A coughing rose, a crashed plane and space travel. It can only be
The Little Prince
Written and illustrated by
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Born in Lyon 29 June 1900, Saint-Ex as he was known, was a hulking 6ft tall aristocratic French comte from a traditionally reactionary Catholic background. He was also a pioneering aviator (he learnt to fly when he was twelve) and philanderer whose mistresses were resented by his Salvadorean wife Consuelo. Despite the couple’s stormy relationship, St-Ex promised to return to her after the war, saying that if he was killed: ‘I will have someone to wait for in eternity’. St-Ex had joined the air force and had been decorated during the fall of France. He took refuge in the US but rejoined his squadron in 1942 although officially too old to fly Lightnings. He died on a reconnaissance mission flying over the littoral of southern France near his childhood chateau on 31 July 1944.
The recent discovery of St-Ex’s identity bracelet, 300ft below the surface of the Mediterranean, engraved with Consuelo’s name and contact address in New York, implies that she was indeed still close to his heart, something that was refuted after his death by his family. They reviled Consuelo’s memory, trying to exclude her from biographies and denying that The Little Prince was a metaphor for his relationship with her. One mistress, the aristocratic Hélène de Vogüé, even wrote a biography which reduced Consuelo to one paragragh. St-Ex’s mythophile descendants are now opposing a seabed search for his wrecked aircraft.
Almost simultaneously in French, and in an English translation by Katherine Woods, both editions from Reynal & Hitchcock, New York, 1943
Léon Werth, a Jewish Trotskyist art critic (‘the best friend I have in the world’) but as the dedication statement continues it decides to address rather ‘the child from whom this grown-up grew’ and amends itself to: ‘Léon Werth when he was a little boy’.
What’s It About?
An airman is repairing his plane which has crashed in the desert. He is approached by ‘un petit bonhomme’ who requests that he draw him the picture of a sheep. This little fellow [Woods = ‘little man’] is le petit Prince, sole inhabitant of Asteroid B-612, who has travelled to Earth (taking advantage perhaps ‘of the migration of a flock of wild birds’) via several other asteroids inhabited by eccentric personages: a lone king, a conceited man, a boozer, a business-man, a lamplighter, and a geographer. He is fleeing from his association with a flower on his own planet whose behaviour embarrasses him, but a meeting with a philosophical fox persuades him that he must follow the dictates of his heart and take responsibility for his flower. He helps the airman to find a well in the desert and then, after a pre-arranged and fatal meeting with a yellow snake, he vanishes – presumably returning (with the drawing of the sheep) to his own asteroid.
What is it About? (2)
St-Ex meets his child self in a fable of innocence and experience. It is not hard to make a case for this eccentric story being rooted in his dismay over his difficult marriage with the asteroidal, adenoidal rose, being the hypochondriac spendthrift Consuelo. Confused adult uncertainties bang against the ruthless assurances of childhood (‘One runs the risk of weeping a little if one lets himself be tamed.’). The metaphor becomes an excuse for ruminations on freedom and responsibility. Existential Angst enters children’s literature and you must work out the interpretation for yourself.
The book belongs among those whose text can only at peril be divorced from, or rearranged round, its illustrations. Exupéry’s watercolours and monochrome wash drawings (now, with his manuscript, in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York) are closely integrated with the text, which often refers to them. Their naïveté (‘I was discouraged [from painting] when I was six years old’) chimes with, and hence lends conviction to, what has often been seen as an absurd, not to say perverse, piece of whimsy.
Is that so?
The recent trawling up of Exupéry’s silver identity bracelet from the bottom of the Mediterranean has encouraged renewed discussion about the status of this ‘children’s book for adults’. It could be classed, amongst disparate examples from Rabelais and Swift to Alice and The Water-Babies, as what the critic Northrop Frye calls ‘a Mennipean satire’ – which is to say a stylised dialogue playing with and making fun of human activities as distinct from life as she is actually lived. As with Kingsley though the satiric energy can be blunted by an intrusive sentimentality.
But sentimental for whom?
As a writer Exupéry was a master craftsman and his pellucid French mitigates the inherent soppiness of the child’s transactions with his flower. That seems to suit the francophones, who have put the little chap on to pre-Euro bank-notes, and it may well suit foreign readers coming at the French text and rejoicing in its accessibility as well as its content (Heinemann used to publish it as a schoolbook). But who knows what the readers of the hundred or so translations make of it? Katherine Woods can be ungainly – and has been called ‘ponderous’ – but for English readers any successor to her Little Prince has been blocked by Europe. The mad decision a year or two ago to ‘harmonize’ our copyright limitations with those of Germany (ie extending them to 70 years after the author’s death) has prevented Pavilion Books from reprinting their new, and more satisfactory, translation by Alan Wakeman, with its highly discussable pastiche illustrations by Michael Foreman. One is moved to reflect that there should be an asteroid reserved somewhere for les grandes personnes bruxelloises.
Brian Alderson is Chair of the Children’s Books History Society and the chief children’s book consultant for The Times.