Antoine de Saint-Exupery: The Poet of Flight

 

 

“What makes the desert

Beautiful is that

Somewhere

It hides

A well…”

~ The Little Prince

 

 

Antoine de Saint-Exupery is perhaps most famous for his children’s book Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), a book which is perennially read and loved world-wide by people of all ages.  Enchantingly illustrated by the author, it is a story which contains simple yet profound wisdom for all of us, and has become a classic of modern children’s literature.  Saint-Exupery wrote many fine books which were published while he lived, and a few that were published posthumously.

 

He was born in Lyons, France on June 29, 1900 to a family of old nobility, and grew up with three sisters and a younger brother in a chateau in Southern France, surrounded by nature and beautiful park land.  He was playful, curious and inventive, and took a keen interest early on in the rapidly developing science of aviation—he first flew a plane at age twelve.   When just three years old he lost his father to a stroke, and his beloved younger brother Francois died at age fifteen from rheumatic fever.  The loss of his brother impacted him deeply and is thought to have been a major nfluence on his writing. 

 

He was not the best student in school, failing his final exams at prep school,   He entered the École des Beaux-Arts to study architecture, and began military service in 1921, later being commissioned as an air force officer.  He became a commercial pilot in 1926, joining the pioneers of international postal flight in a time when pilots flew by the seat of their pants.  He worked on the Aeropostale, an early French aviation company, flying mail from France to Morocco and Africa.  This experience inspired his first novel Courrier Sud (Southern Mail) published in 1929.  In it he beautifully portrayed the pilot’s solitary struggle with the elements of nature, as well as his own sense of dedication and love for his chosen vocation.   

Saint-Exupéry moved to South America in 1929, where he became director of the Aeroposta Argentina Company.  His second book, published in 1931, was Vol de Nuit (Night Flight), which won the Prix Femina, an annual French literary prize.  That same year, he married a widowed writer and artist, Consuelo Suncin Sandoval.  Their marriage was somewhat volatile, because of his constant travel and occasional indulgence in love affairs.   His most notable lover was a Frenchwoman, Hélène de Vogüé, who became Saint-Exupéry's literary executrix and later wrote a biography about him using the pseudonym Pierre Chevrier (St-Exupery, Gallimard, 1959). 

While trying to break the record for flying from Paris to Saigon, Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic crashed in the Sahara desert. They survived the crash and walked alone for days, with only useless primitive maps and a piece or two of fruit and a few sips of wine.  On the fourth day, when they were so dehydrated they had ceased sweating and  had begun seeing mirages, they were rescued by an Arab bedouin from a passing caravan.  This experience is related in detail in Terre des Hommes, (Wind, Sand and Stars), published in 1939.  In 1937, he was severely injured in Guatemala in a plane crash.  It was during his convalescence that he wrote Wind, Sand and Stars, which won the French Academy's 1939 Grand Prix du Roman and the National Book Award in the United States. 

Saint-Exupéry continued to fly and write until the start of World War II.  He initially flew with the GR II/33 reconnaissance squadron during World War II, making several daring flights for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.  After the armistice with Germany in June of 1940 which established the German occupation zone in Northern France, Saint-Exupery went to live with his sister for a time in the unoccupied zone and later escaped to the United States, living for a time in Asharoken, New York and also in Quebec City for awhile in 1942.  He soon returned to Europe to fly with the Free French and continue the fight against the Germans with the Allies.

At age 44, he was flying a reconnaissance mission to collect information on the movement of German troops when his plane apparently crashed into the Mediterranean and he was never seen again.  Over 50 years later, a fisherman found a silver chain bracelet in the ocean to the east of an island south of Marseille that was positively identified as belonging to Saint-Exupery.  Engraved with the names of his wife and his publishers, Reynal & Hitchcock, it was hooked to a piece of fabric from his pilot's suit.

It was in the spring of 2004 that one of aviation’s enduring mysteries was partially solved when the missing plane of Antoine de Saint-Exupery was discovered by a scuba diver in the Mediterranean Sea.  Several hundred feet below the surface and nearly two miles from the coast, the wreckage of a Lockheed F-5 photo-reconnaissance aircraft was found bearing the small serial number “2734” on its tail piece.  Until this time, teams had been searching up and down the coast for any sign of his plane for decades without success.  It is unknown what kind of mechanical failure might have brought the plane down, or what really went wrong, but evidence suggests the plane was not shot down. 

 

Saint-Exupery was loved and admired worldwide as a fine writer and courageous aviator.  His disappearance was to the French what the disappearance of Amelia Earhardt was to the United States.  An international airport in France, a mountain in South America, schools and colleges, even an asteroid, have been named after him.  He is commemorated by a plaque in the Pantheon.  Until the Euro was introduced to France in 2002, his image and his drawing of the Little Prince appeared on France's 50-franc note.  Several films have been made about his life and work, including Night Flight (1933, starring Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore) and the Imax film Wings of Courage (1995), the first dramatic picture shot in the Imax format.    

 

In his book The Right Stuff,   Tom Wolf writes:  "A saint in short, true to his name, flying up here at the right hand of God. The good Saint-Ex! And he was not the only one. He was merely the one who put it into words most beautifully and anointed himself before the altar of the right stuff."

 

 

"Over and done with. Thirty thousand letters come safely through. The airline company kept drilling it into you: the precious mail, more precious than life itself. Enough to keep thirty thousand lovers going... Lovers, be patient! In the sinking fire of sunset here we come. Behind Bernis the clouds are thick, churned by the whirlwind in its mountain bowl. Before him lies a land decked out in sunlight, the tender muslin of the meadows, the rich tweed of the woods, the ruffled veil of the sea."

   ~ Night Flight

 

"Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction."
   ~ Wind, Sand and Stars

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY (French title, followed by English title and First U.S. or British publisher): 

  • L'Aviateur  (The Aviator)  Short story published in 1926 in the magazine Le Navire d'Argent.    
  • Courrier Sud  (Southern Mail) Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1933
  • Vol de Nuit (Night Flight) The Century Co., NY, 1932
  • Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939
  • Pilote de Guerre (Flight to Arras) Reynal & Hitchcock, NY, 1942
  • Lettre à un Otage (Letter to A Hostage) 1943  William Heinemann Ltd., 1950
  • Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)  Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943
  • Citadelle (The Wisdom of the Sands)  posthumous, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1950
  • Ecrits de guerre, 1939-1944 (Wartime Writings, 1939-1944) Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, posthumous, 1986

 

 

Some of the information in this article was gathered from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoine_de_Saint-Exup%C3%A9ry#Literary_works

And from Books and Writers

(http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/exupery.htm)

Photo of Saint-Exupery near crashed plane in desert obtained from: www.dinosoria.com/enigmes/saint_exupery.jpg

Portrait photo from imansolas.freeservers.com/ASExupery/Portrait-...