by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince was published on the 6th of April 1943.
Whatever happened during the past 80 years – and much did indeed happen – it has left neither stain nor scar on this little book. Such is the naivety and enduring gaiety of Saint-Exupéry’s tale; this novella is at once a moral tale of humanity’s greatest weaknesses, and yet, equally, it is an enchanting fantasy story about love and wanderlust and childhood. Le Petit Prince cannot be pinned down, nor can it be categorized by arbitrary literary classifications. It speaks to us all in its own uniquely melancholic, nostalgic sort of way, facilitated in part by Saint-Exupéry’s beauteous watercolors.
My twin sister is an artist. She trained in Marine Biology at the University of Bangor, and certainly does have a particularly astute mind in the fields of biology and animal identification. She can identify a bird from the silhouette of its wings against a blinding morning sky, and she can spot and name a fish in the murkiest of waters. But, despite this innate talent, to me, she is an artist. Every scrap of markable surface, be it napkin, notebook, used envelope, border of a newspaper, restaurant receipt, sweet wrapper, cereal box, cigarette paper, or egg carton – you can be sure that my sister will set her greedy pen upon it, swirling and turning and sketching and brushing to make the most marvellously detailed little sketches. You might have seen her, as you were ordering drinks at a local café, reaching inside the front pocket of her rucksack to retrieve a dainty ballpoint pen to draw with while she waits for her cappuccino to arrive. Or maybe you were the waiter tidying away the cups on her table, stopping to pick up a deftly sketched picture of a little girl with her hair blowing in the wind. Perhaps the ink used to draw the little girl’s skirt is leaking into the fine creases of the tissue paper, making it seem as though she were growing roots. Saint-Exupéry was an artist like my sister; a constant doodler, forever discovering different materials upon which he would eventually discover the whimsically puzzled-looking visage of his little prince.
Of the praise that has been showered upon Saint-Exupéry for his simple yet evocative images, I am most intrigued by critic’s admiration of Saint-Exupéry’s ability to omit and excise anything that conveyed too much of a literality to his tale. Part of the reason for the success of Le Petit Prince is how metaphorical and ethereal the narrative is, in part due to how vague and decentralised the images are in conveying the story itself. We are never permitted to see who the narrator telling the story is, and thus we question whether we might ourselves be the narrator pursuing the little prince on his voyages around the universe, as though we were watching our childhood selves relive the bounty and joy of their rampant, incessant imaginations.
Saint-Exupéry was born in Lyon in 1900 into a Catholic aristocratic family who, after Saint-Exupéry’s father died rather suddenly of a stroke in 1903, became destitute. Saint-Exupéry had four siblings: three sisters and a brother, Francois, the latter of whom died of rheumatic fever when he was fifteen. Saint-Exupéry, age seventeen, watched his brother die. This death, which Saint-Exupéry wrote of while sat beside his brother’s deathbed, would eventually be morphed into the finale to Le Petit Prince. Francois, like the little prince, had curly blonde hair.
Failing to enter the École Navale, Saint-Exupéry went on to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, but never graduated. While serving for the military in Neuhof, Saint-Exupéry began taking flying lessons which would lead him to being accepted in the French Air Force, and later to work for the Aéropostale of Toulouse and eventually Aeroposta Argentina. During this time, Saint-Exupéry wrote his first novella, L’Aviateur, and his prize-winning Vol de Nuit, which explored his experience as a mail pilot in Buenos Aires. Le Petit Prince was written while Saint-Exupéry was living in North America (between New York City and Asharoken). Saint-Exupéry returned to war shortly after the publication of Le Petit Prince, despite his broken body (a resulting of numerous plane crashes, some extended illnesses, and stress).
I wonder what it must be like to see the world from above in the way that a pilot does. I have been on planes a fair few times, but it must be different to be at the front of a plane, riding the wind, cruising the skies, alone. Saint-Exupéry used to read and make deeply philosophical notes as he flew (a practice not permitted today due to the sterile flight deck law (1981), which deems all non-essential cockpit activities as illegal). How peaceful the world must have seemed to him up there. It is difficult to imagine any other place where one is so entirely in control as at the head of a plane, careering through the air and cutting through the clouds. Sure, some of us can drive, but, when driving, one is at the whim of the rules and regulations of the road, and must act considerately towards other cars, pedestrians, and otherwise, at all times, lest, God forbid, one might have an accident. But to fly a plane…ah! How marvelous it must be! But perhaps it is lonely, also. I suppose Saint-Exupéry must have felt lonely, at times. He was the depressive sort and took to drinking shortly after news came of Charles de Gaulle (beloved head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic from June 1944, and President from 1959 to 1969) wrongly publicly proclaiming that Saint-Exupéry was supporting Nazi Germany.
At the end of Le Petit Prince, the prince is found talking about his homeward journey with the snake. He discusses how deeply he misses his rose and much he wishes to see her again. The narrator and the prince say goodbye to one another, and the prince makes clear to the narrator that, should he see the prince’s lifeless body lain upon the ground, that this was simply because his physical form was too heavy to make the journey back to his own planet. Furthermore, the little prince tells the narrator not to watch him leave Earth lest he should feel sad watching him go. The narrator does not follow the little prince’s advice and instead stays beside him. The prince tells the narrator that if he but looks to the stars and remembers the little prince’s laughter then it will be as though the stars are all laughing too. The little prince walks away from the narrator, and then:
“There was nothing but a flash of yellow close to [the little prince’s] ankle. He remained motionless for an instant. He did not cry out. He fell as gently as a tree falls. There was not even any sound, because of the sand.”
And the narrator never found the prince’s lifeless body. Did he die, or not?
Saint-Exupéry’s final flight was a mission in the Rhone Valley whereby he would be searching for information on the movements of German troops around the area (dubbed ‘Operation Dragoon’). Saint-Exupéry left on the 31st of July 1944, and never did he return. A body sparsely covered in uniform was found off the coast of Marseilles some days later, but nobody can know if it was indeed the mortal form of Saint-Exupéry. Just like his little prince, Saint-Exupéry got into his plane and left, perhaps returning home to his beloved, petulant rose. Perhaps he intended it to be this way. Perhaps, as he was penning down some thoughts about a book he was reading, he looked up and saw the clear air afore him, and thought that this might be as good a place to die as any other.
The Carl Kruse Blog Home Page is here.
Contact: carl At carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include Initiations, A Quick Trip To Cahors, and A Good Night.
Carl Kruse is also active on the distributed computing BOINC projects with Rosetta, Kruse at DENIS, and Number Fields.