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A READER'S JOURNAL:
Published by Henry Holt Co/NY in 1994
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2008
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On the door going into our bathroom in Foxborough, Massachusetts was a quotation from Saint-Exupéry's classic book, The Little Prince: which said, "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye." I read those words several times a day for over four years, and often wondered what they meant. They remain today as an unanswered question, but holding that unanswered question for over thirty years led me to seek answers to its puzzling thesis. What does it mean to "see rightly" and "what is essential" and how is it "invisible to the eye"? Only years later, seeking answers to the above questions, I discovered that these words were known as the "Fox's Secret" and I had the pleasure of watching and listening as Gene Wilder, playing the Fox, spoke those words to the Little Prince in the 1974 movie of this book.
Later I bought The Little Prince then read more of Saint-Ex's books, Wind, Sand and Stars, A Night Flight, Southern Mail, and his classic book on philosophy, Wisdom of the Sands. Among all the books, Wisdom of the Sands (original title in french was Citadelle ) impressed me the most and The Little Prince intrigued me the most. Through the process of reading this impressive biography of his life, I came to understand how the book about a young visitor from a small planet who had a problematic relationship with a rose was a very condensed version of Saint-Exupéry's life and relationship with his wife, Consuelo. Having read several of his flying novels much earlier and having never reviewed them, I decided to re-read the two I had on my book shelf and review them right at the point where I encountered Schiff talking about his writing the books, namely, Southern Mail and Night Flight. This helps account for some portion of the long time (June, 2008 to April, 2009) I spent reading this biography, but this 528-page book is both slow reading and a pleasure to read, and that kind of book begs to have its reading stretched-out for sheer enjoyment's sake.
Major X, as the Americans called him, adding to his mystery, died in his forty-fourth year, just as the little Prince he created had witnessed forty-four sunsets. (Page ix) He was a paradox in many ways: an aviator who wrote, a literary genius who piloted planes, an aristocrat (one of the de Saint-Exupéry line) who delivered the mail by air. What was it like to pilot a small single engine airplane through the night with an undependable compass and no radio? We might never know if Saint-Exupéry had not written so lyrically about his flying experiences in his novels. What was his life like, this Saint of France, as Charles Lindbergh's son asked his mother Anne? To prevent such innocent mistakes and to keep from being addressed as Mr. Exupéry, Tonio allowed his American publisher to place the hyphen between Saint and Exupéry where it stands today. His friends called him Tonio or Saint-Ex, leaving off the "oopairee". (Page xi) He was someone who thought disobedience to be the better part of valor, a resolute non-joiner in the iconoclast tradition.
Even his biographer admires his ability to share with us the time he spent alone, admitting that these are times in his life that she cannot describe.
[page x, Introduction] He was not untruthful. He put a gloss on things, but he lived, too, for that gloss, for a quixotism that would be his undoing. The fashion in which he shaped the events he faithfully reported ultimately tells us as much about him as do the events themselves. It makes it possible to begin to imagine the truly critical hours of his life, those he spent alone at several thousand feet, moments no biographer can touch.
Saint-Exupéry wrote that, "I have never loved my house more than when I lived in the desert." What was that house like in Cape Juby?
[page 3] His furniture consisted of a plank lined with a thin straw mattress, on which he slept, and a door balanced on two oil drums, on which he wrote. . . . the remainder of his worldly possessions: a water jug, a metal basin, a typewriter, a shelf of books, a windup gramophone, a deck of cards, and the Aéropostale records, the files of the airline for which he worked. Saint-Exupéry shared his home with four French mechanics and ten Moors, all fellow Aéropostale employees, a marmoset named Kiki, a dog, an outsized cat, and a hyena.
He lived in a River of Gold, the Rio de Oro, of the Spanish Sahara, about the size of Great Britain and besides the nearby Spanish Fort, there were only dissident Moors scattered about the surrounding desert. He was the "King of Infinite Space" as the first Chapter is titled, and he could devote himself almost entirely to his two great loves in life: writing and flying. What did he pilot?
[page 5] The Brequet 14 was not an advanced aircraft: it was powered by a 300-horsepower engine, its propeller was wooed, its cockpit open; it had no radio, no suspension, no reliable instruments, no brakes. One pilot observed that the gas gauge more accurately indicated the amount of sand in the conduits than of the fuel in the tank. Saint-Exupéry commented that the compass was a fine invention in theory, but that in practice it resembled a weather vane.
It was not a dependable plane, breaking down every five round-trips from Casablanca-Dakar, but it was easy to fix.
[page 5, 6] The beauty of an unsophisticated airplane is that it is easy to repair: a hammer, nails, a saw, a block of wood, and glue were said to suffice in order to jerry-rig a Breguet 14 back into service. As Mermoz boasted: "We had created commercial aviation before there were any commercial planes."
Good thing it was easy to fix because the Moors used the planes as clay pigeons, "greeting the aviators like partridges", but luckily they had bad aim with so little to use for target practice in the Sahara. The aviators were not pleased to learn that no ransom would be paid by the head of the airline and that the Moors promised to cut them up slowly until it was paid. (Page 7)
Saint-Exupéry described his job at Cape Juby to his brother-in-law as "one part aviator, one part ambassador, one part explorer", but he left out writer and a tamer of things. Like the little Prince, Saint-Exupéry tamed things: a chameleon, a gazelle, even trying to tame a fox, and with less success the Spanish guard dog who showed his appreciation by a vicious bite on his shoulder. (Page 11) The Moors called him the "great white dervish" and later gave him the name, "Captain of the Birds." (Page 12)
Saint-Exupéry loved to meditate, and he found the desert was a great place for meditation because of its silence. The desert probably has as many words for silence as the Eskimos have for snow. Below is a found poem in which Saint-Exupéry describes the various silences of the desert.
There is a silence of peace when the tribes are reconciled,
when the cool evening falls. . . .
