Saint-Exupéry

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350

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....

(The entire section contains 2298 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Saint-Exupéry study guide. You'll get access to all of the Saint-Exupéry content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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.

Saint-Exupéry

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1948

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 journalist. Schiff describes her as rash, volatile, and bohemian. It was a tumultuous relationship; before long Saint-Exupéry concluded that he could not live comfortably with Consuelo, but he could not live without her. They never established a permanent home and the extravagances of both led to continuous crises over money. Through the years he had a series of close women friends, particularly a Madame de B, whom he met in 1929. An important source for Schiff, she remains unidentified in the biography because she was still alive at the time of publication.

The French edition of Night Flight was published in 1931 to excellent reviews. In it, Daurat is transformed into Rivière, an operations manager stationed in Buenos Aires, waiting for three airmail pilots to arrive. Ironically, as Saint-Exupéry was making Áeropostale famous, the company was collapsing. By the mid-1930’s, against his will, Saint-Exupéry had become more a man of letters than a pilot. Money remained a problem, and he engaged in journalism, including a trip to Russia, and wrote screenplays, generally unsuccessfully. He frequented the literary cafes on Paris’ Left Bank, particularly Deux-Magots and Brasserie Lipp. He was always a popular companion, a marvelous storyteller who also loved to sing and perform clever card tricks. Yet flying remained his first love. In part because of boredom, partially because of the challenge, and not least because of the monetary prize connected with the endeavor, in late 1935, Saint-Exupéry attempted a flight to Saigon. He crashed in the Libyan desert, where he barely survived a four-day ordeal. This incident became one of the memorable sections of Wind, Sand, and Stars. Unfortunately, Mermoz did not survive a flight in the South Atlantic in 1936. By the end of the 1930’s, few of his contemporaries from la ligne days were still alive, and Europe had again entered the maelstrom of war.

Saint-Exupéry served as a journalist in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, but in the ideological battles of the 1930’s he refused to take sides, finding common bonds of courage and humanity in all quarters. In 1938, he traveled to New York for the first time, and subsequently suffered severe injuries in a crash in Guatemala. Wind, Sand, and Stars came out in 1939 to excellent reviews and substantial sales. In France, it won the prestigious Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Française; in America, it was voted the best work of nonfiction for 1939 by the American Booksellers Association. Returning to New York, he met Charles Lindbergh, another famous pilot, and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The latter was particularly impressed by Saint-Exupéry, referring to him as her sun, moon, or star.

When war broke out in September, 1939, Saint-Exupéry, a captain in the reserve, hoped to return to active flying duty. His health and his age were against him, but as usual he prevailed and was assigned to a reconnaissance group. In May, 1940, he flew several hopeless flights during the fall of France. Those experiences were later recounted in Pilote de guerre (1942; Flight to Arras, 1942). After France’s surrender in June, Saint-Exupéry was demobilized. Refusing to join Charles de Gaulle’s London resistance movement, he decided to go to the United States instead, hoping to encourage American support against Germany. While in transit, in Lisbon, he heard that Guillaumet had been killed. Saint-Exupéry arrived in New York in late December, intending to stay four weeks. He remained two years, in difficult and controversial circumstances. By refusing to ally himself with any of the various political factions, he managed to displease both the Gaullists and the representatives from the Vichy regime, which had capitulated to the Germans. When Flight to Arras was published in France, both sides attacked it. Although he had many American friends, he refused to learn English, claiming that he had not yet finished learning French. A series of affairs consoled him, emotionally as much as physically, and they continued even after Consuelo’s arrival, whose appearances always created turmoil. During those convulsions, personal and public, he wrote his most famous work, The Little Prince (1943), which acute readers such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh perceived was his personal tale of lost childhood. Finally, in April of 1943, he set sail again.

He rejoined his old reconnaissance group in North Africa, once again using his contacts and charm to get himself back in the air. In August, however, he cracked up his P-38 Lightning in a landing and was taken off flight duty for eight months. The Americans distrusted his flying abilities; de Gaulle, now firmly entrenched in North Africa, resented his political neutrality. It was not until May, 1944, after considerable begging and pleading, that Saint-Exupéry was reinstated. On July 31, 1944, he and his plane, another P-38, were reported missing. His body was never recovered.

His friends were not surprised; he had been predicting his own death for the past several years, and in the weeks before his disappearance he had given away several personal items. Consuelo and his mother shared the income from his literary estate, and Madame de B was his literary executor. Citadelle (1948, The Wisdom of the Sands, 1950) was published posthumously, but widely criticized for its platitudes. The Little Prince was eventually translated into eighty languages, and Saint-Exupéry and his little prince appeared on the French fifty-franc note. Although his books have remained extremely popular, his critical reputation has suffered, especially in France, in part, Schiff argues, because his writings are not easily categorized. As a person, he is also difficult to categorize. Schiff writes that “he could sound every ounce the adventurer but he remained as much the vulnerable, anguished child. . . . Rarely realistic, never practical, he was as overly human as he was larger than life.”

In Saint-Exupéry, Schiff has produced a model biography. Saint-Exupéry’s professional life was bifurcated between that of the aviator and the author. Obviously his success as a writer was conditioned on his accomplishments as a pilot, but he never easily reconciled the two, feeling compelled to do and be both. His private life was largely the story of unfulfillment. His marriage was less than satisfactory but he could never let it go, and his many liaisons were generally fleeting. His most crucial relationship was with his mother, and in that Saint-Exupéry, even as an adult, always remained the child. Schiff handles his many relationships—as author, as flier, as friend and lover—with clarity and sympathy. She has successfully captured a captivating figure, who might well be surprised that his fame has endured because of his Little Prince—or perhaps not.

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.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Saint-Exupéry Study Guide

Subscribe Now