(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

SAINT-EXUPERY is a sensitive and readable biography of the author of WIND, SAND, AND STARS (1939) and THE LITTLE PRINCE (1943). Stacy Schiff’s first book is an excellent re- creation of the French aviator and his times.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, born in 1900, was the scion of an aristocratic family. His father died when he was three, leaving the family in financial difficulties. Although he began writing plays and poems as a child, he was an indifferent student. He failed to obtain a commission in the French navy, failed at selling trucks, failed in his first and most of his subsequent romantic endeavors. Nevertheless, he developed a passion for airplanes as a young boy and learned to fly while in the military. In 1926, he joined the foremost French airmail service, first in North Africa and then in South America.

Using his flying experiences, Saint-Exupery blended brilliant writing with tales of adventure, courage, and perseverance in several highly acclaimed works: SOUTHERN MAIL (1933), NIGHT FLIGHT (1932), WIND, SAND, AND STARS, FLIGHT TO ARRAS (1942), and most lastingly for his fame, THE LITTLE PRINCE, his story of lost childhood. He seemingly knew everyone from Andre Gide to Charles Lindbergh, was a popular companion, enjoyed food, wine, women, song, and performing card tricks, but Schiff’s Saint-Ex, as he was sometimes called, remained partially at odds with adult life.

Finding it difficult to take sides in the polarized ideological world of the 1930’s, with the outbreak of World War II Saint-Exupery alienated both the appeasers from Vichy and Charles de Gaulle’s resistance movement. While flying a reconnaissance mission in July of 1944, he was reported missing in action. His body was never found. Schiff has written a fascinating account of this complex man, a brave and often foolhardy pilot and a writer of great style and substance, who never entirely abandoned his childhood.

Sources for Further Study

Air and Space/Smithsonian. IX, October, 1994, p. 94.

Boston Globe. December 11, 1994, p. 38.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 6, 1994, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. C, January 8, 1995, p. 33.

The New Yorker. LXX, December 5, 1994, p. 141.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, November 27, 1994, p. 4.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, possibly the most popular French writer of the twentieth century, was a study in contradictions. He was born into an aristocratic family in 1900, but his father’s death when he was three left the family in difficult financial circumstances. Because of his background, he had entree into the upper reaches of French society, but he was most at home among those who shared his love of flying. Attractive to women, his marriage was unsatisfactory. An archetypal Frenchman who refused to learn English, he preferred the deserts of Africa and the lonely landscapes of South America. His single ruling passion was in flying, and while he was brave, he could be foolhardy—a superb pilot who was also extremely careless. He was the author of a number of literary works, but the one he was most proud of was published only after his death and is considered a failure. The book that has maintained the fame of the noted French author was written in New York City, and is the story of a young boy from another planet in love with a rose. Perhaps that is the explanation of Saint-Ex, as he was sometimes called. In many ways he remained a child, never entirely compatible with adulthood and its society. Saint-Exupéry, nicknamed the “Sun King” as a boy because of his golden curls, is the “little prince” of his famous fable. He is also the aviator-narrator of the story.

Stacy Schiff has written a brilliant biography of Saint-Exupéry. Her approach is not hagiography: Her Saint-Ex was no saint. Neither does she assume that her subject had only feet of clay. Her biography is a sensitive, comprehensive recitation of the life of the aviator-author, both balanced and nuanced. Schiff is an excellent guide to Saint-Exupéry’s large circle of friends and acquaintances in France and elsewhere. She also exhibits considerable knowledge and insight regarding his literary works. Fittingly, like her subject, she writes extremely well.

Schiff begins her saga of Saint-Exupéry’s life not with his birth—that is presented later—but in 1927 and 1928 when he was in charge of an airfield at Cape Juby in the Western Sahara, six hundred miles south of Casablanca. The field served la ligne, the line, Áeropostale, the pioneering airmail service established in the years after the Great War when French aviation was supreme. Many would have complained about the heat, the humidity, and the desolation of Cape Juby, but not Saint-Exupéry. It was the wind, sand, and stars that captivated him.

Saint-Exupéry was a man born out of his time, and although he enjoyed life and had many friends, there was often a loneliness at his core. An indifferent student in school, he began writing poems and plays as a child, waking up his sisters and cousins in the middle of the night so that he could read to them his latest efforts, a habit he continued to inflict on his friends throughout his life. He became passionately interested in flight in the excitement generated by Wilbur Wright’s flights in France in 1908 and 1909; Saint-Exupéry first went aloft in 1912. In 1920, he failed to secure a naval commission. He considered architecture as an alternative and was forced to live on the largesse of his mother, another habit he continued much of his life. Called up for military service in 1921, he used his charm and contacts in order to take flying lessons. After his military service, he returned to Paris and fell in love for the first time. His first real job was selling trucks in rural France, but he had no more success in this than in love.

He continued to fly sporadically after leaving military service. His first short story, “L’Aviateur,” was published in 1926, and in the same year he obtained a position with Compagnie Latécoère, France’s leading airmail firm. It was with this firm that Saint-Exupéry came closest to finding a home and family. The operations director was Didier Daurat, a World War I hero, whom Saint-Exupéry memorialized in fictional form in Vol de nuit (1931; Night Flight, 1932). Flying with Latécoère were Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet, who became his tutors and close comrades and were also featured in his writings: Guillaumet’s crash in the Andes and his heroic survival became one of the central stories of Saint-Exupéry’s Terre des hommes (1939; Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939). Flying in those years was a risky adventure; airplanes were still primitive and pilots were lost on a frequent basis. In 1929, he published his first novel, Courrier sud (Southern Mail, 1933). In the same year, he was sent to South America to open airmail service from Buenos Aires to Patagonia.

In 1930, he met his future wife: Consuelo Gomez Carrillo, the widow of a...

(The entire section is 1948 words.)