It's the birth anniversary this month of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French writer who gave us one of the classic works of children's literature in The Little Prince, that philosophical story about a star-child's search for meaning in the cosmos. Since that book first appeared in 1943, it has sold over 50 million copies, and it still sells a million copies a year. It's translated into over a hundred languages, and some have even ventured to claim that it's the most read book in the world after the Bible and the Koran.
Saint-Exupery, the son of a genteel French family, took to the risky life of an aviator rather than a safer and more earth-bound occupation. In fact, he helped to pioneer the mail routes from France to South America and was one of the early practitioners of night flying -- one of the most dangerous facets of aviation at the time, and something he wrote about in one of his other books, Night Flight. For a time in the 1930s, he was in charge of an isolated air strip in North Africa, where his job was to rescue flyers who had crashed in the desert. From all reports, he loved that posting best of all, and he made it the setting for The Little Prince. He wrote the book while he was living in New York in the 1940s, after the German occupation of France had driven him abroad. Like the downed pilot who narrates the story, he was restless to get back in the air. His marriage to the temperamental Counselo Saint-Exupery was difficult at best, and her demanding nature may well have been the inspiration for the Little Prince's rose. Though he was classified as being too old to fly in combat, Saint-Exupery tried everything he could to get back into the French Air Force when the Allies were retaking Europe, and he eventually succeeded, only to vanish over the Mediterranean in July of 1944, while on a reconaissance mission. The remains of his plane have only recently been found, but without those of its pilot.
Like the narrator of The Little Prince, Saint-Exupery was something of an artist who often drew, cryptic, mysterious pictures. And one of the things that he sketched for years on any handy scrap of paper or convenient piece of tablecloth, was the portrait of a boy very much like the character who would become the Little Prince. When asked by interviewers who it was, Saint-Exupery is said to have replied that the drawing was "just a little fellow I carry around in my heart" -- that eternal, cosmic child, the prince of Asteroid B-612, whose voice is a laughing star.
Copyright 2004 © John Cech
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