Happy in Heaven

Patrick O’Brian

  • Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Life and Death of the Little Prince by Paul Webster
    Macmillan, 276 pp, £17.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 333 54872 8

In France there have been many studies of Saint-Exupéry since his death in 1944; the five books he published are continually kept in print; and Le Petit Prince is to be found everywhere. In England his following was never so great, and although he remains a very well-known name he has not attracted anything like as much critical or biographical attention: this book, however, provides a full account of his life, with a good deal of information that is not to be found elsewhere.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900, the eldest son of a considerable southern family with offshoots and connections, some of them very grand, all over France. These particular Saint-Exupérys were somewhat reduced (Antoine’s father worked in an insurance office), but they and their relations still owned estates and large country houses with plenty of servants to look after them. Monsieur de Saint-Exupéry died of a stroke in 1904 and his young widow and five children went to live with her great-aunt at the château of Saint-Maurice-de-Rémens, thirty miles north-east of Lyon, a house with an immense garden, mountains in the distance and country all around. This was the true home of Saint-Exupéry’s childhood, and in retrospect the happiest, perhaps the only happy, time of his life. He was the heir, the little prince, with an adored and adoring mother and no male authority nearer than a grandfather in Lyon. Madame de Saint-Exupéry was far more highly cultivated than most country gentlewomen of her time (or of ours), and she sang, played and read to her children, and told them stories: she was certainly the strongest influence in her son’s life.

This paradise was lost when the two Saint-Exupéry boys were sent to school, first to a cold, harsh establishment at Le Mans, run on Jesuit lines, which prepared boys for the Army with some success: a traditional, right-wing, royalist place, with anti-semitism taken for granted. Antoine was unhappy there, and he did badly. Still, there were the holidays at Saint-Maurice; and in the nearby town of Ambérieu a pioneer had laid out an airfield. This was at the time of the great national enthusiasm for flying after Blériot’s crossing of the Channel; and in 1911 the airfield became a flying-school, whose proceedings were watched by the fascinated local boys, none more fascinated than Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Soon he was taken up for a joy-ride – never was the word so utterly appropriate – and his fate was sealed. Then came a school in Switzerland, still Catholic, of course, but much kinder, and by 1917 he had passed his baccalauréat. After that, since his family wanted him to have a career in the Navy, always something of a royalist preserve, he went to Paris to cram for the entrance examination. He studied at the Lycée Saint-Louis, a state school, but boarded at Bossuet, a private Catholic place, where he became much attached to the Abbé Sudour, one of the outstanding masters.

By this time, with the war at its height, like all his friends, he was longing to join the fray; but his views on the Navy had changed and he said that when the time came he would join the Artillery and apply for a transfer to the Air Force. At last the time did come: he was medically examined and found fit for service. Then, almost on the day he should have joined his unit, the war ended. He missed the experience entirely: this made him feel inferior, and not long afterwards he failed the naval examination. He was called up for military service when he was 21 and joined the Air Force as a mechanic, at the same time taking private flying lessons at a nearby civilian airfield, lessons connived at by his commanding officer and paid for, though with great reluctance, by his mother, who hated the whole idea. Eventually he reached an officer-cadet school, passed out successfully and was made a second-lieutenant. He was posted to Le Bourget and three months later he crashed, fracturing his skull.

When he recovered he left the Air Force; and living in Paris had a hopeless, wounding affair with Louise de Vilmorin, who left him because he talked too much about ‘the sublime moments between heaven and earth’. Loquacity was a failing often mentioned by those who knew Saint-Exupéry, and it grew on him; but at this period he kept it in check well enough to make a living as a clerk and then as a travelling lorry-salesman, his flow of words being confined to very long letters, often illustrated, to friends and relations, and to a novel. He had a cousin who entertained the literary world of Paris: through her he came to know Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, and through them most of the considerable writers in the city, including Jean Prévost, the editor of Le Navire d’argent, who published a shortened version of his novel, which later became Courrier sud.

