Up in Smoke, Up in the Air

Tonight, when I went online to find the first of five spooky stories to read, my power cord burst into flames.  Honestly.  That’s certainly never happened before.  (And yes, it’s an iMac G4, and yes, I just got an email yesterday saying the battery needs to be replaced because of a spontaneous combustion issue, but I must say there was no mention of the power cord.  It’s probably my own fault.  I had been noticing that the power cord didn’t always seem to deliver power to the computer unless you yanked on it a little.  How that became a fire, though, is beyond me.) 

This was all a little unnerving, if  pretty exciting, because we’ve never had a fire in our house before, other than the kind you make in the fireplace.  Several people were disappointed that the fire went out the instant I stepped on my power cord, fortunately using my shoe to extinguish it rather than my bare foot.  They wanted to watch some stuff  burn, I guess. 

Eventually, everyone settled down, having carefully examined the cord and made jokes about their smokin’ mom.  And then, the children in bed, I snuck downstairs to their computer, my own obviously now out of commission until I can get myself to the apple store for a new power cord and a new battery.  And I got right back to it.  It will take more than a little fire to keep me away from a good story. 

I dialed up the Project Gutenberg version of Guy de Maupassant’s The Trip of Le Horla.  Okay, first I ate a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone to calm my nerves.  I’ll tell you I was delighted to learn that the medium for this particular story is air and sea and land and not fire, unless you count a few references to forges which I have to admit freaked me out a little.  I guess I must have been more unnerved than I knew, because well after I read the story and wrote this post, I realized the actual story litlove recommended was La Horla, probably truly scary and horrific, since it’s written from the point of view of a syphilitic.  Still, I loved what I read and it’s far too late to write a second post and, anyway, the story I did read, while not scary in the least, was pretty terrific.  So, I’m  beginning the spooky project with a little conflagration, a failure to follow directions, but at least I’m posting.  And shouldn’t that count for something?

Anyway:  Le Horla is a balloon, a stylish nautical French balloon, piloted by a fanatic balloonist.  And the story is the tale of a balloon voyage.  A little shaken from my fire experience, and because I was under the impression the entire time I read the story that there was something scary about it, I paid a lot of attention to what that balloon was voyaging over.  A forge isn’t something you want to descend into.  I will tell you now, that doesn’t happen.

What I will tell you, though, is that I am in love with Guy de Maupassant.  Let’s get that right out there, shall we?  I want to live in his Paris, and I want to read everything he’s ever written.  It is, tonight, the greatest tragedy of my life that I don’t read French and will have to see him through the veil of someone’s translation.  But I’ll take it.  He is that good.  Here’s why:

  • I realized that although any copyright on de Maupassant’s work has long expired, the same is probably not true of translations and, thus, the one I was reading on Project Gutenberg seemed very rough, most interested in the literal sense of the story and less in the smoothness of the writing.  Possibly because it was the yeoman-like work of a Project Gutenberg volunteer, bless him or her.  It took me several paragraphs to get used to the translation, but then it receded into the background.
  • And then I realized the entire story was being told in the present tense by the unnamed narrator.  Although I don’t like this technique when it’s used in contemporary fiction, it worked beautifully here because it brought me right into the story.
  • Having pretty quickly gotten past the two things I thought might ruin everything, I realized that the story I was reading is a marvelous, breathtaking, transcendent description of a balloon trip across France and I didn’t want it to end.  I can’t quote examples, but I’m guessing in the French or in a good translation it’s remarkably beautiful because even in the text I read I was transported, as it were.
  • The narration really takes off when the balloon takes off, and the narrator somehow manages to give us a sense of how extraordinary it is to be above the earth:  so otherworldly that ordinary rules give way, as though the balloon and its occupants had entered into another dimension.  My favorite thing about the journey was how the men in the balloon could hear the sounds of the world far below them, and it was children’s’ voices that were the clearest.
  • There is very little human interaction.  The narrator seems to spend most of the trip looking around him and telling us what he sees.  The arc of the story is, almost entirely, the ascent, the ride (up, down, over France, its cities, twisting rivers, forges, farms, and then somehow the balloon and the moon are the only two things in the sky) and the descent.  The balloonists are in the background:  the captain loves what he is doing.  The narrator hangs over the basket.
  • Toward the end of the story, you’re suddenly terribly aware of the balloon’s rush toward the earth and you get some idea that there’s something down there the balloonists aren’t aware of — something as vast as the air, but not as welcoming — possibly the sea.  But then, the balloon lands in a field, and all is well.
  • Until you read the final few lines and you realize all was not, maybe, well for the captain of this balloon.  And I’ll leave it to you to find out what that was. 

Not scary.  Transporting, out of  body, beautiful, memorable.  A trip I’d be happy to take again.  Did I mention I’m in love with Guy de Maupassant?  Yes, well, I am.  I will not use a fire metaphor to tell you how that works, but I am going to the internet now to find out which translation I should be reading of everything he’s written, including the scary story I was supposed to read.  And the power cord had better hold up while I’m doing it.

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16 thoughts on “Up in Smoke, Up in the Air

  1. Maupassant is my man. That is another book I wasn’t able to rescue when I went back to UK. I have a book of his short stories there but no room in the suitcase.

