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April 18, 2004: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - requiescant in pace - but not likely.

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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - requiescant in pace – sort of... maybe.


Four years ago divers off the coast of Marseille discovered the wreck of a Lockheed Lightning P38 that crashed into the Mediterranean there in 1944 – I still have a copy of Le Figaro Magazine with the pictures.  The speculation was that this was the P38 flown by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) on that last flight where he disappeared forever.  Two years before that a local fisherman pulled had the fellow’s silver identity bracelet from his net.  ASo it had to be his plane.  Last week the airplane’s serial number had been confirmed.  That was his plane down there.  Case closed.


You will find more details here from Stacy Schiff, the author of "Saint-Exupéry: A Biography," and currently writing a book about Benjamin Franklin's years in Paris.


'Le Petit Prince:' A dream that will never end

Stacy Schiff, New York Times and International Herald Tribune, Monday, April 12, 2004


… At 8:45 a.m. on July 31, 1944, Saint-Exupéry took off from Corsica for a reconnaissance mission over occupied France.  He was due back at 12:30 p.m. but did not return.  At 1, his commander began biting his nails; at 3:30, Saint-Exupéry was officially reported missing.  In April 1945, a funeral Mass was finally held for him.

He never exactly died, however.  On reading of his disappearance, Anne Morrow Lindbergh put her finger on the special ache it caused.  There is a terrible difference, wrote a woman supremely qualified to know, between lost and dead.  There is also a not-so-secret recipe for what becomes a legend most.


And the hero-myth took off.  Sort of…


The discovery resolves one mystery about Saint-Exupéry's end: He was - by no means a given - where he was supposed to be.  His instructions that day would have taken him over Lyon, and it was evidently on the return to Corsica that his P-38 dived vertically, at high speed, into the ocean.  The question of why the plane crashed is unlikely to be resolved by the scattered debris; that it crashed could not be said to have been unexpected.  Saint-Exupéry was his squadron's record-holder of near-disasters.  Having waged a campaign to talk his way back into active service, he was piloting a plane into which he did not fit and which he could not comfortably fly.  He was unable to communicate with the control tower in English.  The operation of hydraulic brakes defied him.  Routinely, he confused feet and meters.


The French pilots in Corsica knew Saint-Exupéry as a prize-winning author and a pioneer of aviation.  The Americans knew him only as an outsized, over-age, undertrained wreck of a man, one who only eight weeks into his time with them mangled an $80,000 aircraft.  For that mishap he was unceremoniously grounded.  He begged for leniency; he was, he protested, willing to die for his country.  "I don't give a damn if you die for France or not," Colonel Leon Gray informed Saint-Exupéry, "but you're not going to do so in one of our airplanes." 


Quite a writer.  Not much of a pilot it would seem.  And some have suggested the steep dive indicates this was a suicide.  And perhaps it was.


But what do we know that would make us think that?


Most of us know Saint-Exupéry as the author "The Little Prince."  This was first published in 1943 in French and English and is said to be one of the best-selling books in the world, surpassed only by the Bible and "Das Kapital."  It still sells over a million copies each year.


But the problem is the man was French, and of course, in the conservative, pro-Bush, pro-war Wall Street Journal that won’t do.


See From the Murky Depths
Fathoming the lasting appeal of Saint-Exupéry and "The Little Prince."
Benjamin Ivry, Thursday, April 15, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT


Ivry asks the question that really puzzles him.  What motivates “the sainted exuberance” of Saint-Exupéry's many fans?


And he tries out this:


Part of the fascination is the Frenchman's Hemingwayesque identity as a man of action.  Saint-Exupéry was never a flawless pilot, and he survived a number of serious crashes.  Nevertheless, he flew mail planes in South America in the 1920s, including a mountain route from Buenos Aires to Patagonia that inspired his 1931 novel "Night Flight" as well as a 1938 essay collection, "Wind, Sand and Stars."  Determinedly active, Saint-Exupéry appealed as an aviator to the great French film director Jean Renoir, who hoped to film his works (he never did).  In Renoir's "Rules of the Game" (1939), a heroic French aviator unhappy in love may owe something to Saint-Exupéry, who had a stormy personal life.


Like Renoir, Saint-Exupéry hearkened back to the gallant days of French combat in World War I, an anachronistic attitude in the late 1930s, when France was readying for abject capitulation.  Saint-Exupéry had so little grasp of practical political realities that while no fan of the Nazis, he loudly expressed his loathing of Charles de Gaulle, even when de Gaulle was clearly the strongest alternative to Marshall Pétain's collaborationist government.