There is a midday silence,
when the sun suspends all thought and movement.
There is a false silence, when the north wind has died
and insects, torn like pollen from the interior oases,
arrive to announce the sandstorms from the east.
There is a silence of intrigue,
when one learns that a faraway tribe is plotting something.
There is a silence of mystery,
when the Arabs discuss their incomprehensible differences
There is a tense silence when a messenger
is late returning.
A sharp silence when, at night,
one holds one's breath to listen better.
A melancholy silence,
when one remembers those one loves.
Saint-Exupéry needed the desert at this point in his life, and came later in life to understand how valuable it was to him as a young man.
[page 14] The isolation, the abnegation, the single-mindedness of Juby were a tonic to a young man undisciplined, a little frivolous, in great need of being needed. "Anyone who has known Saharan life, where everything appears to be solitude and nakedness, mourns those years as the most beautiful he has lived," he wrote two years before his death.
When things didn't go right for him, he would offer some comment which might be descriptive, but would seem humorous to the reader.
[page 14, 15] There was nonetheless a low point, and it began about two months after his arrival, at Christmas. The chief of the airfield spent Christmas Eve listening to the Moors prepare for a war, setting off flares, which illuminated the sky "like opera lights." It would end, he assured his mother cynically, "like all of the big Moorish spectacles, with the theft of four camels and three women."
Taking more women than camels must be like American teenagers who would likely take more cars than women.
Saint-Exupéry loved to have books about him, whether he read them or not. I often tell friends when they ask why I have so many books, "I buy more books in a month than I can read in a month, and plan to stay alive to read all of them." Whenever it occurs to me to get a private office somewhere where I could write in peace without the maid or the lawn crew with their loud and noisome equipment hovering about me, I am stopped at the thought of leaving my books behind me in another location. No Google search can beat a quick walk down the hallway to my library for the exact reference while I am in the act of writing.
[page 15, 16] It was later said of him that he was more likely to fondle than to read a book, and this habit seems to have been confirmed already at Juby. The wife of the chief of the Agadir airfield, four hours away by air and Saint-Exupéry's closest neighbor, remembered the pilot landing with a plane full of record albums that he would trade for books. He claimed not to be able to sleep at night without a pile by his bedside or on his bed: "He did not actually read them, but the thoughts which kept him company were there, locked in the books like precious medicines in their phials. It was indispensable for him to know they were within arm's reach, should the need for them arise."
We shared another habit, that of reading and writing while piloting a craft. His was an aircraft, mine a ground craft. Reading while driving on an American interstate highway outside of downtown traffic is almost too easy; I once had to negotiate 10 miles of s-shaped curves on the River Road of the Mississippi River every day for 7 years and taught myself to read while driving this stretch of road because it was valuable and dependable reading time while I drove alone to and from a job that was much less pleasant to me than reading.
[page 16] Southern Mail began a trend for its author, all of whose books were primarily written in exile, and all of which bear the stamp of Cape Juby. It was a novel written as importantly in terms of his personal life before any of his colleagues thought of him as a writer. Few at Juby were more than vaguely aware that he was working on a book, although his office was notoriously awash in paper and he was often observed scribbling and drawing in the cockpit.
I had a couple of old paperback copies of Southern Mail sitting on my hallway shelves and when I read this next passage, I retrieved them, selecting one copy to re-read and to review. Apparently those mail sacks were labeled: "Southern Mail."
[page 17] Mermoz is reported to have interrupted Saint-Exupéry after a reading of his new pages of the novel with an impatient "But you've already read me that!" (On another occasion he evidently had to apologize for the transgressions of Lola, his pet monkey, who gulped down several pages of one draft of Southern Mail when no one was looking.) Mermoz may be forgiven his sins: it was he who found the title for Saint-Exupéry, pointing to a Dakar bound mail sack on the barrack floor. The author found a more patient audience in Guillaumet, to whom he read often at Juby, as he would later in Paris and Buenos Aires. It was Guillaumet who encouraged him to keep on with Southern Mail. "Is it good?" Saint-Exupéry would ask, imploringly. "Yes," answered Guillaumet. "What a shame that I don't know how to write like you." He did not need to: Saint-Exupéry would immortalize Guillaumet in Wind, Sand and Stars, as he would the mysteries of the Spanish Sahara, as he would Bark, the venerable black slave.
Another famous novel of his about his desert time had its eponymous origins in this passage of Wind, Sand, and Stars.
[page 21] We told stories, we joked, we sang songs. In the air there was that slight fever that reigns over a gaily prepared feast. And yet we were infinitely poor. Wind, sand, and stars. The austerity of Trappists. But on this badly lighted cloth, a handful of men were sharing invisible riches. We had met at last. Men travel side by side for years, each locked up in his own silence or exchanging those words which carry no freight till danger comes. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder.
Saint-Exupéry's adventures in the air after he became a pilot were scarcely less hazardous than the training by which he became a pilot in the summer of 1921.
[page 85] From Aeby's point of view the events of the summer of 1921 were no less extraordinary. The rampant had not officially earned a license but he had learned to fly on a military field on which all instruction was prohibited, in uniform, aboard a civilian plane belonging to a company authorized only to offer joyrides, under the supervision of an ex-pilot of the German army who had never before trained a student. His protege had indeed found friends in the right places. As if further proof of this fact were needed, a remarkable display of selective ignorance had been made by the Ministry of War on Saint-Exupéry's behalf late in June, probably after his mother's intercession: the Ministry delayed his transfer to Morocco by two weeks so that Saint-Exupéry might complete the training of which they had ostensibly known nothing.
