Stacy Schiff, Saint-Exupery: A Biography
When I was in the 9th grade, I had a charismatic English teacher who, in addition to requiring his pupils to memorize 3,000 vocabulary words and diagram sentences – even then, very unfashionable teaching approaches – introduced us to the world of serious literature. Among the authors we met were Dickens (“Great Expectations”), Faulkner (“The Bear”), and Shakespeare (“Julius Caesar”). But the centerpiece of our 9th grade literary experience was Antoine St. Exupéry‘s “The Little Prince,” which my teacher considered one of the best books ever written – my recollection is that he said it was the best book. Since then, I have often asked myself whether this lofty elevation of St. Exupéry’s iconic work was anything more than hyperbole spooned out to gullible 9th graders. In posing that question over the years, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the author of this work. So when I saw Stacy Schiff’s biography of St. Exupréy on sale at my favorite second hand bookstore, I pounced, hoping to learn a little about the man considered one of France’s greatest 20th century authors, and not solely for “The Little Prince.”
Throughout this volume, Schiff shows herself to be a sophisticated biographer, tying a mind-boggling amount of detail into a coherent whole (skills which worked for her more recently when she received a Pulitzer Prize for her best-selling biography “Cleopatra”). She portrays St. Exupéry as a towering figure, 6 feet 4 inches, yet a “marvelous child” (p.325) with the “sensibility of a little girl” (p.76). He was an accomplished if somewhat eccentric aviator in aviation’s early days, demonstrating a “remarkable aptitude for mechanics” (p.132). As an aviator, Schiff contends that St. Exupéry was as popular among his peers “as John Glenn initially made himself among the early astronauts” (p.214). One friend summed up St. Exupréy the aviator: “When the flight is normal Saint Exupréy is dangerous; given complications, he’s brilliant” (p.330).
St. Exupéry spent several formative years in the Sahara desert as a pilot for Aéropostale, one of France’s first overseas airmail services. He worked as an author during off hours, constantly scribbling drafts on scraps of paper. During his time in the desert, St. Exupéry pondered the “importance of responsibility, the fellowship it nurtures among men, the priority of an interior life” (p.29). The Sahara formed a backdrop in the 1930s, for several works that helped make him one of France’s leading 20th century literary figures, especially “Night Flight” and “Wind, Sand and Stars.” These works raised questions that St. Exupéry grappled with throughout his life:
how to reconcile an individual’s thirst for profit with some social good; how to allow for maximum liberty in a world prone to tyranny; how to apply the happy lessons of Aéropostale to a social structure; how to nourish and motivate man in a machine age (p.289).
St. Exupéry was also what the French call a châtelain, with nobility in the blood, little in the bank account, and a certain “helplessness with financial matters” (p.77). On several occasions, he was forced to return to France, more specifically Paris, where he was a generally unhappy member of the Parisian café intelligentsia, mingling uneasily with Sartre, de Beauvoir and others at the Café des Deux-Maggots and Brasserie Lipp. He fell deeply in love with a woman he did not marry and married a woman one can only characterize as a fruitcake. Schiff suggests that the Little Prince’s painful attempt to figure out the elusive rose was an expression of St. Exupréy’s fractious relationship with his wife. During World War II, St. Exupréy joined many other French literary figures in New York.
“The Little Prince” was written largely during St. Exupréy’s New York years. Schiff describes the work as a “satire for the adult world” at war (p.389), by far St. Exupéry’s “most popular and enduring work” — even if usually found on bookshelves “alongside Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz” (p.449). “The Little Prince” has been translated into more languages – nearly 80, Schiff indicates – than any other original work in French, and still sells over 100,000 copies annually in the United States and in France.
Although St. Exupréy was not on de Gaulle’s good side, he yearned to fight for his country and left New York to fly missions for the Free French. On the last day of July 1944, St. Exupréy took off on a solo mission and simply disappeared, “into thin air,” the title of Schiff’s chapter on his death. Even today, there is no certainty and few serious theories on how St. Exupréy met his end. But Schiff shows that he was despondent in the weeks and months immediately preceding his last mission. She does not state that he perished in a suicide mission, but the enigma that surrounds his death seems consistent with such an end. St. Exupréy was the “most celebrated French man of letters to die in the war,” Schiff notes wryly, “for the simple reason that most French men of letters did not see active combat after the fall of France in 1940” (p.438).
In her biography of St. Exupréy and his world, Schiff portrays an author as beguiling, enchanting and mystifying as the Little Prince: “too broad for any category” and “fated to be misconstrued” (p.446). St. Exuprey’s work, she concludes, was “rich in spirit” and “makes us want to overreach ourselves. It makes us dream” (p.447) — a conclusion which I think my 9th grade English teacher would be happy to endorse.
Thomas H. Peebles
June 5, 2013