The Overlooked Works of Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote one of the best selling books of all time, The Little Prince. As often happens when an author produces an iconic piece of literature, Saint-Ex has been overwhelmingly identified with his blockbuster, to the detriment of the many other fine books and essays he also produced. With the recent discovery of the P38 aircraft he was flying when he disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea in 1944, it seems appropriate to consider a few of his other significant literary contributions, and hopefully gain a more complete measure of the man who wrote them.
All of Saint-Ex's stories were heavily steeped with autobiographic references. After he learned to fly in 1926, aviation became a central point in nearly everything he did. His work for Aeropostale flying the mail in South America inspired his second published work, the novella Night Flight. Although it is often referred to as a heroic adventure story, Night Flight is more tragedy than anything else. In less than 100 pages Saint-Ex places the reader in the cockpit with a doomed pilot, the offices of his airline where bosses impatiently worry over the integrity of the flight schedule and in the pilot's home where his waiting wife considers the inevitable. Saint-Ex manages to make each character sympathetic, including the insensitive chief, Rivi`ere. While he does not fly, Rivi`ere is still burdened with the supreme weight of duty, the overall success or failure of the airline's mission. He is the one who makes the decisions, who urges the pilots to fly regardless of their fears, although often he is unsure of just why his heartless position should command any loyalty. "...even though human life may be the most precious thing on earth, we always behave as if there were something of higher value than life... But what thing?"
As Saint-Ex explores the battle within Rivi`ere's soul for meaning he counterbalances this inner struggle with the pilot Fabien's final moments, trapped in a cyclone, running out of fuel, high over the Andes Mountains with nowhere to turn. Saint-Ex is relentless in exploring the inner heart of one man while describing the total annihilation of another. And the wife, "her hands bruised with beating on the wall" is the reader who cannot understand how any of this should ever be considered heroic. It is only in later writings that Saint-Ex reveals his own near death under similar circumstances, and the hypocrisy that seems so unreal in Night Flight is revealed to be even darker, for it's root in truth.
The Wind, the Sand and the Stars, published in 1939, is in many ways Saint-Ex's seminal work. In a series of interconnected essays, Saint-Ex addresses his own aviation experiences all the while imparting his view of the world in general and humanity in particular. In addressing why the "craft" of flying is relevant, he considers the importance of a friend, Mermoz. "This then, is the moral taught us by Mermoz and his kind. We understand better, because of him, that what constitutes the dignity of a craft is that it creates a fellowship, that it binds men together and fashions for them a common language. For there is but one veritable problem -- the problem of human relations." And this is what concerns Saint-Ex the most, not the search for another flying adventure, but the struggle to understand his fellow man.
"One must go through an apprenticeship to learn the job," he writes. "Games and risk area help here. When we exchange manly handshakes, compete in races, join together to save one of us who is in trouble, cry aloud for help in the hour of danger -- only then do we learn that we are not alone on earth."
He loved flying and the men he flew with; he loved seeing the world. But those treks to places in South America, Europe and North Africa more often became opportunities for his lifelong passion of contemplating the human race. In Punta Arenas he saw a girl in the village square and wrote, "What can one know of a girl who passes, walking with slow steps homeward, eyes lowered, smiling to herself, filled with adorable inventions and with fables? Out of the thoughts, the voice, the silences of a lover, she can form an empire, and thereafter she sees in all the world but him a people of barbarians. More surely than if she were on another planet, I feel her to be locked up in her language, in her secret, in her habits, in the singing echoes of her memory. Born yesterday of the volcanoes, of greenswards, of brine of the sea, she walks already half divine." It is passages like this that explain why Saint-Ex was known as both a poet and pilot and considered by the French to be one of the greatest writers of his generation.
Ultimately though, for all the beauty of his language and excitement of his experiences, I return to Saint-Ex for the amazing way in which he was consistently able to see the insanity of war, even in a time when most of the world seemed willing to embrace it. On a journalism assignment in Spain he wrote, "A civil war is not a war, it is a disease. These men were not going up to the front in exultation of certain victory; they were struggling blindly against infection." He knew that it was "man not flying that concerns me most," and went to Spain in search of answers to questions that relentlessly plagued him. In the essay "Barcelona and Madrid" he wrote, "...I made a tour of the Catalan front in order to learn what happens to man when the scaffolding of his traditions suddenly collapses. To Madrid I went for an answer to another question: How does it happen that men are sometimes willing to die?"
I don't suppose it would be much of a surprise to Saint-Ex to know that on the day his aircraft was finally discovered men were fighting and dying still in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and the West Bank. He was not an optimist although he did seem surprised by the depth of sorrow that he found around the world. Saint-Ex would recognize the world of 2004, it was the same place he had known in 1939, the same drums of discontent filling the ears of poets everywhere. He would be writing about men facing the ends of their lives, men considering their secret hearts, women forced to rage with hands bruised and bloody. Saint-Ex wrote well about a little prince but he also knew mankind on a level that few writers have ever been gifted enough to recognize.
In 1936 he wrote in Spain, "You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas were not our ideas." And he shook his head in despair over a world that saw only death in different ideas. He was a man ahead of his time, and it is a shame that he lived such a brief life. Read his stuff, all of it. You will not be disappointed.
The Wind, the Sand and the Stars