The Little Prince is revered around the world and one of the bestselling books of all time—two hundred million copies have been sold in 270 languages. Part of its allure is that is seems incredibly wise, yet it is so simple it is read as a work for children.
Yet its meaning is elusive, and its place amid the writings of an adventurer and war hero acclaimed for dramatic bestsellers like Night Flight and Flight to Arras, is mysterious. In this book, Pierre Lassus reexamines the story of The Little Prince against the facts of Saint-Exupéry’s own extraordinary life, from his cherished but fatherless childhood in aristocratic poverty to his career as a pioneering pilot. His plane had broken down in the desert before. He had adopted a fox, when posted at the Spanish fort of Cape Juby, in southern Morocco. He had known the world of business before becoming pilot; he had also known unrequited love. Like his little protagonist’s, his body was never found after his plane disappeared in World War II. He was working on his spiritual autobiography when he died, and there too, Lassus finds resonances and keys to the understated spirituality of his last great book.
“A touching and deeply moving analysis of a book that is cherished by millions.” —Booklist
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About the Author
Gretchen Schmid is a translator and writer and works at Penguin Books.
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THE END OF THE BEGINNING
July 31, 1944. BORGO military airfield, south of Bastia, Corsica, 8:00 in the morning.
The Lockheed P-38 Lightning F-5B N223, part of the II/33 Aerial Reconnaissance Group, First Squadron, is waiting on the runway. It has been selected for a mapping mission to prepare for the Allied landing in Provence that will take place in several days. The assignment is to photograph the Annecy-Chambéry-Grenoble region.
Lieutenant Duriez parks the jeep he has taken to collect the pilot from his quarters in Erbalunga, about fifteen kilometers away. He helps him put on his heavy, insulated flight suit and hoist himself into the cockpit. Perched on the wings of the aircraft, Sergeant Cotton and Airman Suty lend a hand as well, attaching the pilot's parachute and strapping him into his seat, putting on his helmet and oxygen mask, connecting the radio, and checking the instruments before closing the canopy. On the ground, Chief Warrant Officer Roussel and Chief Sergeant Potier check the engines, the landing gear, the flaps, the rudders, and the fuel levels. They remove the wheel chocks. The pilot makes the usual hand signal to indicate that everything is okay. He starts the engines, and the airplane begins to jolt along the runway before lifting off the ground.
It is 8:45. In the blue, cloudless sky, the Lightning's engines leave double contrails as the aircraft rapidly disappears into the horizon, toward French soil.
Lieutenant Commander Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has just taken off on his last mission.
Given the amount of fuel on board, the flight can last between four and four and a half hours, so the aircraft should return around 12:15. At 13:00, the sky is still hopelessly empty, and anxiety levels on the ground are rising. Borgo's air traffic control, contacted one hour after the expected arrival, isn't able to offer any information. Three Vickers Warwick airplanes sent to search the sector bring back no news. Radar indicates that the Lightning hasn't crossed the French coast to return to the airbase. At 14:30, as the maximum flight duration has long since been exceeded, it is impossible that the aircraft is still in the air. In the evening, after verification that he hasn't landed at another Allied airstrip — which has happened before — Lieutenant Commander de Saint-Exupéry is pronounced "missing in action."
As with the Little Prince, who left to be reunited with his star, they will never find his body.
The pilot who has just disappeared was also a writer. He had published a number of works that brought him renown in France, England, Italy, and also the United States, where several of his books had been bestsellers. In 1939, Wind, Sand and Stars had received the National Book Award; that was the American title of Terre des hommes, which had received the Grand Prize for a Novel from the Académie Française that same year in France. In 1931, one of his earlier books, Vol de nuit (Night Flight), had been awarded the Prix Femina.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had been living since 1941 in the United States, where he had been miserable not to be part of the fight to liberate France. In the hope of rejoining the II/33 Aerial Reconnaissance Squadron with which he had served during the campaign to defend France in 1940, he managed with some difficulty to secure a berth on the SS Stirling Castle, which sailed on April 13, 1943, for North Africa, where American troops had landed the year before, on November 8, 1942. In his luggage, he brought a single copy of his latest book, which his New York editor, Curtice Hitchcock, had published for him in English- and French-language editions just one week before his departure. It was The Little Prince.