Saint-Exupéry lived in a world of his own, and soon even his fiancé Louise understood what that meant, when in a letter to his mother, talking about how she and Tonio lived in a dreamworld of their own, or dreamworlds of their own, (Page 101) she wrote, "He describes for me terrifying or sublime moments spent between the sky and the earth, and I, who can think only of furnishing our future home, interrupt him to ask if he likes well-padded chairs." Apparently he never told her about his dream home in Cape Juby with the crates for a bed.
Saint-Exupéry was loose with his money, perhaps too loose, and he was ever broke or flush, but never flush for very long. An example was his behavior in Toulouse.
[page 134] The streetcar dropped the pilots a quarter-mile from the field; this final stretch was covered on foot. Saint-Exupéry made a practice of stopping at Le Site, at the end of the line. Marius Fabre, an eagle-eyed Latécoère mechanic, noticed that a ritual evolved around the pilot's two-croissant-and-café-au-lait breakfast: When Saint-Exupéry was broke he discreetly sat down at Le Site with the mechanics, who understood they were to treat him to his one-franc meal. "But, on the other hand, when he was flush, he conducted himself royally and bought breakfast not only for our table but for all the others," remembered Fabre.
His friend Guillaumet taught Saint-Exupéry about flying below the clouds which meant following the objects sighted on the ground, treehopping, and flying by "eyes and by butt".
[page 137] Guillaumet introduced Saint-Exupéry to a different way to survey the earth. He talked about a row of tall orange trees, about a farmer and his wife who lived alone on a remote mountain slope and were like lighthouse keepers to the pilots, about a brook that meandered quietly through an emergency landing field and could turn up where it was least expected, about a herd of thirty sheep that could appear out of nowhere to tangle with a plane's wheels. He taught Saint-Exupéry about the color of a river, from which a pilot could tell whether it was safe to land nearby or whether he would be putting down in swampland. This was Saint-Exupéry's kind of geography, Guillaumet his kind of Virgil. "Little by little, under the lamp, the Spain of my map became a sort of fairyland," he wrote later. The Aeneid, he would claim in a scene in Southern Mail based on this tutorial with Guillaumet, had failed to yield up a single secret capable of saving him from death. Guillaumet's orange orchards, streams, and shepherdesses did. These wisdoms belonged to the secret language the Saint-Jean instructors had been unable to impart, a secret language not unlike that of the attics of Saint-Maurice. Saint-Exupéry liked his dose of the natural world flavored with a hint of mysticism, which this flying by vision and instinct or "à l'oeil et à la fesse" ("by the seat of the pants"), as one mechanic more colorfully put it surely provided. Like all French aristocrats he had an abiding attachment to the earth; like all early aviators he enjoyed as close a relationship with the ground as with the air.
With the popularity of Aéropostale logos on teenagers' clothes today, one wonders if any of the wearers realize that the knowledge of the glory days of the airmail company owes its existence to one curious pilot who happened to be a writer and memorialized those times.
[page 147] If it was remembered for far more even after the noisy scandals that brought it down were forgotten, that was largely thanks to a misfit of a pilot who wrote indelibly of its heroic age although he was not himself one of its heroes and never claimed he was. . . . History belongs to the eloquent.
In his first crash Saint-Exupéry was napping while flying with Riguelle and the plane lost a connecting rod and plowed into the sand dunes of the Sahara at seventy miles an hour. When Guillaumet showed up to rescue them, it was decided that Saint-Exupéry remain behind to be picked up later. It was Saint-Exupéry's introduction to the desert, one that would inform his writings so many ways thereafter.
[page 150] He was alone in his first account of the afternoon he referred to it as his "baptême de solitude" and he could sense the mystery of the desert, the hum of its silence. It had the rich appeal of an old house. He was very far from Paris, or even Toulouse. "Sitting on the dune, I laid out beside me my gun and my five cartridge clips. For the first time since I was born it seemed to me that my life was my own and that I was responsible for it." He climbed a dune and surveyed the horizon like a captain from his ship, enchanted by the empty sea around him. A gazelle turned up, as did, toward the end of the golden-tinted afternoon, Guillaumet.
Saint-Exupéry filled a plethora of roles in his lifetime. During his stay at Cape Juby, there was a "long catalogue of herculean tasks accomplished by this ace, this soldier, this paladin, this adventurer, this knight-errant, this broad-shouldered tendre, the most taciturn man in the company but also its enfant terrible."(Page 158) Plus, as Beucler said, "He seemed to hold a degree in all subjects." (Page 162) A taciturn man, except in the middle of the night when he loved to make phone calls to friends. He once observed to a friend that "married friends were soon lost to him this probably because they were less easy to coax from bed for a 3:00 a.m. literary discussion." (Page 167)
In a time when airplane travel was so novel, there were few people who could claim to be writing a sentence on one continent and finishing it on another, except Saint-Exupéry, who often wrote while he was in the air going from Europe to Africa to South America. His hearth existed on all three continents.
[page 177] In a piece he wrote later about Mermoz, Saint-Exupéry paid tribute to the traveling hearth of his professional family at which in Casablanca, in Buenos Aires, in Dakar he stopped to warm his hands and to finish a sentence begun long before, often on another continent, likely to continued on a third. In Buenos Aires, the exchange of tales of snowstorms and cyclones and hair-raising landings with Mermoz, Guillaumet, Reine, Étienne, Antoine, and Delaunay continued in congenial restaurants, over immense steaks, chased down by an abundant supply of Medozan wine, until early morning. . . . He might fly for eighteen or twenty hours straight, stopping only to refuel; he reported he could now pilot half-asleep; he had time to write mostly when back in Buenos Aires or, as he was renown for doing when the weather was fine and the plane flying more or less of its own accord, in midair.
