The Grown-Up Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince author, a famous pilot, wrote for adults too.

HUMANITIES, January/February 2016, Volume 37, Number 1

In the lonely reaches of the Sahara, a pilot crashes his plane. After a miraculous survival, the pilot meets a boy with a mop of curly blond hair and a flowing scarf, whom he takes to calling “the little prince.” Over the course of eight days, the pilot fixes his plane while he chats with his unexpected visitor, learning of the prince’s journey from his home on asteroid B-612 and beyond.    

Since its publication in 1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince has been charming little ones with its inventive story, whimsical watercolors, and snide comments about adults. “I have spent lots of time with grown-ups,” says the pilot. “I have seen them at close range . . . which hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.” 

The story has been translated into 250 languages and continues to sell close to two million copies a year. It’s been adapted for stage, opera, radio, and anime. This year, a new movie version hits Netflix, featuring stop-motion animation and the voices of Jeff Bridges, Marion Cotillard, and Paul Rudd.

If you’ve only encountered Saint-Exupéry (san-tex-oo-pear-ee) by reading The Little Prince with a child or in French class, there’s more to explore. A son of France, Saint-Exupéry never managed to learn English, but his key works are available in translation. The same philosophical meditations about love, exploration, and the purpose of life appear in a more grown-up form in his novels, albeit without sheep, foxes, snakes, and precocious princes.

Born in Lyon, France, in 1900 to an aristocratic Catholic family, Saint-Exupéry was too young to fight in the First World War, and spent those years at a private school in Switzerland. After the war, he sat for the exam to gain entrance into France’s naval academy and failed both times, perhaps on purpose. A period studying architecture at École des Beaux-Arts failed to produce a degree. After knocking around Paris and testing his widowed mother’s patience and bank account, Saint-Exupéry entered the French army. While posted near Strasbourg, he took his first flying lessons. He was hooked.

Securing a transfer to the French Air Force, Saint-Exupéry finished his pilot’s training at an airfield outside of Casablanca, Morocco, in 1922. He found his way back to Paris, was assigned to the 34th Aviation regiment at Le Bourget airfield, and fell in love with Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin. After a nasty crash landed him in the hospital, Vilmorin’s family pressured him to pick a less dangerous career. Saint-Exupéry consented, giving up his commission and securing a civilian desk job, but the romance with Vilmorin faded.

In 1926 Saint-Exupéry joined Aéropostale, the burgeoning French air mail service. He spent the next few years flying mail between France and her North African colonies. In his off hours—and sometimes midflight—he wrote stories, which he would read out loud to friends and lovers. Saint-Exupéry had scribbled in notebooks since his Paris days, but now the stories began to coalesce and the perfectionist felt comfortable sending them out into the world. His first novel, Southern Mail (1929), chronicled his time flying the Casablanca-Dakar mail route, while Night Flight (1931) captured his tenure with Aeroposta Argentina. Both novels feature almost mystical descriptions of flying, along with philosophical musings on life and love.

Night Flight became an international best-seller, making Saint-Exupéry a literary star. Despite his newfound fame, Saint-Exupéry did not give up flying. In 1935, while attempting to break the speed record from Paris to Saigon, he crashed in the Egyptian desert. He and his mechanic, André Prévot, survived the crash, only to battle dehydration as their supplies ran out. The intense heat of the desert shriveled their bodies, leading to hallucinations. On the fourth day, a Bedouin caravan found them, provided them with much needed water, and delivered them back to a French outpost by camel.    

In Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939), Saint-Exupéry recounted the event. “We had crashed against the earth at a hundred and seventy miles an hour. I am quite sure that in the split second that followed, all I expected was the great flash of ruddy light of the explosion in which Prévôt and I were to be blown up together. Neither he nor I had felt the least emotion of any kind. All I could observe in myself was an extraordinary tense feeling of expectancy, the expectancy of that resplendent star in which we were to vanish within the second.”

In Saint-Exupéry’s hands, the danger and isolation of the pilot suspended above it all becomes fodder for meditations on heroism, friendship, and the meaning of life. “To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible,” writes Saint-Exupéry. “It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems to be unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one’s comrades. It is to feel, when setting one’s stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.” The French Academy awarded Wind, Sand, and Stars the Grand Prize for Fiction. In the United States, it received the National Book Award for the best nonfiction book of 1939. The contradictory awards attest to Saint-Exupéry’s ability to blur the lines between fiction and memoir.

When World War II erupted, Saint-Exupéry joined the French Air Force again, serving as a reconnaissance pilot. From his cockpit, he witnessed the German advance as French defenses crumbled and a flood of refugees as they headed south. After the armistice with the Germans in June 1940, Saint-Exupéry tried to find a role in the new era of a divided France. The Vichy government, which ruled unoccupied France, had designs on using his celebrity to help promote the regime. His disillusion with Vichy and unease with General Charles de Gaulle, who headed the Free French government in London, prompted him to go to the United States. Angry that he chose exile, Vichy banned his books.

While in the United States, Saint-Exupéry became a leading voice of the French expatriate community and lobbied for American entry into the war. His twenty-seven month sojourn in North America also became his most productive period. Flight to Arras (1942) recounts his time during the Battle for France and the misery of watching a country he loved implode. “They were evacuating,” he wrote of the millions of refugees. “There was no way to house them. Every road was blocked. And still they were evacuating. Somewhere in the north of France a boot had scattered an ant hill, and the ants were on the march. Laboriously. Without panic. Without hope. Without despair. On the march as if duty bound.” 

In the spring of 1942, his French publisher encouraged him to think about writing a children’s book, something that could compete with P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins series. For the next six months, he worked on the book and drawings that became The Little Prince, modeling the main character after the son of philosopher Charles De Koninck. Saint-Exupéry’s wife Consuelo, with whom he had a tempestuous marriage, is thought to be “Rose.” “I should have judged her by her acts and not by her words," says the prince. “She wrapped herself around me and enlightened me. I should never have fled.” The Little Prince was published in the United States in English and French in early 1943.

Operation TORCH, the invasion of French North Africa by the United States and Britain in November 1942, made it possible for Saint-Exupéry to return to flying and the landscape of so many previous adventures. In April 1943, he secured a spot with a Free French Air Force unit based in Algeria. Considered old for a military pilot, Saint-Exupéry was initially rejected for combat duty. His body was a wreck from years of high-altitude flights and injuries sustained from crash landings. Only the intervention of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of the Allied war effort in Europe, put him back in the cockpit. Unfortunately for Saint-Exupéry, he crashed on his second mission after the engine on his P-38 cut out. He spent the next eight months grounded, depressed, and soaked in wine.

Saint-Exupéry received a second chance. On July 31, 1944, he departed an Allied air base in Corsica on a mission to photograph the Rhone Valley in preparation for the Allied invasion of southern France. He never returned. Instead of landing in a sea of sand—and meeting a loquacious prince—he crashed into the blue water of the Mediterranean.