Sixty-four years ago next month, the most famous book by arguably France’s most famous writer, was published neither in French nor in France. Antoine-Marie-Roger de Saint-Exupéry, known universally as Saint-Ex, brought out ‘The Little Prince’ in English and in New York, where he was marooned on Long Island for the early part of the Second World War, unable to choose between the Vichy government of southern France and de Gaulle’s government in exile.
‘The Little Prince’, illustrated by Saint-Exupéry himself, looks like a fairy story: the adventures of a child with golden hair from a small asteroid, who travels through the universe exploring its galaxies and eventually finds earth. But as the preliminary section of the book ‘How It All Began’ discloses, it is really aimed at adults. The narrative contains rich philosophical concepts about the meaning of life and how life’s choices determine whether we will fufill our true potential.
Some saw ‘The Little Prince’, since translated into more than 150 languages, as an allegorical account of how Saint-Exupéry would have led his own life in a future age of interplanetary travel. His wife, Consuelo Gómez Carrillo, said ‘He wasn’t like other people but like a child or an angel who has fallen down from the sky.’ Others had a more cynical view of the fallen angel, as Saint-Exupéry was notorious for the number of his extra-marital affairs.
He was born in 1900 at Lyon, whose international airport is named after him. Nothing could be more apt. Saint-Exupéry was the Biggles of France, a pioneer aviator who defied the odds. From the 1920s he flew for Latécoère, a French company that opened the most dangerous aviation routes, over the Andes mountains and across the Sahara desert.
In 1935 Saint-Exupéry and his navigator André Prévot competed for a prize of 150,000 French francs, worth millions in today’s money, given to whoever established a new record for the fastest flight between Paris and Saigon. On 30 December they crashed in the Libyan part of the Sahara, with no radio, useless maps, a bottle of wine, an orange and a bunch of grapes. On the fourth day, when they were almost dying of thirst, they were found by a Bedouin on a camel and brought to safety. They had to walk through dunes covered with layers of black pedals, for Saint-Exupéry, like ‘scales of metal’. ‘We have fallen into a metallic world’, he wrote in one of his muses on flight. ‘We are locked in an iron landscape."
When he was flying, Saint-Exupéry sometimes lapsed into a dreamlike world of his own, long before the days of autopilot, narrowly avoiding, on at least two occasions that he recalled, plunging straight into the sea. It may have been a premonition of his eventual fate.
In 1944, when Saint-Exupéry was a major flying reconnaissance missions for the US air force, his friends became so concerned about his mental state, that they intended to speak to his commanding officer. The meeting was arranged for 1 August. On the previous day, Saint-Exupéry took off from Cyprus with orders to take pictures of troop movements in northern France, and failed to return. The wreckage of his plane was not recovered for 60 years, when it was brought to the surface off Marseille. There was no indication that it had been shot down, and the flight had taken place in perfect weather, leading to speculation that Saint-Exupéry had known he was about to be grounded, and deliberately took his own life.
Saint-Exupéry is commemorated by a plaque in the Panthéon in Paris. In many ways this author, poet, aviator, inventor, philosopher and diplomat was ahead of his time. His friend and translator, William Rees, said that he was the true socialist hero, believing that ‘human solidarity was the only real wealth in life.’