On this sunny early morning of July 1944, when Saint-Exupéry — after one last test of the engines — set off in his P-38 to conquer the French skies, he certainly could not have anticipated that his Little Prince, with over two hundred million copies sold in two hundred and seventy different translations, would bring him universal glory.
By the time he secured his final mission, Saint-Exupéry may have sealed his own fate. Everything had seemed to oppose his taking command of the Lightning that day.
Already in 1939, after war was declared, he had had to fight hard and draw upon his fame and connections to be assigned to a combat unit, the II/33 Aerial Reconnaissance Group, based in Orconte in the Haute-Marne region of France. Most would have preferred that he work in the Information Services, directed by writer Jean Giraudoux, or at best as an instructor of aerial navigation — but certainly not as a fighter pilot. Moreover, at his medical checkup to be cleared to fly after he was called up in October, he was rejected for service: he had lived thirty-nine years, and his body bore the painful consequences of several of his previous accidents. But he couldn't stay on the sidelines, and he refused all the other postings that were proposed to him, despite everyone's attempts — including his close friends'— to convince him that he would be more useful alive than dead. For him, it was a question of honor: he didn't want to be taken for a coward, remaining in safety while his comrades were risking their lives. Such an attitude would have been "unchivalrous," as he told Léon Werth.
Drawing on his numerous and powerful connections and making the authorities' heads "spin" with his incessant requests, he finally got what he wanted, or almost. Although he wasn't selected to pilot a fighter plane, he did join an aerial reconnaissance squadron on December 3, 1939, which was no less risky: only one in three missions returned to base. From March to June, he carried out seven missions, including one at very low altitude just above Arras on May 23. He brought back an aircraft riddled with bullets and a punctured oil tank. This flight would inspire him to write Pilote de guerre. Published in New York in February 1942 as Flight to Arras, the book would remain at the top of the bestseller list for six months.
In July 1940, Saint-Exupéry was demobilized and sent to Algiers, where the II/33 Squadron had taken refuge. One month before that, he had received a unit citation, the Croix de guerre avec palme.
He had done his duty.
When the Allies landed in Africa at the end of 1942, and France's liberation had been set in motion, Saint-Ex was living in New York, writing, delivering lectures, and — thanks to his public presence and his books — playing an influential role in improving the American public's perception of France. At forty-two years of age, after having fought courageously and risked his life doing so, it might seem that this sort of intellectual engagement should have been honorable and sufficient. So many would have been satisfied with that, and they said so, loudly and clearly. But not him. He wanted to rejoin his comrades, to be once again at the controls of an aircraft, to act, to push his commitment to the limits — and that implied facing death. This sense of moral obligation, which may have had to do with the "noblesse oblige" instilled in him by his aristocratic upbringing, was a part of his very being. Already in 1938, in an article published by the now-defunct French daily newspaper Paris-Soir, he had written, "Don't you understand that self-sacrifice, risk, loyalty unto death, these are behaviors that have contributed greatly to establishing man's nobility?"
And yet no one wanted him to go. He was too old to pilot the new combat aircraft, which had evolved considerably since 1940; he was in poor health; he suffered from the sequelae of multiple accidents; and his morale was at its lowest point. His friends attempted to convince him that he would be more useful in the United States than in a war zone. His "woman friends" were sorry to see him go away, and feared for his life, while his spouse, the capricious Consuelo, was worried about maintaining her way of life on an officer's modest salary. As for the Gaullists, with whom he was in open conflict, they had no desire to see him return to a combat unit, since that would reinforce the prestige of General Giraud, who was then competing with de Gaulle to be the leader of Free France.
Once again, Saint-Exupéry called on his connections — both American, including General Doolittle, the commander of the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa, and French, including those closely connected with Giraud's advisors. His efforts paid off. In February of 1943, he was reinstated in the French army, and in April he was able to leave for Algiers.
