Walks Among the Stars

Classic Arts Features   Walks Among the Stars
Stacy Schiff coaxes Antoine de Saint-Exup_ry, author of The Little Prince, down to earth. Rachel Portman's operatic adaptation of the book opens at New York City Opera on November 12.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry shared a great deal with his best-known creation, but he was not himself the Little Prince. For starters, he was a hulking six foot two and a count. He lent a mop of golden curls to his hero in tribute to his own hair, which was thinning and brown. At the time he composed his fable of interplanetary flight he was achingly earthbound. The Little Prince is a vigorous walker; Saint-Exupéry‹the toast of every Parisian taxi driver‹was allergic to exercise. Where the Little Prince is a firm disciplinarian, the author was a champion procrastinator. Having promised The Little Prince to his publisher for November 1942, he buckled down to work in December. Announced as a February 1943 title, the pages of the novel were finally pried from him for an April publication.

Born in Lyon in 1900, Saint-Exupéry was familiar with predicaments from the start; he hailed from a family of impoverished aristocrats. He began his professional life as a truck salesman. He made his way to aviation circuitously, having managed to fail his naval exams, twice. By 1929 he had distinguished himself as a mail pilot and published his first novel. There was nothing preordained about either career, and the combination made him slightly suspect; he was difficult to classify, a reputational hazard in France. In another category-defying stunt, he won both the 1939 National Book Award for nonfiction and the Académie Française's fiction prize for the same book, Wind, Sand and Stars. Into that volume he folded his adventures and misadventures as a pioneering pilot, in South America, in the western Sahara, in the Libyan desert. He flew reconnaissance missions for the French Air Force until 1940, when he sailed to New York. There his publisher suggested he attempt to explain the fall of France to the American reader. The resulting volume, Flight to Arras, earned him opprobrium from both ends of the political spectrum.

The summer of 1942 found him in New York, at odds with the French community, in sodden spirits, and without any immediate project. He was cut off from family and friends; his country was occupied by the Germans; there was no front on which he could fight. He spoke no English. As a result of his crashes, he was a physical wreck. He was enamored neither of the United States nor of the pace of New York life. Reminded that Manhattan represented only a part of America, he replied, "Yes, but the heart of the country is here, and the heart is hard." (It was not so hard as all that; Saint-Exupéry seduced everyone he met. His second language was charisma, in which he was fluent.) He was tormented by a wife who knew well his infidelities but who claimed a great deal of his attention. Or, as Saint-Exupéry informed her, "If you're not here I can't think, and if you talk I can't write."

Out of his despair came The Little Prince. The book was proposed as a sort of therapy, by the wife of Saint-Exupéry's American publisher. The little figure had been familiar to his intimates for a decade. Might he be distracted by writing a story about his petit bonhomme, asked Elizabeth Reynal? Soon thereafter Saint-Exupéry bought himself a set of children's watercolors in an Eighth Avenue drugstore. He set to work in his usual distracted manner, in long, late-night bursts of energy fueled by coffee and cigarettes, generous traces of which show up on the manuscript. He wrote in a series of different pens and pencils and edited and crumbled and scribbled in margins. He painted on the wrong side of the onionskin. A girlfriend nursed him through the project with gin-and-Cokes, with fried eggs and English muffins served by candlelight. A doll in her apartment posed as the Little Prince; her king-size poodle modeled for the sheep. She lent the fox his most memorable speech after she complained to Saint-Exupéry about his tardiness. What difference could it make, protested the author, who evidently for some incidental reason wore a watch. "My heart begins to dance when I know you are coming," she told him. She listened to Saint-Exupéry chuckle and chortle his way through the manuscript, which it did not seem to her that he took altogether seriously, but which clearly represented one of the few solaces he would know in America.

He turned out the remainder of the book's pages in a 22-room house his wife rented in Northport, overlooking Long Island Sound. It was a chaotic household with a steady stream of visitors, none of whom slept easily. Their host worked from midnight until 7:00 in the morning and thought nothing of summoning his guests at any time to show them a drawing of which he was particularly proud. "You are less a couple," one exhausted friend informed the Saint-Exupérys, "than a full-time conspiracy against your friend's sleep." Not everyone minded the impositions. For the astronomical calculations made by the businessman in The Little Prince, Saint-Exupéry asked a friend to find out how many stars are in the sky. The assignment fell to her young assistant, who was only too happy to call the Hayden Planetarium on the famous aviator's behalf. (They did not know the answer.)

The tale of the imperious innocent who falls to earth, makes a quick study of the men behind the curtains, and ultimately disappears without a trace seems exotic, but its themes were those that had preoccupied Saint-Exupéry for years. He had already fallen to Earth many times. His first novel glistens with the imagery of The Little Prince; in it, an airplane bears the same number as does the Little Prince's asteroid. How much did Saint-Exupéry resemble his hero? "You are an extraterrestrial," a friend informed him one day, before he had read the book. "Yes, yes, it is true, I sometimes go for walks among the stars," admitted Saint-Exupéry, who made various sketches of his aviator-narrator but chose not to include them in the text. The landscape of his travels became his hero's: the volcanoes came from Patagonia, the baobabs from Dakar, the well from his childhood home. The supporting cast of the novel also traveled around with him for some time. They are the relatives, administrators, and bureaucrats who resisted his winning and unorthodox ways, who made it difficult for an aristocrat to become a pilot, for a pilot to become a writer, for a distracted pilot to remain in the air, for a prominent pilot to abstain from taking a political stance. It took the war, and a mountain of personal problems, to bring them all together in a book.

Saint-Exupéry sailed from New York to Algiers in April, 1943, a copy of The Little Prince in his bag. He had moved heaven and earth to rejoin his old reconnaissance squadron, reconstituted and under Allied command. In North Africa he showed the book around with great pride. Everyone who read it praised the work; how could they not when its doting author hovered over them as they turned the pages? It was let out of his sight, reluctantly, for 24-hour periods, often on the condition that it be returned with a written critique. Saint-Exupéry begged for news of the book's American fate, which was not rosy: The reviews were mixed, sales sluggish. The Little Prince spent one week on the bestseller list, not an impressive performance for its author.

His performance in the air was equally unimpressive, in large part because Saint-Exupéry sat at the controls of an aircraft into which he did not fit and that he was unqualified to fly, communicating with the control tower in a language he did not speak. All attempts to ground him proved futile. Unsurprisingly, he knew every kind of near-disaster. Any one of his 1944 missions could have been his last. On July 31 he failed to return from a flight over southern France, plunging at high speed into the Mediterranean on his return to base. He was 44 years old, and the most prominent French man of letters to go down as a casualty of World War II.

The Little Prince was published in France two years later. The reception was tepid. It would be years before the book established itself as a classic of flight‹if on the shelf with Peter Pan and Mary Poppins‹and eclipsed the rest of Saint-Exupéry's best-selling oeuvre. The wreck of his aircraft was located only in 2005. The cause of the crash remains unknown.

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