Today is July 31, 2016. There are 153 days left in the year and only 99 days left until we elect a new President.
Seventy-two years ago today, the French writer, poet, philosopher, journalist, and pioneering aviator, Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint-Exupéry took off from an airbase on the island of Corsica on a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean Sea. He was flying an unarmed Lockheed P-38 Lightning American fighter aircraft. He did not return to the airbase. Pilot and plane simply vanished without a trace.
Many pilots vanished on missions during World War II, but Antoine Saint-Exupéry was not just another pilot. He was a French national treasure. He was also a French patriot determined to serve his country. When the Germans invaded France in May, 1940, Saint-Exupéry joined the French Air Force. Faced with imminent defeat in late June, France asked for an armistice and exited the war. Saint-Exupéry would not accept defeat. After spending 27 months in the United States campaigning for America’s entry into the war, he joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa.
Saint Exupéry’s literary career began in 1926 with the publication of L’Aviateur (The Aviator) in the French literary magazine Le Navire d’Argent (The Silver Ship). A short novel, Night Flight (Vol de nuit) appeared in 1931. It was based on his experience flying the mail in Argentina. Night Flight became an international best seller.
Wind, Sand and Stars (Terre des hommes) appeared in 1939. It was an autobiography, a memoir, in which Saint-Exupéry presents his philosophy of what makes life worth living. “The book’s themes deal with friendship, death, heroism, camaraderie and solidarity among colleagues, humanity and the search for meaning in life” (www.wikiwand.com/en/Wind, _Sand_and_Stars).
Saint-Exupéry may well have remained a literary figure known mainly to his countrymen and a few students of modern literature were it not for a short novella published a year before his death. He wrote and illustrated The Little Prince during the 27 months he lived as an expatriate in New York City.
“Everyone knows the basic bones of the story: an aviator, downed in the desert and facing long odds of survival, encounters a strange young person, neither man nor really boy, who, it emerges over time, has travelled from his solitary home on a distant asteroid, where he lives alone with a single rose. The rose has made him so miserable that, in torment, he has taken advantage of a flock of birds to convey him to other planets. He is instructed by a wise if cautious fox, and by a sinister angel of death, the snake” (Adam Gopnik, “The Strange Triumph of ‘The Little Prince,’” The New Yorker, April 29, 2014).
The Little Prince was received with mixed reviews, when it first appeared. It spent only two weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, whereas Wind, Sand and Stars remained there for five months when it first appeared in 1939. Readers were confused. Was it a children’s book? Was it meant for adults? Was it an allegory, or perhaps a serious philosophical book? What was it really about?
Volumes have been written trying to figure out who or what the various characters—the prince, the fox, the snake—represent, or where in Saint-Exupéry’s life they are found. Once when asked who the Little Prince was, he replied: “I am the prince.”
Over the years since its first appearance, The Little Prince has been translated into 250 languages and dialects. It continues to sell two million copies annually, and with total sales exceeding 140 million copies, it is one of the best-selling books ever published.
Why its lasting appeal? The answer to that question can be found within the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of most editions: “There are few stories which in some way, in some degree, change the world forever for their readers. This is one.”
Part of the mystery surrounding Saint-Exupéry and the Little Prince is that they both fell out of the sky and disappeared forever. At least that was the case until September, 1998, when a French fisherman fishing off the coast of France south of Marseille, discovered caught in his nets a silver identity bracelet with Saint-Exupéry’s name on it and that of his wife Consuelo. The bracelet was later verified as that belonging to Saint-Exupéry. In May, 2000, the remains of his Lockheed P-38 were discovered near where the bracelet was previously found.
There remains at least one mystery that leaves this blogger wanting to know more of Saint-Exupéry’s disappearance. A few days after Saint-Exupéry’s disappearance, “[a]n unidentifiable body in a French [military] uniform” was found washed up on a beach south of Marseille. Was it Saint-Exupéry? We will never know.
I close with this quote from the Little Prince. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The unabridged audio book of The Little Prince can be found on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTi536xVuw4
Until next time be good to all God’s creation and always go under the mercy.