In Laghouat, south of Algiers, he rejoined his comrades from the II/33 Aerial Group, which had become a part of the Allied air forces. He began to train again and obtained a certificate of aptitude for flying at high altitude, despite this note of caution: "Note that, while at a simulated low pressure corresponding to 39,000 feet, [experienced] mild pain at the site of an old fracture."
On June 25, he was promoted to major and began training on a P-38 Lightning, with which the squadron had just been equipped. Only pilots under thirty were authorized to take command of this aircraft, which boasted state-of-the-art technology and remarkable performance but required perfect mastery of the controls. Once again, the forty-two-year-old Saint-Exupery obtained an exemption from the regulation; on July 21, over the course of five hours and fifty minutes, he undertook his first mission in a P-38, photographing southern France. His second mission, on August 1, went very badly: engine trouble forced him to turn around after forty minutes in the air. During the landing, he forgot to pressurize the hydraulic brakes, and the plane ended up in an olive grove, putting it permanently out of commission. The American commander, who had been jealously guarding his marvelous P-38s, was all the more furious that Saint-Ex had demonstrated a certain amateurishness during his training: on one occasion, he had flown at twenty-three thousand feet — instead of the sixty-five hundred called for — without an oxygen mask, because he had misinterpreted the navigational instruments. During another flight, he had opened the cockpit's vent window, as he was used to doing in the planes he had flown previously — but since the Lightning flew so much faster, the wind ripped his oxygen mask from his face. By the time he reached the ground he was woozy. In another training exercise, he had poorly prepared for landing and descended too quickly, causing damage to the aircraft's wings. The truth is that he had trouble with the plane's sophisticated instrumentation and hadn't taken enough time to completely master the machine.
For some time, the Americans had been concerned about the pilot's idiosyncrasies, especially since his first mission over Provence, when he hadn't been able to resist the urge to photograph the château in Agay where his sister lived, a landmark of dubious strategic interest. The destruction of the P-38 after this latest mission was one incident too many. Saint-Ex was grounded. He made an attempt to seduce Colonel Dunn and Lieutenant Colonel Gray, the flight commander, by treating them to a Pantagruelian meal in an Algerian restaurant, in the hope they might reconsider. To better persuade them, he even spoke English, which was unusual for him: I want to die for France. ... One of them replied with a categorical no, and the other responded that he may very well "die for France," if he felt so passionate about it, but not on board an American aircraft.
We know that, ultimately, this order wouldn't stand.
For nine months Saint-Ex moped, unable to take to the skies. He called on all his connections in order to be cleared to fly again. The goal proved extremely hard to achieve, for the Americans had no confidence in the pilot: he was too old, he was too tall for the Lightning's cockpit, he hadn't mastered the aircraft's one hundred and forty-eight instruments, he didn't speak English, he was absentminded, he suffered from both old and new wounds (he had recently injured himself by falling down the stairs), he was depressive, and he had a regrettable tendency to drink too much. As for the Gaullists, who were running the show now that Giraud was no longer in power, they had no desire to please a man who had refused to join them. Hadn't the General himself said to someone intervening on Saint-Ex's behalf, "Leave him in Algiers; he's only good for card tricks"?
It was thanks to John Phillips, a Life magazine photographer, that Saint-Ex finally got what he wanted. In exchange for his writing several pages to accompany an upcoming photo essay, the magazine promised to pressure the authorities to restore Saint-Ex to his unit. Giraud also stepped in and made entreaties to General Dwight Eisenhower — none other than the commander in chief of the Allied Forces! Exasperated, Eisenhower reportedly declared, "This Saint-Exupéry is driving us crazy. Reinstate him! With any luck, he'll bother us less in the air than on the ground." The provisional government's air commissioner, Fernand Grenier, finally "granted Major de Saint-Exupéry's request," and on May 16, 1944, Saint-Ex rejoined the II/33 group in Sardinia.
