a sense uncharacteristic of the rest of Verne’s romans de la science. Like its successors, it is wonderfully inventive in its picaresque storyline, and it is obvious why Hetzel had such confidence in his author’s power to produce incident-packed narrative.

  Yet it contains very little scientific or technological prophecy. It is not a ‘futuristic’ novel. The journey of the Victoria, just like that of Le Géant, is presented as a contemporary marvel, almost as an extended news item, and is specifically described as ‘the most noteworthy expedition of the year 1862’.53 It is true that Dr Fergusson also has various invented devices for increasing the balloon’s lifting power (such as a ‘Bunsen battery’ burner for raising the temperature of the hydrogen – a glimpse of the prototype propane balloons of the 1960s). But he also takes every opportunity to expatiate on the advantages of ‘modern’ flight over traditional land-based transport in the tropics. If, for example, they had attempted to travel overland like Mungo Park or Speke, they would have been overcome by disaster:

 
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