Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: His Life and Times
Curtis Cate
Heinemann, London 1970


A BIOGRAPHY is almost always a risky undertaking when it concerns someone who has not been dead for a good fifty years or more. But far fewer than that are needed, alas, to decimate a generation which, like all of us, is not growing any younger. So it is with Saint-Exupéry. Though he died a quarter of a century ago, it will be years, and more likely decades, before the many intimate letters he wrote — to persons still living as to others dead — are published; but long before then most of those who knew him in his lifetime will no longer be around to share their reminiscences. The risks involved are thus intrinsic to an enterprise which from the start was a kind of rescue operation — aimed at garnering these precious recollections while there was yet time.

It was never my good fortune to meet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. When he was in New York in 1942 I was still an undergraduate at Harvard, and the subsequent fortunes of war took him to North Africa, while I was shipped to England with the U.S. Army. This book is not, therefore, the work of an "eye-witness"; it is the work of a historian who has sought to fill out what has been written (relatively little in English, but a great deal in French) with glimpses of Saint-Ex at different moments of his existence obtained from close to a hundred of his contemporaries, kinsmen, and companions.

On one point, I feel reasonably sure, most of them would immediately agree: that Saint-Exupéry was as striking a personality as he was a writer. Nothing is more difficult for someone condemned to write at "second hand" than to convey a particular human being's charm or spell, above all when exercised by someone who was literally a magician. A magician whose heavy peasant hands could execute card tricks on a level with the great Houdini's. André Mauroix once compared his story-telling gift to that of Scheherezade. John Phillips, the former Life photo-reporter, has called him a twentieth century Pico delle Mirandola. Others have likened him to Leonardo da Vinci and the omni-curious if not omniscient men of the Renaissance. "Saint-Ex?" General René Bouscat one day said to me, handing me a caricature "Pépino" had drawn of himself. "Mais il savait tout faire" — there was nothing he couldn't do. One of his closest friends, Dr. Georges Pélissier, wishing to write an appreciation of him after his death, could find nothing better than the pentagonic title, Les Cinq Visages de Saint-Exupéry — the five "faces" or facets of his personality being Saint-Ex the Flyer, Saint-Ex the Writer, Saint-Ex the Man, Saint-Ex the Inventor, and Saint-Ex the Magician. Even so, the spectrum could have been extended and he could just as justifiably have entitled his book, Les Sept Visages de Saint-Exupéry, throwing in Saint-Ex the Humorist and Saint-Ex the Thinker, for good measure. For Saint-Exupéry, who "read little but understood everything" (to quote Pélissier), was in the deepest sense a thinker who used card tricks, word puzzles, chess games, and comic drawings to mask his innermost preoccupations.

With so many attributes and such an adventurous career it was inevitable that this pioneer of the sky should become something of a legend. In his own country Catholics and others in search of "a hero for our times" were tempted to stress the "Saint" in his name and to place him on a pedestal. The circumstances of his life did not always support such an exalted image, but his writings did; and for good or ill, Saint-Exupéry must in the end be judged by what he wrote.

Virtue, as we all know without having to read Dante, to say nothing of Gide, François Mauriac, or Graham Greene, is almost invariably less glamorous than vice. The warning was there, but Saint-Exupéry characteristically refused to heed it. Unwilling to be tempted, he devoted all his written work to a questioning study of such basic human virtues as courage, determination, perseverance, responsibility, generosity, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and love. This was asking for trouble in an age of universal unbelief, above all from a new generation of sub-Sartrian Cartesians who, whatever else they may do in life, are determined not to be the dupes of good intentions. "Saint-Ex, c'est du scoutisme!" as a petulant young Parisienne exclaimed to me not so long ago. A French Kipling, if not a Baden-Powell, who wrote half a dozen books, all of them variations on the theme of "If". Jean-François Revel has scoffed at his "prop-driven platitudes" and called him the "cou-cou man who replaced the human brain with an airplane engine." Jean Cau, that enfant terrible of French journalism, has dismissed his work as "the great imposture of our times", a "heroico-humanistic bric-a-brac, a chaplet of hollow ideas culminating in a purely sentimental idealism". Georges Fradier, writing five years ago in Le Figaro Littéraire, was forced to confess he couldn't stand little princes — "Princes in general. But above all little princes, with their blond curls, their flutelike voices, their charming caprices, their suave sighs, and their beautiful deaths". Another critic, Jean-Louis Bory, has even raised the question: Can One Save Saint-Exupéry from Saint-Ex? His chief objection being the cult that had been made of "this divinity in blue uniform, whose name has been shortened for the convenience of the daily service... this rapt profile made for pious medallions like those which proper young men of the good Catholic bourgeoisie hang against their skin at the root of the neck".

