Monday, 15 August 2016

Saint-Exupéry - La Guerre est une Maladie

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.)

All casualties from WW1 are listed in books that are open to the public in the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. Their regiment and place of death is also listed. But not the specific place of death. Only 'France and Flanders'. My father said it was not known where his father was killed. 'Somewhere in France.' What he did not seem to know was that more information was available, if one knew how to go about looking for it. I did not know this myself until someone in a French class I was teaching talked about his researches into the place of death of a relative in WW1. It was possible to find out, he said. Nowadays with the internet of course it is much easier, and I made my own researches and eventually discovered where my grandfather was killed, and visited his grave, near Albert and Arras.

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 [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 be a 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)


am said...

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.)

Have only read The Little Prince. My mother gave me a copy when I was a child. Thank you for drawing my attention to his other books. It is time for me to read them.

dritanje said...

I think you would really enjoy them am. If you still have your copy of the little Prince that might be a good place to start. It's supposedly a children's book but I think a lot of it went over my head when I first read it and I got a lot out of it when I reread it as an adult and when I read it to my children.

The Solitary Walker said...

I read Le Petit Prince for the first time as an adult, but still have not read the rest. I must correct that. Thanks for this fascinating account, Morelle.

Forest Dream Weaver said...

Fascinating post Morelle. Brave people indeed who flew these fragile looking planes! Thanks for sharing this.

dritanje said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it solitary walker and Ruby,and I would thoroughly recommend all of St-Ex's books.

three sea horses said...

At last on the train south, have had the time and head space to read this. I knew it would be special and I didn't want to read it while rushing about with a head full of things to get done!
I've had the Litle Prince for years and never read it, I was given another of his books a few years ago as well and haven't read that either. I don't know why not - I am not sure I quite got that it was about flying in the past and maybe I didn't quite believe anyone could write as eloquently about flying... not sure. Goes without saying I shall now read both books, thank you M for such a lovely blog post, I am so glad you got to see the show too - at least one of us did!
A friend recently suggested I write about flying, I had already begun, but never managed to get round to carrying on with.

dritanje said...

Thank you 3 sea horses for your thoughtful, as ever, comments. I have to say that not everyone likes The Little Prince (which isn't about flying) but even if you don't, I hope you will read the other books, which are. Personally I'd recommend reading them in the order written, Southern Mail, NIght Flight, then Flight to Arras.
But maybe you should write your own account first? - or maybe they would inspire you? I often find that reading good writers is inspiring. Have a good time in the south
M xx