|photo credit:Vagabond Productions|
I recently went to see The Nine Lives of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, (Vagabond Productions) in the Edinburgh Fringe. I wept at the end. I've been fascinated by Saint-Exupéry's writing and his life for some time, and the play made me return to a (still unfinished) piece I wrote a few years ago. I've included some of it here.
There was a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Flight to Arras in my parents' bookcase. It had a creamy hard cover and the title was written in gold letters on a black background. As a child, I was too busy reading my own books but I liked its appearance and its foreign sounding location, its whiff of the exotic.
|Wikimedia Commons: St-Ex in Toulouse, 1933|
My first introduction to Saint-Exupéry was at school, where we read Le Petit Prince in French class. I don't remember making any connection with the author of Flight to Arras, the cream-covered gold-lettered book.
I was in my thirties before I read Southern Mail and Night Flight. Books I was grateful to have come across, grateful that they had been written.
After my parents died I looked through the bookshelves but I couldn't find that book that remained so clearly in my memory.
Two years later, my son is studying at flight school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is over on a visit and one morning he appears wearing a T-shirt with one word written on it – Aéropostale. Where did you get that T-shirt? I exclaim. He thinks it was in Des Moines. But he hadn't made any association between that and Saint-Exupéry. I tell him – Aéropostale was the name of the company that Saint-Exupéry worked for, when he flew the mail planes. You remember The Little Prince? Of course, he says, you read it to us.
After he has returned to Tulsa, I go to a second hand bookshop looking for books by Saint-Exupéry. I find Southern Mail and Flight to Arras. I send the former to my son, and I keep the latter and finally read Flight to Arras.
La guerre n'est pas une aventure. La guerre est une maladie. Comme le typhus. (Saint-Exupéry) (War is not an adventure. It's a sickness. Like typhus.)
But my father had not known. France and Flanders. All his life, he did not know. But did he have some idea? Was that why he kept a copy of Flight to Arras in the bookcase? Or was it just a coincidence?
Saint-Exupéry was born near Lyon, into a large family. When he was still a child, first his father and then his younger brother died. Apparently the last words spoken to him by his younger brother were those he put in the mouth of the little prince – go away now, because if you stay you will think I am suffering.
When still in his teens, Saint-Exupéry persuaded someone to take him up in a plane. A deeply feeling and sensitive man, his passion for flying equalled his passion for writing, and the two were deeply intertwined. He was one of the first to fly mail planes for the company that became Aéropostale – to north Africa and later, in South America.
Wikimedia Commons:Breguet 14 used on the Casablanca-Dakar route
By the outbreak of WWII he had published three books, Southern Mail/Courrier Sud, Night Flight/Vol de Nuit and Wind, Sand and Stars/Terre des Hommes. They were extremely successful. In the first part of WWII, he flew sorties over the area of Arras.
It's 1940. The German tanks are pressing through northern France.
We stand to the enemy in the relation of one man to three. One plane to ten or twenty. After Dunkerque, one tank to one hundred, Saint-Exupéry writes in Flight to Arras. He is the captain of a team that makes reconnaissance flights. He is asked to make a sortie that the major admits is 'awkward'.
When a sortie was not 'awkward', he writes, one plane out of three got back. Naturally, the ratio was not the same when the sortie was a nasty one. But I was not weighing my chances of getting back. …....The Group was to lose us more or less as baggage becomes lost in the hubbub of changing trains......
Flight to Arras is a description of that sortie. Mixed in with memories of childhood, it is also a meditation on victory and defeat, on what it means to be human, on duty and responsibility, on death. 'If I am alive' I said to myself, ' I shall do my thinking tonight.' Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.
His books have been described as the best books about flying that you will ever read. They are, but they are more than that. Meditations on the nature and the meaning of human existence, Saint-Exupéry, particularly through his experience in Flight to Arras/Pilote de Guerre, peers into the nature of the human soul, having been confronted with his own death.
...true we were already beaten...yet despite this I could not but feel in myself the serenity of victory.......like [the others] I was filled with the sense of my responsibility. And what man can feel himself at one and the same time responsible and hopeless?
What am I if not a participant? In order to be I must participate.........to be a bystander......is the liberty not to exist. There is no growth except in the fulfilment of obligations.
After Paris fell, he escaped from France via Portugal and joined his wife Consuelo who was in New York. His aim was to convince the Americans to join the Allied armies, help defeat Germany and liberate France. But while he was there he discovered that his books had sold so well that he was now fêted as a literary star. And he was miserable because he was there in New York and not fighting with his fellow Frenchmen. He was considered, at 43, much too old to be a pilot. Sometimes he would lie for hours on his bed, consumed with misery. He could not bear to think of others fighting in France, while he was not. However, while in New York he wrote Pilote de Guerre/Flight to Arras, describing that particular sortie he made during his time stationed in the north of France. He also wrote Le Petit Prince at this time. But all he really wanted was to participate in the war again.
Eventually he persuaded the authorities to let him go back, and take part. Stationed in north Africa with the Free French Air Force, he made several reconnaissance flights.
On 31st July 1944 he left base on a mission to collect intelligence on German troop movements in and around the Rhone Valley in preparation for an eventual Allied invasion of France.
He did not return.
In 1998, a fisherman found, south of Marseille, an identity bracelet with the names of Saint-Exupéry and Consuelo engraved on it. And a few years after that, pieces of a Lockheed Lightning plane were discovered on the sea bed near where the bracelet was found. French investigators later confirmed that the wreckage belonged to St. Exupéry's plane.
a metaphor comes into my mind. ….the individual is a mere path. What matters is Man, who takes that path. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Flight to Arras)