Friday, November 9, 2012


Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Love it or hate it, most readers today know Antoine de Saint-Exupéry as the author of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), which at different times of life you may have considered a wonderful fairytale, a clever if naïvely illustrated parable, or a screed imbued with puerile sentimentality. This intricate fantasy was not all that Saint-Exupéry wrote, however. No, and it was probably not even his most important piece of writing. Nor was writing his only career. In perhaps his most important novel, Wind, Sand and Stars (Terre des hommes), Saint-Exupéry recounts his experience of making the globe a smaller place. As an airmail pilot in the early days of night flight, Saint-Exupéry delivered the mail at a time when aircraft had only a few instruments on their panels. Then danger, risk and sacrifice were part of the pilot's job. Wind, Sand and Stars confirms this in its description of the author’s 1935 plane crash in the Sahara Desert – a disaster he barely survived.

As Wikipedia will tell you in a heartbeat: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944, Mort pour la France) was a pioneer of aviation, a commercial pilot, and an airman whose plane went down over the Mediterranean while he was flying reconnaissance for the French Air Force. Mysteriously vanished, lost to the world of literature, he left behind a rich legacy of writing about flight, freedom, and the human condition. Like his literary predecessor Blaise Pascal, who reflected on man’s insignificance vis-à-vis infinite space, Saint-Exupéry contemplated man’s solitude amidst the grandeur of the universe, imagining man alone among the stars. That lyrical vision of a solitary man surrounded by the stars – a vision by turns sober and euphoric – became Saint-Exupéry's quintessential cosmic image for the human condition. Saint-Exupéry's existential  understanding of man's place in the universe did not come exclusively from his imagination, however. As a pilot, Saint-Exupéry had been there: solitary, fragile, exalted by the night sky.

Night Flight  (Vol de Nuit)

This short novel – the author’s second – is based on Saint-Exupéry's experience as an airmail pilot, and as director of the Argentinian airline’s fleet of mail carriers. Published in 1931, the novel vividly conveys the dangers faced by aviators who carried mail by night. The book also explains the solemn, even philosophical sense of duty that kept the pilots on task despite the hardships of their profession.

Night Flight describes the early days of airmail delivery in South America, when pilots who flew at night were pioneers and heroes. The main storyline is divided between two point-of-view characters: Fabien, a young pilot who is carrying the mail to Patagonia, and Rivière, the director of the airmail service in South America. Fabien’s tale––rendered with intense lyricism–– is the drama of one man against the elements. The tension inherent in Fabien’s tale finds its counterpart in Rivière’s internal drama, as the director questions the demands he places on his men and reaches for an understanding of the meaning of his enterprise.

When Rivière insists that Fabien continue on a dangerous flight to Patagonia, both men wonder if the director is sending the pilot to his death.

Night Flight is Saint-Exupéry’s riff on the love versus duty motif: that classic conflict portrayed in French Literature from the Middle Ages on. When the pilot Fabien chooses duty over love, he is compensated for his sacrifice by the romance of flight. Alone among the stars, Fabien is a man face to face with eternity.

Rivière must repress his love, however. Hence his dogma: “Love the men under your command, but do not let them know it.” While the director knows how to make himself beloved by his men, he chooses not to, preferring instead to serve that abstraction, the greater good, in a detached and rational manner. Having sacrificed his personal life to his mission: promoting international postal aviation, Rivière struggles to become one with his destiny, and to articulate the overriding sense of duty that binds him.

This little book is full of all-but-forgotten information about the early history of flight. Interesting as these facts are, it is the author's dramatization of the risks taken by the early night pilots, of their camaraderie, and of the ethical dilemmas faced by their director, that makes this a novel of exceptional beauty.

Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight, born of the author’s personal experience, and sacrifice, tells a heroic tale interwoven with lyricism and philosophy.  


Airman’s Odyssey
Flight to Arras
Letter to a Hostage
The Little Prince
Southern Mail
Wartime Writings 1939-1944
Wind, Sand and Stars
The Wisdom of the Sands

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