Aviator, adventurer, spellbinding raconteur, and writer‹Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, known to his intimates as Tonio or Saint-Ex, published his best-known work only a year before his plane vanished in 1944, presumably shot down by German forces while flying a reconnaissance mission over his native France. Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) was written while the author and his wife Consuelo were living temporarily on Long Island in New York. It has been translated into over 140 languages and is treasured by millions whose hearts respond to a solitary little boy who, in his interplanetary travels, seeks the answers to universal questions.
Rachel Portman's opera The Little Prince, which receives its world premiere at Houston Grand Opera this month, was created with great respect for its source material. The following, excerpted with permission of Curtis Cate from his definitive biography Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: His Life and Times, explains the creation of Saint-Exupéry's masterful work.
From Pilote de Guerre, it was but a short step to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's next work, Le Petit Prince, which he began writing in the summer of 1942. The Little Prince of this charming fable for adults is not simply the child Saint-Ex would have liked to father (as he had once written to his mother, back in 1924: "I have such provisions of paternal love stocked up within me. I would like to have a lot of small Antoines"); in his isolation he is a symbol of what modern man has become on a planet where increasingly there is no "gardener for men."
For years, in countless letters written on restaurant menus and random sheets of paper, this "petit bonhomme solitaire" had been appearing in a variety of disguises: sometimes seated on a cloud with a crown on his head, sometimes posted on a mountaintop. Rare was the day at the Café Arnold, on [New York's] Columbus Circle, where they used to meet for a cup of coffee, that Saint-Ex would not amuse his friends [by] covering the paper napkins with pencil drawings of his Little Prince.
The idea of writing a children's fable was not originally Saint-Exupéry's at all. It started one day over a lunch table in a New York restaurant. Intrigued by Saint-Ex's doodlings on the white table cloth‹which the waiter had been surveying with a frown‹[his publisher] Curtice Hitchcock asked him what he was drawing.
"Oh, nothing much," was the reply. "Just a little fellow I carry around in my heart."
Hitchcock treated the little fellow to a closer inspection and it gave him an idea. "Now look, this little fellow‹what would you think of making up a story about him…for a children's book?"
The idea took Saint-Exupéry completely by surprise. But once the seed of the idea had been planted, it kept steadily growing, nurtured as it was by the gentle prodding of his publisher.
Saint-Ex got to work on a few experimental drawings, which were probably intended to "fix" his still nebulous ideas. He then sought the assistance of his old Beaux-Arts colleague, Bernard Lamotte, whose illustrations for [his novel] Flight to Arras had bowled him over for their "telepathic" accuracy of detail. Lamotte responded with a few sample sketches which left Saint-Ex dissatisfied: they were insufficiently naïve and dreamlike for the effect he wanted to convey. As he became more absorbed by his tale, he began to realize that he would have to illustrate as well as write it himself.
[Friend and author] André Maurois was invited to spend several weeks at Bevin House [the Long Island residence of Saint-Ex and Consuelo]. In the evenings, hosts and guests would play cards or chess and then as midnight approached, Saint-Exupéry would say: "All right, now go to bed. I must work." An hour or so later, just as he was dozing off, Maurois would be [awakened] by shouts from the stairs: "Consuelo! Consuelo!" Thinking the house was on fire the first time he heard the tumult, he slipped into his dressing gown and rushed out on to the landing, only to find Tonio explaining to Consuelo that he was desperately hungry and wanted some scrambled eggs. The scrambled eggs consumed, Saint-Ex would resume work for an hour or two, when once again the quiet of the house would be disturbed by more shouts from the stairs: "Consuelo!...Consuelo!" While Consuelo padded off to the kitchen to break a few more yolks, her unsleeping spouse would say to Maurois: "I must talk to someone" or "let's have a walk in the garden."
Ill health may have contributed to this barrage of words and logic, for part of Le Petit Prince seems to have been written in a state of fever which greatly stimulated [Saint-Exupéry's] imagination. If so, it was a highly productive fever, even though there was hardly a theme in this short work which had not already been sounded in his earlier writings or letters. "I am reading Dust"‹Rosamond Lehmann's novel‹"and I think we all love this kind of book … because we recognize each other," he had written to his mother from Argentina in 1930. Like Margaret Kennedy, "we are all part of the same tribe. And this world of children's memories … will always seem to me desperately truer than the other."
The other world, in this autumn of 1942, was the strife-torn world which was edging toward the battle of Stalingrad and the invasion of North Africa, which Saint-Exupéry ardently desired. But, as Christ had said, "What profit it a man if he gaineth the whole world yet lose his soul?" It was the message which gleamed through the final pages of Pilote de Guerre, and it was the central message of the Little Prince, whose only conquests are his friends‹the sheep, the sand fox, and the rose.
"The world," as Horace Walpole once observed, "is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." Saint-Ex felt as deeply as he thought, and the resultant allegory in this case proved both humorous and sad. It was also occasionally sharp, as allegories are apt to be, which may partially (but only partially) explain the lack of an enthusiastic response comparable to that which Flight to Arras had enjoyed for weeks on end with the American reading public. Though Beatrice Sherman gave it a sympathetic treatment in the April 11, 1943, issue of The New York Times Book Review, other reviewers seem to have been at a loss as to just how to interpret a book which could not easily be pigeonholed. Writing some six months later in The Commonweal Harry Louis Binsse was forced to confess, a trifle wistfully, that he was one of the few American critics who regarded this little fable as something of a classic‹"a sad classic to make the tears flow…. But in this opinion I seem to be somewhat alone. The book has had no tremendous success, though it was published last spring, and perhaps my judgment is wrong. What I suspect is that the public does not readily accept something from an author which does not fit into the category in which the public has placed that author, and for an imaginative airman to write what amounts to a fairy story‹or at least a fanciful allegory‹is perhaps too much for the public to swallow."
It is also possible that certain critics were put off by the ironic digs at American civilization‹as in the figure of the businessman (the word used in the French as well as the English text) too busy counting his millions of stars to be able to enjoy a single one, or in that of the pharmaceutical salesman whose thirst-curing pills allow one to save exactly 53 minutes per week.
The Little Prince, of course, is Saint-Ex as a child. The Rose it is his duty to tend is a more complex creation. She is very feminine and flighty, like Consuelo‹that "poppy" who, he had once warned, would end up shorn of her petals if she went on so giddily spinning. The Little Prince's three volcanoes, which he regularly sweeps like a chimney, were similarly inspired by dead craters Saint-Ex had seen in southern Patagonia. Like all great fables, this one is as full of enchantment for a child as it is rich in nourishment for adults. It echoes many of the themes its author had most to heart: the fragility of joy and the primordial importance of love, without which one is blind‹expressed in the fox's secret: "One sees only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye." The importance of a mission, a duty, an obligation in life exemplified by the lamplighter who lights and extinguishes his lamp because that is the way things are. The vanity of riches and his abhorrence of the collective hurly-burly of metropolitan existence‹symbolized by the train-switch operator, routing and rerouting passing expresses. The pleasure which comes not because it is given or received but because it has been earned, like the sweet water of the well. And not least, [Saint-Exupéry's] feeling that his broken-jointed carcass was done for. "I can't carry off this body. It's too heavy," says the Little Prince as he prepared to return to his tiny star. "But it will be like an old discarded rind." Saint-Ex could feel [his body] creaking with every step he took‹a mortal coil he could not reel off and which his soaring spirit would have to drag around, like a prisoner's ball and chain, to the very end of his days.