Back in 2020 I read and reviewed Julian Barnes’s moving book “Levels of Life“; in it, he explored the unusual bedfellows of ballooning and grief, with one strand of his narrative touching on the great actress Sarah Bernhardt who I described at the time as a “devotee of the dirigible”. Fast-forward to the end of 2021 and imagine my delight when I discovered that the lovely Renard Press were issuing a shiny new edition of Bernhardt’s ballooning fable “In the Clouds” (translated by John Joline Ross)! Needless to say, it was the perfect choice for me to share my thoughts on for Read Indies!

Renard Press are a relatively new indie, having bravely launched during the first wave of the pandemic, and they’ve gone on to produce some beautiful and fascinating editions (many of which have featured on the Ramblings). I’m happy to support them by subscribing (a model a lot of indies adopt, and a good one I feel); and that way I’m always guaranteed to get interesting bookish post through the letterbox once a month! Anyway – on to Sarah Bernhardt and “In the Clouds”!

The book is narrated, rather humorously, not by one of the various human balloonists but instead by a rather plain little wooden chair. The chair is neglected and seems bound for an unhappy life, until it’s snatched from obscurity to be used for Dona Sol (a thinly veiled self-portrait of Bernhardt). Plonked into the basket of the balloon, the chair accomplanies Dona Sol and her two companions, the aeronaut Louis Godard, and the artist Georges Clairin. As the party fly through the clouds, causing excitement wherever they go, the chair is witness to their adventures and witty repartee. After a day of flight, there is more drama on the ground – but what will be the fate of our doughty little chair??

We travel onwards; we travel quickly, crossing plains and woods, passing over smiles and tears. Here is a cheerful garden; they sing, they laugh around the table. Here is a little cemetery; a woman is weeping. All kinds of life unfolds beneath us, from house to house.

“In the Clouds” was a delight from start to finish! Witty and entertaining, it not only captured wonderfully what an adventure early ballooning really was, but also painted a wry self-portrait of Bernhardt herself, bravely setting off into the skies and breaking hearts wherever she went. And the book is enhanced with some beautiful illustrations by Clairin, reputedly one of Bernhardt’s lovers; as these have been missing from some editions, kudos must go to Renard for reinstating them. There is also the usual excellent supporting material in the form of notes and short biography, and all this adds up to a sparkling and charming reading experience!

So another winner from Renard, and I’m sure they’ll feature on the Ramblings again before long! Reading this book was such an interesting experience, and although it’s from a time which may seem to be quite a while ago, I actually think it’s really not… You see, after finishing the book, I noticed that there was mention of short clips of Bernhardt on film available online. A quick search revealed that there were indeed film clips available on YouTube. She lived through the very early days of film, and watching these short fuzzy clips really brought home to me that the past is actually not that far away after all… This was a marvellous and ultimately quite thought-provoking encounter for #ReadIndies and I very much look forward to see what’s out next from Renard!