This passage reminds of me a Sunday night when I received a phone call at home from a Louisiana State policeman. He explained he was calling in response to a report that I had been seen reading the newspaper while driving to work. He asked me if I did that. I said that I did, omitting the many times I also wrote while driving, and asked him, "Is it illegal to read while driving?" He said, "No." That was it. I make a point of putting any reading material down out-of-sight when a police car passes me, but keep reading mostly when strangers or close friends were driving by during my hour-long commute to a nuclear power plant, what my wife and I called "nuclear prison", where I worked behind high fences with razor-wire on the top often for seven days a week, twelve hours a day, for many years. The reading material I consumed while driving helped keep me sane in an often un-sane work environment with too long hours and often too little work.
One can suspect that in the mansion described in this poignant passage below that Saint-Exupéry got the idea to call his great philosophical tome, Citadelle, whose English title is better known as Wisdom of the Sands. One only has to read the tremendous metaphor in Citadelle of those who tore down the great mansion of their father only later to walk upon its remains and lament how once "every footstep was full of meaning."
[page 180] A crumbling, once-luxurious 1886 citadel, this run-down mansion with its caved-in floors, its decaying lintels, had more charm for Saint-Exupéry than all of the steel girders of Buenos Aires. In his eyes it was not dilapidated but "a friend of time."
Saint-Exupéry wrote of the adventures and misadventures of his fellow mail pilots who flew in hazardous conditions at the controls of planes that could not overtop the mountains, so the pilots had to weave up and down and around the frozen peaks to survive the passes through the snow-capped Andes.
[page 185] In the middle of the winter, a month after Mermoz's crossing of the South Atlantic, Guillaumet took off from Santiago for Buenos Aires in a Potez 25. He had been flying the east-west route for a year; this was to be his ninety-second crossing of the Andes, no small feat given that the summits of the mountains which look from the air like a prolongation of the Rockies reach heights of more than 18,000 feet and the ceiling of a Potez was significantly lower. A pilot threaded his way through the passes on his wits and a clever manipulation of updrafts. The date was Friday, June 13. The weather was not good in forty-eight hours fifteen feet of snow had fallen in the Andes but undaunted, having already delayed the flight by a day, Guillaumet set out, convinced that he could avert the storm by making a detour to the south. At 17,000 feet he was caught in a fierce gale that dropped him 10,000 feet in what felt like an instant: he held not to the controls but to his seat. Underneath him as he pitched and rolled he caught sight of a dark spot that he recognized to be a lake. Descending toward Laguna Diamante seemed his only escape from the winds; the lake was surrounded by mountains, and he had been told its shores were flat and firm. Guillaumet descended to about 150 feet and flew round and round the lake until he ran out of fuel, at about 11:30, three and a half hours after having set out from Santiago. The plane was immediately swept over on landing, its propeller and its ailerons mangled; Guillaumet was knocked over again and again on standing. The ground was frozen and he was cold, but shoveling with a piece of the capsized plane's fuselage he managed to dig a hole in the snow under the wings, in which, the wind howling over him, he stuffed himself and sat out the next forty-eight hours. "I leave to my readers the task of imagining what those first few days were like," the laconic Guillaumet wrote later in his preface to the report to the company. In fact, he left the tale of his ordeal to Saint-Exupéry, who made of it probably the best known passage of Wind, Sand and Stars.
When he proposed to Consuelo, he did so in a way which would be unique to a writer: his proposal was by presupposition at the end of a manuscript of a book that he handed her to read. My wife Del would understand that form of a proposal as she reads and copy-edits my writings regularly.
[page 192] Consuelo returned to France before the next few months were out, having made some claim on the pilot's heart, enough for him to have shown her an early draft of Night Flight, possibly to have asked as well for her hand in marriage. Her version of these events is irresistible, if undocumentable: Late one night, in a restaurant that she felt Saint-Exupéry had kept open expressly for his purposes, he offered her a letter of eighty pages. It was in fact an early draft of Night Flight, signed with the line "Your husband, if you consent."
She was a "spinner of tales" and someone who would certainly pass the "Little Prince" test with flying colors. She would "see in a drawing of a hat a boa constrictor digesting an elephant." (Page 194) She was a writer in her own right and Saint-Exupéry respected her for that. As a writer, he was having trouble being both an aviator and a writer. The French were not given to respect someone who was a writer but also a tradesman. Americans had no problem with that, as critic Louis Kronenberger noted, "For the first time the airplane achieves at least a nodding acquaintance with art." He saw glimpses of the artistry of Saint-Exupéry and acknowledged it in the prestigious New York Times Book Review. In Saint-Exupéry's home country it was a mixed-bag in a country which didn't like mixed-bags.
[page 213] He had benefited from loopholes in the regulations that governed membership in both worlds(1), and now began to find that having footholds in two camps amounted to having a place in none. For the next few years he would be a little like Voltaire, exhausting himself in attempts to pacify both Church and State.
While working in a nuclear power plant and writing on my own time, someone got hold of a collection of my short stories and printed copies on the local copy machines to hand out, all without my permission, and I found myself having to explain how these copies came to be. I knew it was time to become a fully-fledged writer and fly from the comfortable nest of a full-time job where I was not writing. I lived daily among people who seemed to be on Earth merely to say, "Here!" I felt like Saint-Exupéry when he wrote to a friend in Paris of the endlessness of an evening at the Hotel de France in Perpignan:
[page 224, 225] "The laughter and snatches of conversation that make their way to my corner are a torture. These people seem to be simmering quietly away like a stew pot to the end of their days. What point is there to their lives?"