    How alarming about the fire! I can imagine it had an eager audience. When I was little, my mum was ironing and the iron blew up. Through the smoke, my brother’s voice piped up: “Can you do that again?”

    I hope your computer is on the road to recovery very soon.

  2. I have seen a power cord go up in sparks and flames before, and we stopped the phenomenon by unplugging it (I would firmly recommend this procedure rather than courageously stepping on a smouldering short-circuit; I am glad it worked, though).

    For those who want the text in French (unavailable at the Gutenberg project), I have found it here. It was actually not published under that title originally. Your confusion is understandable.

    The scary tale Litlove was mentioning is Le Horla, and can be found at the Gutenberg project in its original version but I could find no english translation. You will probably have to buy it (if you find a good translation, I guarantee this is no wasted money).

    Maupassant also wrote poignant social stories. The one I like best is Boule de Suif. Bel Ami or Une Vie are also quite amazing writings. Proof enough there are (or at least have been) non-macho frenchmen.

  3. OMG! You had a much cooler head than I would have had. Glad it wasn’t worse. I remember reading Maupassant a little in high school, but that is about it. I am adding him to my bookstore list.

  4. Hi Helen, We’re off to the apple store later today or first thing in the morning. My boys are not happy about me monopolizing their computer. Mandarine, Thank you for those other Maupassant suggestions. I’ll be looking for a good translation. Hi Dorothy — I’m going to read the real spooky story next. I don’t think it ends well. Ex libirs, I think stamping on the power cord was a bit of an exaggeration. I sort of nudged it with my foot. Anyway, it was only a bit of a fire, but smelly.

  5. I realize it wasn’t the point of the story, but thanks for mentioning the Mac battery recall. I hadn’t heard about it until I read your post. Upon investigation, it turns out that my computer harbours one of the batteries that needs to be replaced. So, your quick action with the power cord may not have been your only act of fire prevention yesterday!

    It’s been a long time since I read de Maupassant. I’d been thinking of revisiting him after my recent Chekhov immersion given that de Maupassant is often cited as one of Chekhov’s major influences. Your post makes me even keener to do so!

  6. Maybe the fire was de Maupassant coming back through the ether, telling you, “Go buy the book!”

    Very scary! I always worry about cords that feel warm and about odd smells around electrical things. Not baseless fears, I guess.

  7. Emily, your spooky list is very impressive. And don’t forget to send me your own original!

    Well, Kate, if I can save a single soul the trauma I’ve been through…. No, really, it’s a bummer about those batteries, but the apple people have always been very nice when I’ve gone in for a visit. A while back, all the letters on my keyboard started to disappear and I went in and they snapped new ones on. I didn’t know that about Chekhov and de Maupassant. Thanks for mentioning it.

    Kristin, I’ve never had a computer fire before but, like you’ve, I’ve wondered about how hot things can get sometimes. (And if anyone could come back through the ether to haunt you, de Maupassant seems like a good candidate.) I’d better go get that book.

  8. My oldest was a firebug – not a fun thing to have happen. He started his bed on fire because he wanted a fire in his room. As it happened, it was 30 below zero, my ex was out running.. and the story made the AP wire. 🙂 He stopped setting fires right after that.

  9. you should read Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. it totally freaked me out when i read it, and i never read it again.

    *scary* books don’t freak me out easily since my two of my favorite books are American Psycho and Stephen King’s Different Seasons (the Shawshank Redepmption’s in it, and the story that was made into the movie Stand by Me). but The Turn of the Screw was really scary for me for some reason.

  10. Dear Bloglily – I’d gone away for the weekend and so have come late to your love of Maupassant, but I’m so thrilled! He IS a wonderful writer and I’m delighted you’ve discovered him. I echo the sentiments of Mandarine -Boule de suif is also fab, and well so is most of what he has written. I notice that on amazon.com you can get The Complete Short Stories Part One and that has Le Horla in it: http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Short-Stories-Guy-Maupassant/dp/1417936142/sr=1-1/qid=1157314487/ref=pd_bbs_1/104-3665732-7491109?ie=UTF8&s=books
    But if you have difficulties let me know and I’ll photocopy it for you and stick it in the post. I am sorry to hear about the power cable, but boy I’ll bet you impressed your children as a one-woman fire brigade!

  11. Hey all — I’m actually IN the Emeryville apple store, where my power cord was nicely replaced by the guy at the genius bar (they’re the geniuses, I wonder what they call us? The idiots?)   But I have to send my computer in for a repair of other problems, which is okay I guess. The boys will have to deal with sharing their computer with their mom. Poor things.

    sue, I didn’t know that. And that it made the AP wire is most impressive. Smokey — thanks for the tip

    Hi litlove, I hope you had a nice trip away. And thank you for the amazon link. That’s my next move. xxoo, BL

  12. Is your area prone to power surges? Because even with a faulty battery, any computer, Mac or [sic] PC won’t draw enough power to fry your cable. I would tend to take a look at either the cable or if there was any power difficulties in your neighborhood.

    But enough of me being a geeky techie. I’m still jealous you have a Mac. I’ve been saving for nearly 2 1/2 years for mine, as working in film doesn’t provide quite a consistent level of savings. So I must edit on Avid on this poor little PC. Luckily I’m getting busier now. Fingers crossed.

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