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The Man Who Befriended the Little Prince : SAINT-EXUPERY: A Biography, By Stacy Schiff (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 544 pp.)

November 06, 1994|William Langewiesche | William Langewiesche is a pilot and contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly. His book on the U.S.-Mexico border, "Cutting for Sign," was published by Pantheon earlier this year. He is currently writing a book on the Sahara

In France you must never directly ask another person's profession, but must pretend instead that work is a veneer, beneath which lies the uncompromised soul. If this seems like a wishful conceit, nonetheless it fits nicely into a society that elevates the young intellect, then traps it in a lifetime of hierarchies. The entrapment has effects more corrosive than those of bad education. Unemployment statistics can only hint at the problem: Beyond the glory of its civilization, beyond the achievements of its elites, everyday France suffers a secret denial of life. Now there is talk of a four-day workweek. The problem lies not with idleness but with work that can so easily be left behind. By necessity more than choice, the French have become a people abandoned to vacation.

But Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the heroic French pilot and writer, was all the opposite--a man abandoned to vocation. He was neither a man of our times, nor sadly, of his own. Stacy Schiff makes this clear in her thoughtful and compelling account of his life. Saint-Exupery was born to impoverished aristocrats in 1900, and he died 44 years later while flying hopeless missions against the Germans over occupied France. Best known as the author of "The Little Prince," he wrote other successful books, notably "Night Flight" and, in nonfiction, "The Wind, the Sand and the Stars." As Schiff sketches him, he was a brilliant bear of a man, moody, enthusiastic, childlike, as contradictory as he was uncontrolled. When he conjured up youth, he did not dwell on formal schooling but remembered instead the days of imagination and discovery. When he considered manhood, he did not dwell on Parisian pastimes but reveled in the brutal, faraway work of the early airmail pilot. These apparently exclusive strains twisted uneasily through his life and writings. Saint-Exupery refused to submit to classification.

Partly as a result, his political thinking has been called naive. His overwrought musings, his respect for strong leadership, his glorification of "mission," have opened him to accusations of early fascism. It's true that the Nazis embraced his books before later banning them. But the man Schiff describes was no ideologue. He was a disfranchised nobleman, a humanitarian, a wanderer dreaming impractically of a home. If he seemed gullible, it was because in the cockpit and on the page he so powerfully sought purpose. Even when he appeared to advocate self-sacrifice, he was in fact promoting something more personal, work for work's sake, as the definition of his own existence. It is entirely appropriate that many of his sales, as Schiff admits, are now to vocational schools. In "Night Flight," Saint-Exupery wrote about an old mechanic named Leroux, who "had forty years of work behind him. All his energies were for his work. When at ten o'clock or midnight Leroux went home it certainly was not to find a change of scene, escape into another world." I don't know how that sounded in 1931, but for the French of today, Saint-Exupery must be a hard read.

He is not an easy read for today's Americans either. Schiff writes about the artistry of French expression, the Anglo-Saxon preference for precision, and the difficulties of translation. "What sounds lush in French--from Chateaubriand to Proust--will in a poor translation turn purple in English." She believes Saint-Exupery was lucky to have been well served by his translators. Indeed the translations have enjoyed great success in the United States. But that begs the point: Even in French, his prose can seem too florid for modern American tastes. Never mind. He is worth reading anyway, if for no other reason than his humanity. He is also worth reading about.

Stacy Schiff must agree. This is her first book. She was born after Saint-Exupery's death, but writes about him with the fondness and nuance of a longtime lover. And in love she is wise. She keeps her language clear, and neither apologizes for Saint-Exupery's weaknesses nor joins loudly into arguments for his cause. Instead, she expresses her dedication through the uncompromising quality of her own work. The result is a biography like a call from the past.

She starts the story during Saint-Exupery's years as an airmail pilot on the pioneering route from France to Dakar. In 1927 he was posted to the desolate Spanish fort and airfield at Cape Juby, 600 miles south of Casablanca, on the Sahara's wild Atlantic coast. It was there, under difficult conditions, that young Saint-Exupery won the respect of the more seasoned pilots for his courage and austerity. He spent time among Moors, some of whom, then as now, were more inclined to murder Europeans than to submit to them. Saint-Exupery believed in European superiority.

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