"What point is there to flying?" a non-aviator might ask. To Saint-Exupéry, flying was the inspiration for his writing, flying, crashing into water or the desert, living in the desert or in dumb locations between flights. All this was grist for the mill. He even wrote an "elegy to an airplane engine" in his Wind, Sand, and Stars. I omitted taking notice of this passage in my review, so I include it here:
[page 226, from Wind, Sand and Stars] Air and water, and not machinery, are the concern of the hydroplane pilot about to take off. The motors are running free and the plane is already ploughing the surface of the sea. Under the dizzying whirl of the scythe-like propellers, clusters of silvery water bloom and drown the flotation gear. The element smacks the sides of the hull with a sound like a gong, and the pilot can sense this tumult in the quivering of his body. He feels the ship charging itself with power as from second to second it picks up speed. He feels the development, in these fifteen tons of matter, of a maturity that is about to make flight possible. He closes his hands over the controls, and little by little in his bare palms he receives the gift of this power. The metal organs of the controls, progressively as this gift is made him, become the messengers of the power in his hands. And when his power is ripe, then, in a gesture gentler than the culling of a flower, the pilot severs the ship from the water and establishes it in the air.
In Wind, Sand and Stars, three Moors from the Sahara are taken to the Alps and they stand transfixed by the immense flood of water cascading down and refuse to move. When asked why they wouldn't leave, they explained that they were waiting for the water to be shut off. Schiff doesn't mention that aspect of the trip, but she adds an epilogue to the tale, lines by Saint-Exupéry which did not make it into the novel, about how the Moors felt when they returned to their home, "The Sahara seems to them emptier, the game of war more illusory. For the first time they realize the Sahara is a desert." (Page 232)
The inspiration for Saint-Exupéry's most famous novel likely came from this scene as he narrated over the phone an article for the next morning's Paris-Soir edition. Hervé Mille, sat by her side as the secretary, Madame La Rosa(2), typed the words as Saint-Exupéry read the story. It was a story of a "cherubic blond child sleeping soundly between his parents" on a train carrying Polish workmen expelled from a xenophobic France in 1935. That cherubic blond child would later come awake as the hero of The Little Prince, thanks to Mille and his secretary.
[page 244] Mille put him on the line directly with Madame La Rosa, the paper's ablest secretary, who typed as Saint-Exupéry read. Mille sat down next to her in the cubicle, reading over her shoulder. All went well until Madame La Rosa reached the third page of the article and began to transcribe the story of the golden-haired child. "This is the child Mozart. This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this," she typed, transcribing the line which would provide Mille with the piece's title. . . . Madame La Rosa was at a standstill. "What's wrong?" demanded Mille. "I can't continue, I can't. It's too beautiful," she sobbed, tears streaming down her face.
Saint-Exupéry flew in airplanes such as the Simoun in which there were no radios, and he flew in areas such as along the South American coast which had few navigational radio broadcasts. The radio was of little more use than to send out a Mayday call or get a weather report from the tower at an upcoming landing site. He was enthralled by the American system of aviation more than by the skyscrapers or frenzied life style of New York City.
[page 293] Saint-Exupéry was less impressed by the frenetic pace of New York life than by various aspects of American aviation, which he found. to be superbly organized. He was especially taken with continual radio broadcasts, by which a pilot could navigate along aerial highways, an advance that had not yet come to France. He claimed it had taken him only two hours to familiarize himself with a system that was most of all superior in its very simplicity: "With the American navigation system, any tourist, even one unfamiliar with radios, can fly through the night in perfect safety," he marveled, probably lamenting a little his original Simoun.
After a horrendous crash in Guatemala, Saint-Exupéry earnestly pleaded for some "healing sheets" and the nurses didn't know what to make of his request, nor did he as he completely recovered consciousness. But it came to him later.
[page 296] Later he wrote in Harper's Bazaar of how he had floated back to the real world in the Guatemalan hospital "through a thick syrupy atmosphere." One night he awoke, freezing cold, and begged his nurse for the sheet "that heals wounds." The nurse protested that such a thing did not exist. He tried to picture himself making his army bed, saw that there had been a top and a bottom but no third sheet, and decided she must be right. Nonetheless sometime after the crash he found himself back in Lyons, at the little station at the top of the funicular that runs up to the Fourviere basilica. There at the exit were the same advertisements he had known as a child, among them a poster for "Girardot's Linen Sheets a sovereign soother of aches, pains, and wounds." The image, wrote Saint-Exupéry, had been "tucked away in a dim corner of my mind for nearly thirty years." In fact it had not been bundled away so neatly and never would be. In signal acts of tenderness sheets get smoothed or do their soothing act in every one of his works, from the short story "Manon Danseuse" on.
When Consuelo's father offered Saint-Exupéry coffee plantations in El Salvador if he would settle there with his wife, he demurred, "My dear father-in-law, my dear mother-in-law, it is too late for me to cultivate coffee beans. My job is to till the clouds." And so he would continue plowing through the air and the clouds till he finally plummeted into the sea.
With World War II imminent, Saint-Exupéry struggled to get some articles reworked to sell to an American magazine. He mused about a possible war at the time, "When we thought peace was threatened, we discovered the abomination of war. When we thought war had been averted, we tasted the shame of peace." (Page 302)
The cleaned up articles ran in Paris-Soir, and were later shaped into the book, Wind, Sand and Stars. The rush to translate his work into English was a challenge to translators such as Stuart Gilbert and others, as Schiff explains. I had encountered this vagueness effect in the recipes I received from my mother whose heritage was French she never gave me any quantities. This was baffling to me as a physicist used to dealing in precise units of measurement, but vagueness works well in cooking as it is the final taste that is the ultimate measurement that counts. Over the years I found it better to focus on the people who would enjoy my cooking (See my poem, The Thinking Cook.) rather than how many teaspoons of butter went into a particular recipe. When I began publishing my recipes on line, I found myself frustrated, having to calculate quantities for recipes I had been cooking for years without ever measuring anything exactly.