Yet flying still meant far, far more to Saint-Exupéry than anything else. He found life as a salesman intolerably dreary and he pined for the sky. The Abbé Sudour, who had innumerable contacts, came to his rescue and arranged a meeting with a man in the company that became the Aéropostale. This led to his, engagement as a pilot, to years of flying, first carrying the mail from Toulouse to Morocco and then taking charge of a remote and primitive airstrip at Cape Juby. This meant flying over the Sahara, where forced landings and crashes were made even worse by the warlike tribes who were apt to cut the pilots’ throats or hold them to ransom. Saint-Exupéry came down from time to time himself. ‘He was not a great flyer,’ said one of his colleagues, who preferred going up with a ‘real airman’: ‘he was always thinking about something else.’ However, he survived, having a great deal of fun, showing visiting pilots his cardtricks, singing and keeping desert pets; he also developed a mystic respect for the emptiness of the Sahara, for the sand, the wind and the stars – a mysticism that embraced the act of flying. He did so well at Cape Juby that the airline sent him to Buenos Aires to help set up a network covering much of South America. Here he gathered a great deal of experience, and hundreds of hours of flying time, taking his plane right down to Tierra del Fuego or across the Andes to Chile, meeting splendid pilots and having many adventures. Three years in Africa and South America were Saint-Exupéry’s heroic period, and the happiest other than his childhood at Saint-Maurice: they had something of the nature of war, and it has often been observed that war does not ripen men for ordinary life. He recounted his experiences in one form or another with great effect in Courrier sud and Vol de nuit, embellishing wherever he saw fit – at no time was he ever hampered by literal accuracy.

Vol de nuit came out in 1931, with a Preface by André Gide, to a kind reception from everyone except his fellow pilots (it won the Prix Fémina), and in the same year he married Consuelo Suncin, whom he had met in Buenos Aires at an Alliance Française party. She came from E1 Salvador and she was the widow of Enrique Gomez Carrillo, an Argentinian born in Guatemala. There is no point in talking about her age or background, since both varied, but she was small, quite pretty and very full of life, and she had artistic leanings. The marriage was hopeless from the start, not only for the obvious reasons but also because both were compulsive talkers and both were convinced that it was better to receive than to give.

This same year saw Aéropostale heading for disaster, and the young couple had no certain future. For the time being Saint-Exupéry flew the mail south from Casablanca while Consuelo stayed, alone for the most part, in the dreary colonial society of the base. Misfortunes followed one another. Aéropostale staggered from crisis to crisis; the house at Saint-Maurice was sold and Saint-Exupéry had to help his mother to move; since he and his wife were extravagant he tried to make extra money by journalism, only to find that it stopped his writing; he left the moribund airline, joined Latécoère as a test pilot and crashed a seaplane, coming very near to killing all four men aboard. He was dismissed for incompetence.

This was roughly the pattern until the outbreak of the war, with Saint-Exupéry making do by expedients (his royalties could not keep a Bugatti and a private plane), the couple quarrelling, coming together again, living in a semi-detached manner or quite separately. Saint-Exupéry always found writing very hard, perpetually revising; now he found it harder still; and a frustrated writer is often a disagreeable one, sometimes startlingly so: from this point the book grows less reverential. Consuelo found him and his incessant talk a bore: Nelly de Vogüé did not. She was a much more intelligent woman than Consuelo, not only highly literate but perfectly conversant with stocks and shares as well. She was of the utmost help in the preparation of Terre des hommes, a collection of often rewritten newspaper articles, reflections and essays, which was published in 1939 to great acclaim. The Académie Française awarded him the Grand Prix du Roman and the book was a bestseller in the States.

This dealt with the difficulty about money: it left everything else unchanged; and war was rapidly approaching. Saint-Exupéry cut short a visit to America and on 4 September he reported to the air force base at Toulouse: using all his influence he managed to get posted to a high-level reconnaissance group in the Marne, despite unfavourable medical reports. In spring of 1940 he carried out a few experimental flights in the new fast plane with which the unit was equipped, the Bloch 174, but it was not until 22 May, well after the German offensive had begun, that he was sent out over Arras with an escort of five Dewoitine fighters. Cloud forced them to fly low and they were scarcely in sight of the blazing town before they ran into anti-aircraft fire and six Messerschmidts. Saint-Exupéry took refuge in a cloud and raced home: two of his escort were shot down. This was the basis for his book Pilote de guerre. He made some other sorties before the retreat became general and chaotic. From a temporary base at Nangis he hurried over to Consuelo’s house and gave her enough petrol to drive down to the Riviera; his group then moved south by stages, reaching Tunis in August. By this time Pétain Main had asked for an armistice; de Gaulle had made his appeal from London; and the Royal Navy had destroyed the French fleet at Mers el-Kebir to prevent it falling into the hands of the Germans. Some of his friends urged Saint-Exupéry to join the Free French, but he would not. He had no opinion of Pétain and still less of the French high command, unprepared and incompetent; but he could not bear the idea of fighting other Frenchmen. He was convinced that the Germans were so strong that further resistance would only mean still more death and destruction; besides, he disliked what he had heard of de Gaulle.

