Snippets of French history: Antoine de St Exupery
I read “Le Petit Prince” yonks ago – when I was a child I suppose. I re-read it in English much later and, somehow, the magic of the story is lost in the translation – it is just not the same somehow, though I couldn’t say why. I also read “Vol de Nuit” (Night Flight) in French and it has the same haunting feel to it.
Antoine de St Exupery was born in to a “poor aristocratic” French family in 1900, much of the French aristocracy having been bumped-off 150 years earlier. His father died before Antoine was 4 years old, and the child inherited the title of Count. Antoine’s younger brother died a few years later, and for the rest of his life Antoine was subject to fits of depression – presumeably as a result of these childhood traumas.
He studied architecture but failed (possibly on purpose) his exams and learned how to fly instead.
He worked as a commercial pilot, flying in north Africa, Europe and South America. When WWII broke out he joined l’Armee de l’Air (the French Air Force) but was decommissioned when France capitulated to the Germans. From there he was able to travel to America where he spent two years doing his best writing, and was awarded the USA National Book Award. He felt very strongly that the USA should join in Europe’s fight against Hitler, and he campaigned endlessly for this. Ironically today the French believe that the Americans won WWII … something that is an endless thorn in Britain’s side.
Back in Europe, after a patch as a cavalryman, he joined the Free French Air Force in southern France. He survived several plane crashes, including one in the Sahara when, along with his co-pilot, he was marooned for 4 days. This doubtless inspired the story of The Little Prince. Both men were saved by a Bedouin who administered some kind of local rehydration solution, which saved both men’s lives.
He was awarded several Legion d’Honneur awards for bravery, as well as several literary awards. He had become a national icon. Meanwhile he was still burdened with fits of depression, gall stones and alcohol addiction. He was also a heavy smoker.
Antoine de St Exupery disappeared over the Meditteranean sea somewhere near Marseille in 1944. Two different German Luftwaffe pilots have since claimed that they shot him down, so I think we will never know. Although I can’t imagine that suicide was on St Exupery’s agenda – it just doesn’t seem his thing somehow – it is nonetheless a possibility, as indeed is engine failure or similar.
St Exupery’s gourmette was found by a fisherman off the Marseille coast in 1998, and in 2004 his aircraft spread out over 1000 sq metres but close to where an unidentifiable body was washed ashore in 1944.
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Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist. Order her books on Amazon.
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