[page 302] Saint-Exupéry's had been a profitable housecleaning, though it drove Galantiere to despair. He had been working as quickly as he could, shaping the book as he went. He had his hands full, given Saint-Exupéry's many convictions, great and small, and the writer's supple prose, cleaner now but no easier to translate than it had been years earlier for Stuart Gilbert. Translating from French into English is always a reductive act: it takes more words to say almost anything in French, and a translator working in that direction finds that whole seas of nuance evaporate when an attempt is made to channel them into English, a more specific language, that of business, not diplomacy. Raoul de Roussy de Sales put it best, speaking of literature of a different kind: "The difference between an American cookbook and a French one is that the former is very accurate and the second exceedingly vague. A French recipe seldom tells you how many ounces of butter to use to make crepes Suzette, or how many spoonfuls of oil should go into a salad dressing. . . . American recipes look like doctors' prescriptions."
When Saint-Exupéry visited pre-war Germany, he was escorted everywhere he wished to go by German sympathizers who wished to keep an eye on his activities. "Curious," he remarked, "how totalitarian countries always prefer guided tours!"(Page 307)
Here is a sample of what various reviewers at the time said of Wind, Sand and Stars whose French title was Terre des hommes.
[page 309] Generally Terre des hommes either made poets of its reviewers or drove them to hyperbole. "This volume is put together with rigor, with an evenness and a dignity that evoke fierce admiration. This universe in which danger, anguish, fear, and death must constantly be surmounted is described with a total lack of theatrics, without affect. No word seems to me better to characterize this work than modesty, which is, as we know, both a virtue in the world of heroics and a secret of literary effectiveness," wrote Sartre's great friend Paul Nizan in Ce Soir. "Saint-Exupéry, aviator and moralist, is blessed with a sumptuous and refined talent. The most striking images and passages of the most exquisite style abound in his work. Since the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, I do not know if anyone has so skillfully coaxed poetry out of prose," declared Andre Therive in Le Temps. Edmond Jaloux placed Saint-Exupéry squarely in two traditions, evoking the names of Plutarch and Emerson on the one hand and Columbus and Magellan on the other.
In America, Wind, Sand and Stars was hailed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review as "a beautiful book, and a brave book. and a book that should be read against the confusion of this world, if only that we may retain our pride in humanity and our excitement in this modern age." Launched with fanfare by Reynal & Hitchcock, it was reviewed as well on the June covers of The Saturday Review and the New York Herald Tribune Books section, and quickly became a best-seller. "To read it is to forget we are earthbound," raved the Atlantic reviewer, who like several American critics knew little of Saint-Exupéry but made of him a quick study, describing the book's "contrasting moods of loneliness and human warmth, of exhilaration and the merciless exposure of nerves and sanity." (Many of Saint-Exupéry's friends would have howled with laughter had they read the Herald Tribune review, in which Ben Ray Redman, noting the author's quibble that most men are half-asleep in their lives, wrote, "Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is awake and would awaken others.") In October, a month after war had been declared, Wind, Sand and Stars read just as well in London, where The Spectator's reviewer was struck by Saint-Exupéry's "God-like tolerance for the pettiness and folly of mankind." "He touches nothing which he does not illuminate," wrote the Times Literary Supplement's critic of this book of "visions and dreams," rarely described in any country as anything less than a "hymn," a "poem," an "adventure in prose," or a "rhapsody." The fan mail poured in, from such disparate admirers as Le Corbusier and King Leopold of Belgium.
At one point, biographer Schiff claims that the book Wisdom of the Sands is "bloated by parable(3)" as if its marvelous parables were excess baggage which could be thrown out the cargo bay to help the book fly better. In my opinion, the book was enriched by those parables, comprising as they do the heart and soul of the book, without which the book would shrivel up like an autumn leaf and flutter helplessly to the ground(4).
Here Schiff gives us a look into Saint-Exupéry's writing of this book during the summer of 1940.
[page 337] Mireille d'Agay, Saint-Exupéry's niece, remembered the summer of 1940 as one of preoccupied, whispering adults, of the same kind of late-night sobriety that Saint-Exupéry had sensed in the corridors of Saint-Maurice in 1914. Her uncle worked nearly all the time he himself compared the occupation to being in a monastery, an appropriate analogy, given the tone of the pages at hand and his nieces and nephew got used to tiptoeing past his door. In Mireille's eleven-year-old eyes the highlight of the stay, the writer's longest at Agay and his last, were the late-night readings. She and her sister would slide out of bed and down the hallway to the living room, where their mother, a finger to her lips, would signal for them to install themselves on the carpet. Bewitched, the adults sat perfectly still as Saint-Exupéry read from his long "poem," a book of parables set in the desert into which he was busily inserting the sum of his experience, an ambitious undertaking that at the age of forty he began to refer to as "my posthumous work." Drunk on its images, a little dizzy from the haze of cigarette smoke that accumulated around a declaiming Saint-Exupéry, the children stumbled off to bed late in the evening without a word. Their uncle went back to his room and back to work. By the end of the summer he had a good-sized chunk of manuscript, which he rarely let out of his sight.
This next short passage shows that Saint-Exupéry had a food dislike for carrots, obviously a doylic memory of sadness, a bodily state stored before he was five years old. The nurse keeps putting the carrots on his plate thinking he doesn't like to eat them, and says "But he doesn't have to eat them." This caused Saint-Exupéry to explode, "Of course I don't eat them. It's the sight of them I can't stand; they make me sad!" (Page 358)(5)
Convalescing in a Canadian hospital, he wrote to his friend Natalie, "Odd planet, odd problems, odd language. Maybe there is a star where life is simple." (Page 377) After years of drawing the blond-hair little boy, thoughts about different planets and different stars, taming people, thoughts on what is essential, thoughts on the meaning of things, the Little Prince began to emerge in book form in 1942.