He received authorization for five missions. His flights were peppered with incidents, some more serious than others, and many of which were attributable to distraction or his whims. He would read detective novels while flying; he didn't understand instructions coming from the control towers, which were in English, and, by the same token, his messages to them were unintelligible; he repeatedly failed to deploy the landing gear until the last possible minute, which caused panic on the ground; he took off without realizing that one of the releasable fuel tanks hadn't been mounted to the aircraft, meaning that a single engine was forced to do all the work — and he didn't notice the problem until he had landed, when one of the propellers stopped turning on its own. Up until that moment, the wind flow had been making it spin.
His second mission, on June 6, was cut short by an engine fire. On June 14, his third mission was over Rodez. On the 15th, his fourth mission was ended by a problem with his oxygen mask. On the 23rd, on his fifth — and in principle, his last — authorized mission, he barely evaded a German fighter plane.
With the tacit permission of the squadron's commander, he carried out a sixth mission on the 29th, the day of his forty-fourth birthday. Engine trouble forced him to return at low altitude over Italy. Since the German air defense and fighter pilots couldn't believe an Allied plane might be flying overhead with such insouciance, Saint-Ex wasn't attacked, but he wasn't able to reach his base in Sardinia and landed instead in Corsica — in Borgo, where the II/33 group would relocate several days later. His seventh mission, over the Alps, was on July 11. On the 14th, his eighth was over Annecy. On the 18th, his ninth was over the Alps.
The squadron commander, Captain René Gavoille, consulted with General Chambe: they believed it was now imperative to keep Saint-Ex on the ground. High-altitude missions were exhausting for a man who freely described himself as "the most senior combat pilot in the world" and who was in poor health besides. They formed a plan to brief him about the Allied landing in Provence scheduled for mid-August, which would entail a mandatory grounding, since it was unthinkable that a pilot possessed of such vital information might be shot down and made prisoner by the enemy. But they dragged their feet, and Saint-Ex obtained a tenth mission on July 31.
On the evening of the 30th, he left his quarters and went out to eat with several new friends, in the village of Miomo, near Bastia, in a little restaurant right on the beach. He was quite cheerful, performing card tricks and telling funny stories. He left relatively early, around 23:30. What did he do next? No one knows, but he hadn't returned to his room by 1:30. Noting his absence, the operations officer, Jean Leleu, started to worry, as pilots scheduled for a mission were supposed to go to bed early the night before. He designated Captain Siegler as Saint-Ex's replacement.
Early on the morning of the 31st, while Siegler was having breakfast and prepping for his flight with Lieutenant Duriez, Saint-Ex suddenly appeared in the mess hall. Spotting Siegler, he realized he'd been replaced and became angry. Under his furious gaze, Siegler made no objection and left. Saint-Ex climbed into Lieutenant Duriez's jeep, which took him to the field where the P-38 Lightning F-5B N223 awaited him.
For fifty-four years, no one knew what had become of the pilot and his aircraft. Every possible hypothesis was proposed, including the most fanciful, until in October 1998 a fisherman from Marseille, Jean-Claude Bianco, recovered the pilot's silver identification bracelet in his nets from the waters of a rocky inlet on the Mediterranean coast. Subsequent searches in the vicinity led to a diver named Luc Vanrell discovering the wreckage of the Lightning on May 24, 2000, nine hundred twenty feet below the surface, not too far from the island of Riou. Among the pieces were an undercarriage, a portion of the cabin, and a turbo-compressor. They were brought to the surface at the end of 2003, and experts attested that they were indeed part of the plane that Saint-Ex had flown on July 31, 1944. They were then presented to the Air and Space Museum in Le Bourget, a commune just northeast of Paris.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Discovering the Hidden Wisdom of The Little Prince"
Copyright © 2014 Albin Michel.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The End of the Beginning,
2 A Strange Little Story,
3 An Enigma All the Same?,
4 A Planet Hardly Bigger Than a House,
5 From One Star to the Next,
6 The Voice Crying in the Wilderness,
7 On Earth as in Heaven,
9 The Beginning and the End,
10 Et Verbum Caro Factum Est,
11 Thou Art My Beloved Son,
12 Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachtani,
13 Draw Me a Sheep ...,
14 The Annunciation,
15 The Ascension,
16 The Uncovering,
17 The Rose and the Sheep,
18 Leaving Eden,