It is not the purpose of this book to answer these accusations, which really tell us more about their authors than they do about Saint-Ex. But that his work, twenty-five years after his disappearance (somewhere between Corsica and the Alps, in July 1944), should continue to arouse such controversial heat is a tribute to its abiding impact; for it is only a "dead" book which inspires no debate. It is also a tribute to his many-sided personality which has consistently baffled those who like to be able to classify people in neat pigeon-holes as, for example, "rightist" or "leftist", "arch-reactionaries" or "authentic revolutionaries". Born of a noble family that had a privileged access to la vie de chateau of the early years of this century, Saint-Exupéry was one of those blessed "children of the Gods", as Thomas Mann liked to call them; but those who most fascinated him were not such heroic prototypes as Goethe or Tolstoy, they were Dostoevski and Nietzsche, "the children of the Night". This was only one of the many paradoxes which distinguished this paradoxical being. He was a man of action who hated exercise, a poet who deliberately turned his back on rhyme and limited himself to prose. He was a mathematician of no mean talent who ended up condemning the cult of mathematics; an unbeliever who wanted desperately to believe in God. In his actions he was more profoundly committed than Jean-Paul Sartre has ever sought to be, but the word "engagé" occurs only twice, or perhaps three times, in all his writings. He became one of the great French stylists of this century, but he was not and did not wish to be a professional writer. This, of course, was and remains an unpardonable affront to those "sub-intellectuals" — as Eugène Ionesco likes to call them — who instinctively recognise in him what they most resent: the intrusion of the gifted outsider, whose life happened to be — oh insult! oh injury! — so much more glamorous than their own. As Gilbert Cesbron wrote, a couple of years ago, à propos of these detractors: "Saint-Exupéry, you see, was basically a flyer, nothing more. Why then did he busy himself with writing? Did he not realize that this is a terrain reserved for those who live off it, for those squids attached to their rock who have only their ink to defend themselves with, for that envious and venomous tribe upon whose territory it is unwise to venture? Their sacred hexagon is marked out by Gallimard, L'Express, the Nouvel Observateur, the Brasserie Lipp and the Café de Flore. This is their jungle and their paradise: Terre des Hommes de Lettres."

Less discriminating than the mandarins who would like to dismiss Saint-Exupéry as a second-rate writer of "unreadable books", the general reading public, both in France and abroad, has recognized him as one of his country's great authors. Neither Marcel Proust, nor Louis-Ferdinand Céline, nor André Gide, nor any of the eight Frenchmen who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature in this century — with the single exception of Albert Camus — have been able to match the sale of his books abroad. In France his success has been even more extraordinary; for according to a best-seller list recently compiled by the Quid almanach, Saint-Exupéry is the only French writer of our century who has been able to place three books in the first ten (Vol de Nuit in fourth place, Terre des Hommes eighth, Le Petit Prince ninth. See Notes and Acknowledgements, page 575.)

Popular judgements are notoriously fallible and fickle, but it seems unlikely that some new vogue or "wave" will now be able to alter the position Saint-Exupéry has won for himself as a French classic. His popularity beyond the borders of France is all the more remarkable, in that unlike Sartre, Malraux, or Camus — he wrote in a lyrical, poetic style made to tax the best translator. The difficulties were compounded for Anglo-Saxon readers, ill accustomed to the historic present, which comes so naturally to the French.

"It is a matter of indifference to us whether a book be written in a library or a house of ill fame, but we are unwilling to have it emanate from a group of sterile poseurs who have never lived in a truly valid manner", Richard Aldington wrote more than twenty years ago, at a time when Jean-Paul Sartre and Paul Valéry could only get themselves read by a handful of American intellectuals, whereas Wind, Sand, and Stars and Flight to Arras had been read by hundreds of thousands. "As we all know, Saint-Exupéry was a pioneer of the heroic days of flying, an already distant and legendary period. Here too there was a danger. There is a lot of aviation literature written by aviators, some of it good, but most of it mediocre and the product of paid scribblers, of that proletariat of popular literature. I feel that we should class Saint-Exupéry among the finest writers, not only because he transcribed his own experiences with such fidelity, rejecting even the most legitimate inventions, but because his moral and intellectual aims conferred a sense and a dignity to his acts. This is the difference between an adventurer and a hero."

Aldington, admittedly, had an axe to grind — as he demonstrated later in his book on T. E. Lawrence. But the distinction he here established is vital. I shall leave it to the reader to decide just what Saint-Exupéry was, but of one thing I am certain: he was much more than an adventurer.