[page 378] Out of these labors came The Little Prince. The book was proposed as a sort of therapy; Saint-Exupéry returned to New York in June 1942 with no immediate project. Once again Elizabeth Reynal came to the rescue. In the margins of the manuscript pages of Flight to Arras danced the little figure Saint-Exupéry had been drawing on letters, dedication pages, in the midst of mathematical equations, over restaurant tablecloths since the mid-1930s. Well attuned to the author's despair Elizabeth asked if he might not be distracted by writing a children's story about his "petit bon homme." She may have put forth the idea vaguely at dinner one night, when Saint-Exupéry's only response to it was a long look, or she may have mentioned it to her husband, who relayed it to the author over lunch. (Reynal & Hitchcock enjoyed a phenomenal success at the time with P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins books.) A great many people remember having offered Saint-Exupéry paint sets in 1941 or 1942 and may well have done so, but he began the book, very much on whim, with a set of children's watercolors he bought himself in an Eighth Avenue drugstore.
What meaning for the Fox's Secret have I evolved over the thirty-plus years that I held it as an unanswered question? My current thought is that "what is essential is the meaning of things" and it is meaning which is often invisible to the eye, but the heart knows it. Such as Silva's heart knew of the pain she felt when Saint-Exupéry was late as he was so frequently. His tardiness likely led directly to the Fox's Secret thanks to Silvia.
[page 378, 379] Silvia Reinhardt lent the fox really a fennec, from Cape Juby his most memorable speech after she complained to Saint-Exupéry of the pain his tardiness caused her. What difference can it make, protested the author, who evidently for some incidental purpose wore a watch. "My heart begins to dance when I know you are coming," explained Silvia. He settled down to write in her living room; she nursed him through the project with gin-and-Cokes, and with fried eggs and English muffins served by candlelight. A doll in her apartment posed as the Little Prince, giving him a mop of golden curls. (In previous incarnations, the Little Prince's hair was, like the writer's, thinning.) Mocha the poodle modeled for the sheep; a boxer Silvia bought for Saint-Exupéry in August she thought he needed a pet, and he christened this one "Hannibal" became the tiger. She listened to Saint-Exupéry chuckle and chortle his way through the manuscript, which it did not seem to her that he took altogether seriously but which clearly represented one of the few solaces he would know in America, a judgment echoed by his secretary. At all times Silvia encouraged him with the project; later he wrote her that she had understood him better than those who had had the benefit of language. "Words," counsels the Little Prince's fox, "are the source of misunderstandings." It is altogether appropriate that the book's most quoted line "What is essential is invisible to the eye," a line that caused Saint-Exupéry a great deal of trouble although he had been turning out versions of it for five years should be spoken by the fox.
In professing his love for Sylvia, Saint-Exupéry confesses that he gets confused in love, but tenderness and friendship never perish. (Page 382)
[page 382, 383] Little Sylvia, I am a poor sailor. I cannot offer you a smooth trip; I don't know where I am headed. All your reproaches, without exception, are merited. And yet my tenderness for you is extreme. When I rest my hand on your forehead I would like to fill you with stars . . .
Below is an image from the Fiftieth Anniversary Boxed Edition of The Little Prince which was drawn by Saint-Exupéry in the second half of 1942 with the children's watercolor set he bought in New York City at an Eighth Avenue drugstore. This is probably very close to the figure which appeared to Saint-Exupéry one day and announced himself. If you look intently, the Little Prince may speak to you.
[page 384] When the writer was asked later how the child-hero had entered his life, he said he had looked down on what he had thought was a blank sheet of paper to find a tiny figure. "I asked him who he was," he explained. "I'm the little Prince," came the reply. How much did Saint-Exupéry resemble his hero? "You are an extraterrestrial," Aglion informed him one day, before he had yet read the book. "Yes, yes, it is true, I sometimes go for walks among the stars," admitted Saint-Exupéry, who made several sketches of the aviator-narrator but chose not to include any of them in the text. (He is as much that narrator who has "lived his life alone, without anyone that I could really talk to" as the Prince, who cries, "Be my friends, I am all alone" from a desolate mountaintop, to hear only his own echo.)
I tried this game of "oranges on the piano" once and cannot attest that it sounded like Debussy, but my knowledge of Debussy is sorely impoverished compared to Silva and Toni's.
[page 386, 387] At Silvia's he devised a game he called "des oranges sur le piano." By rolling one orange up and down the black keys and a second over the white he was able to produce what sounded to most ears like honest Debussy.
The Little Prince's rose is reputed to have been inspired by Saint-Exupéry's wife, Consuelo, and this next short passage leaves no doubt that is true. This was apparently a much repeated pattern by Consuelo each time Saint-Exupéry left her.
[page 398, 399] Saint-Exupéry had taken leave of his wife often enough to have predicted the results: the Little Prince's rose at first refuses to say good-bye to him, then, in a miserable attempt to send him off graciously, overcomes her vanity long enough to lash out, "Don't linger like this. You have decided to go away. Now go!"
One day within months of his death, he stopped himself in the middle of doing the card tricks he loved to perform for friends.
[page 420] Suddenly he paused in midshuffle. "This morning I consulted a fortune-teller," he announced to the assembled guests. "Clearly she didn't recognize the insignia on my uniform and took me for a sailor, because she predicted my imminent death in the waves of the sea." The room fell silent.
Another game he loved to play was a six-letter word game. It went like this: someone wrote down a six-lettered word and everyone else would propose a word of six letters and note which letters fell in the same location. The winner was the first to guess the word proposed. He was unbeatable at this game by all reports. " . . . he was nearly driven to homicide by an opponent who wrote down six random letters." (Page 425) Reminds me of the fun I used to have with Superghost, a variation of Ghost where one person starts a letter and the next person in turn adds a letter which builds to complete a word. In Superghost, letters may be added to the beginning or ending of the letter or group of letters. A favorite starting sequence was to create the sequence "wkw" for which few words existed (hawkweed and awkward) or "abc" for which dabchick (a little grebe) was one of the few words available to complete the sequence and not lose.
Saint-Exupéry seemed to enjoy performing card tricks, but for real amusement he most enjoyed word and letter games.