You see where this is going.  Saint-Exupéry was a GOOD French fellow, not one of these current cheese-eating surrender monkeys, these overly suave poetry-writing backstabbing diplomatic types who love to embarrass America and won’t fight beside us in our wars on terror and evil.  Saint-Exupéry, on the other hand, was a child of the Great War (WWI) – where folks didn’t cut and run.  They died with their boots on and all that.  They don’t make them like that anymore.  And so on and so forth….


Naturally Ivry decides “The Little Prince” is so popular because, well, it isn’t very French at all.   Ah ha!  Saint-Exupéry’s politics were not that logical – just gut reactions – and he wasn’t subtle.  He wrote like an American.


But then, logic is not what draws Saint-Exupéry's fans to this most un-French of writers, whose books have none of the Gallic virtues of irony, juridical dryness and clarity of prose.  In his first novel, "Courrier-Sud" ("Southern Mail," 1929), about a mail flight from France to North Africa, Saint-Exupéry praises "those elemental divinities--night, day, mountain, sea and storm."  This literally high-flying prose can seem as clunky as "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," even in the original.  Yet his fans do not complain.


Instead, they relish Saint-Exupéry's murky observations, excerpted in "A Guide For Grown-ups: Essential Wisdom from the Collected Works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry" (Harcourt), edited by Anna M. Burgard.  Some gems follow: "love is not thinking, but being"; "in giving you are throwing a bridge across the chasm of your solitude"; and "friendship is born from an identity of spiritual goals--from common navigation toward a star."  Being Saint-Exupéry means never having to say you're sorry.


So Saint-Exupéry is “murky” in his logic and full of platitudes and is constitutionally unable to say he’s sorry?  Gee, this sounds a lot like George Bush!


And, and as with Bush, you shouldn’t look too closely –


… analyzing individual sentences of Saint-Exupéry is a futile task, for he was a writer for whom the big and noble gesture was everything. 


That’s it.  Courage and the big and noble gesture.  Screw logic, and screw coherence.  And note this:


One of his descendents, a distinguished journalist at Le Figaro, has just done him proud, publishing this month a bold and courageous indictment of French foreign policy in Rwanda: "L'Inavouable: La France au Rwanda" (Les Arènes Publishers).  A veteran war reporter, Patrick de Saint-Exupéry suggests that the French armed and trained those guilty of genocide in Rwanda.  To publish this inevitably unwelcome news in France takes the kind of courage that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has been celebrated for.  It is only fitting that a tiny bit of the long-dead novelist's lasting celebrity and acclaim spill over onto Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, who is just as courageous and enterprising as his esteemed ancestor, and an impressively precise and attentive writer.


Ah, you see there are good French people, and BAD ones.  Saint-Exupéry and his descendents are the good kind, of which, Ivry implies, there are very few left.  Most, it would seem, are cowards.


Well, anything can be politicized.


Stacy Schiff, the biographer, avoids that with this comment on this fellow who wrote about the Little Prince.  Did he commit suicide?


  He had long outlived the era in which he felt comfortable; he could imagine himself nowhere but in the cockpit of a plane.  He had all his life dreamed of escape, pined for broader horizons, threatened to change planets.  More and more he felt alienated from his own countrymen, whose infighting he had criticized; fiercely anti-Nazi, he supported neither de Gaulle nor the communists.  He predicted that liberation would not put France out of its misery.  "Many people," he warned in 1944, "are going to be shot next year."  In a particularly bleak mood he imagined himself to be one of them.


From his personal frustrations and his inability to make his political positions understood came "The Little Prince," the modest volume under which has swelled a great grassy knoll of literature.  Published in 1943 but a best seller only later, the text read eerily as a death foretold, its mystique enhanced by the parallel between author and subject: imperious innocents whose lives consist of equal parts flight and failed love, who fall to earth, are little impressed with what they find here and ultimately disappear without a trace.


And that is the opposite of courage and political savvy.  That’s just knowing too much about the real world to be all romantic about life, but wishing you could be.  Try your best, lose, get your heart broken, then fly again.  Repeat as necessary.  Then disappear.  That’s that.  Fin.


Schiff suggests that Saint-Exupéry had no desire to go on living – that was clear - and that he meant to kill himself is not clear at all.   Ambiguous to the end.  So French.  And so fatalistic, and perhaps overly-dramatic.  Makes you want to suck on a Gauloises or Gitanes and pretend you’re in that bleak François Truffaut film about the piano player, and you’re Charles Aznavour with sad eyes, watching a sad world, in the rain.


Making Saint-Exupéry into a poster boy for neoconservative Bush Republican values is too much of a stretch.  But an amusing stretch.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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