He was demobilised, and at the end of the year he sailed for New York at the invitation of his publishers to promote Wind, Sand and Stars (the translation of Terre des hommes). The Gaullists in America turned against him because he was not on their side: yet he was not a Pétainist either – he refused an appointment to the Vichy Conseil national du Governement – and between the two he had a wretched time of it. He was never happy in the States, and certainly his less agreeable traits such as selfishness and want of consideration and of self-discipline grew more pronounced. Bringing Consuelo over made no apparent difference: he still telephoned his friends and acquaintances at all hours to read them great passages of his most recent work, and he was capable of getting Consuelo out of bed twice in the same night to make him scrambled eggs.

He was in a shockingly false position: his heroes had been examples of fortitude, steadfastness and self-transcendence, to say nothing of courage and honour; and now, with the world ablaze and many of his friends flying with the RAF, he was doing nothing. He still maintained that French efforts against Germany were wrong, because the Germans controlled the supplies of axle-grease, without which the trains could not run, and France would starve.

It was at this time that he wrote Le Petit Prince, ostensibly a children’s book about a little boy he met, having crashed in the desert. This child owned a small planet where there grew a rose; it needed his protection, but even so he wandered about the universe. Some people found the tale embarrassing, but many more delighted in it: a usual interpretation is that the rose stands for Consuelo, the child for Saint-Exupéry.

By the time the book was published the Germans no longer had the monopoly of axle-grease; America was thoroughly committed to the war; the Allies were in North Africa; and in April 1943, after a last and violent quarrel with his wife, Saint-Exupéry sailed to join his unit. Although the Gaullists disliked him heartily, he was given leave to fly and eventually he returned to active service, training on an advanced American reconnaissance plane, the P38 Lightning. In July he carried out a mission over the south of France, which delighted him; but the next was disastrous – engine trouble and a misjudged landing which wrecked the plane. He was grounded until 1944, a period of extreme depression, active social life and chess with André Gide, who tended to cheat when unobserved. The next summer he took to the air again. He made seven high-level reconnaissance flights, still in the P38 Lightning, and on 31 July he set out for his eighth. He did not return, nor was the wreckage of the plane ever found.

During his lifetime Saint-Exupéry’s writing inspired many of his readers with a mysticism resembling his own, and after his disappearance this mysticism extended to his person, exciting a very great concern with the exact nature of his end. There were and are many theories, certain people holding that he was not dead at all, while others comb the bed of the Mediterranean to this day, and some – Paul Webster is one – cannot make up their minds. His book begins with an apparently factual account: ‘A few minutes after midday, the distinctive twin-boom Lightning roared into view at a low altitude to the west of Nice, twisted towards the sea and disappeared in the Baie des Anges between Nice and Monaco. Behind the Lightning, German fighters pulled out of a dive and returned to report the “kill” to their base.’ It ends by saying, ‘Half a century after Saint-Exupéry’s death, the exact circumstances remain a mystery,’ by referring to his unsatisfactory marriage and by implying that his death was voluntary: ‘Antoine needed a selfless guardian angel to re-create the security and consolation he had felt long ago in his mother’s arms.’

Perhaps: but what is quite certain is that Madame de Saint-Exupéry was an uncommonly gifted and amiable woman, more gifted, say friends who knew them both, than her son, and far more amiable. When she was a small child she planted a plane tree at the château of La Môle, her family home, and sixty years later, when it was towering high above her, she wrote J’ écoute chanter mon arbre, an enchanting book in which she describes her Provence, her life and her family in such a way that Saint-Exupéry’s reluctance to leave a childhood spent with such a person and in such surroundings is wholly comprehensible.