[page 425] "I seem happy when performing card tricks," Saint-Exupéry had written Madame d B from Pélissier's, "but I can't amuse myself with card tricks, only others."
In a poignant gesture, he gave away his chess set the week before he died.
[page 431] In Algiers that week he bequeathed his chess set to a diplomat friend. "Keep it," he advised Raoul Bertrand. "We'll play again on another planet."
[page 433] The radar at Cape Corse tracked Saint-Exupéry crossing into southern France. "When your gods die, you die. For you live by them," he had written in Citadelle. He was due back at 12:30, but was not heard from again.
In the Epilogue, Schiff writes about Saint-Exupéry's native land France and how it reacted to some of his ideas such as the Fox's Secret:
[page 443] In a country that maintains a near-religious faith in appearances it is somewhat blasphemous to claim that the essential is invisible to the eye, sacrilege on a par with the advice Saint-Exupéry had offered years earlier, when he had counseled that a fault of grammar was preferable to one of rhythm.
I must admit to being one of Saint-Exupéry's ardent admirers because to me his Wisdom of the Sands (Citadelle) was the opposite of soporific, hitting me with the force of a magnitude 6.5 earthquake. It strikes me as an unanswered question why Stacy Schiff could devote so much work to the biography of a man and find his greatest work to be abstruse and sleep-inducing. For now, I will assume some lack of understanding of the deep meanings and of the healing quality of the parables which she claims "bloat" and "bulk up" the volume.
[page 444] The work may well represent the fullest expression of his personal convictions but it is his least lucid: only the most energetic admirer can claim Citadelle is not sleep-inducing.
Saint-Exupéry was not a fan of General de Gaulle, and never met him. The "man de Gaulle" wanted to meet Saint-Exupéry, but the "General de Gaulle" would not allow him to. (Page 446)
In closing, I have assembled some notable quotes from the biography which didn't seem to fit anywhere else and which stand on their own merit.
[page 330] "When the flight is normal Saint-Exupéry is dangerous; given complications he's brilliant." [Henri Alias's summation of Saint-Exupéry's flying career.]
[page 345] "You never have to wonder what his point is: it explodes." [Otis Ferguson, an admirer of Saint-Exupéry's timing.]
[page 388] As Maurois said of him, "Either he dominated the conversation or he dreamed of another planet."
When Saint-Exupéry wrote to his friend calling her "Little Silvia", he was seeing rightly through his heart the little girl which lives within the grown woman for whom he felt such tenderness and friendship. In the Velveteen Rabbit, Toby's grandmother sees life through her eyes looking at her social circle and obligations, her son John sees life looking through his eyes at the balance sheets of his business, and it takes a little boy, Toby, to help them each re-capture the little girl and little boy within them and to look upon the world through their hearts once again. Saint-Exupéry gives every reader of his books, especially The Little Prince, a chance to become little again and to understand the Fox's Secret: "it is only with the heart one can see rightly what is essential is invisible to the eye." One can never look into a starlit night sky after reading about the little Prince without seeing with one's heart that the stars are laughing in delight.
Some fifty-four years after Saint-Exupéry went down into the sea in his Lockheed P-38, his silver bracelet with his name inscribed on it was recovered from the sea and an expedition found remnants of his plane. The half-century mystery was over; his body was given up to the sea as the fortune teller predicted, but his spirit yet is tilling the clouds over head wherever and whenever you are reading these words. Here's a brief quotation from Schiff's Afterword:
[page 449] On September 7, 1998, a fisherman trawling off the coast of Marseilles plucked a silver identity bracelet from his net. It was pitted and blackened, but a swipe of the thumb revealed the words, "Antoine" and "Saint-Exupéry." With further scrubbing the New York address of Reynal and Hitchcock emerged, along with Consuelo's name. "The ocean is so vast, and a bracelet so small," exulted the fisherman. "It's a miracle."
Consuelo was arguably a fortune teller in her own right because she wrote him when he was planning a flight from France to Saigon.
[page 451] In 1936 she pleaded with him: "Promise me, Tonio, that you won't fly over water or even anything that looks like water. It's silly of me to bother you with my superstitions, but I don't believe water likes you."
This is a poem dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who disdained plowing ground to sow coffee plants, choosing instead to "till the clouds." (Page 298)
Till the Clouds
Till the clouds roll by
Antonio must fly.
Till the clouds roll by
Antonio must try
To till the clouds or die.
Till the clouds roll by
Antonio must plow
Till the clouds roll by
Antonio must plow
The fields of air and how.
Till the clouds roll by
Antonio must still
Be tilling the clouds on high.
---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------
Footnote 1. Schiff writes on page 286, "He played, in short, as fast and loose with the rules of journalism as with those of aviation."Return to text directly before Footnote 1.
Footnote 2. How appropriate it is that a woman named "the Rose" should inspire the name for a story in which a female rose plays an important part.Return to text directly before Footnote 2.
Footnote 3. Talking about Saint-Exupéry's "Letter to a Hostage" she says, "In its fifteen pages he compresses all of the ideas that, bloated by parable, bulk out the pages of The Wisdom of the Sands.Return to text directly before Footnote 3.
Footnote 4. This cavalier attitude about parables or stories, treating them as unnecessary fluff or excess baggage, reminds me of Ernest Rossi, who transcribed long sessions with the famous medical hypnotist and psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, and would end the transcriptions with this note: "Here Erickson goes into several long stories." Rossi's excision of these stories was ridiculed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder who were teaching about the healing effects of the very stories (therapeutic metaphors) that Rossi had tossed overboard.Return to text directly before Footnote 4.
Footnote 5. The definition of a doylic memory is "a bodily state stored before five years old and recapitulated by a stimulus in the present." The sight of carrots was the stimulus, and sadness the doylic memory.Return to text directly before Footnote 5.
---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------
Footnote 1. [foot note text]Return to text directly before Footnote 1.
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