STRANGE though it may seem, the most widely translated of French books is not something by Voltaire or Flaubert or Proust but, according to Paul Webster, a fable by Antoine de Saint-Exupery idealising childhood, deprecating the pretensions of adults and called in English The Little Prince. And two other works by Saint-Exupery, drawing by contrast on his feats as a pioneer aviator, rank with The Little Prince, says Webster, among the 10 best-selling French books of the century.
Obviously more should be known about 'Saint-Ex', who vanished on a reconnaissance flight in the Second World War and was hailed by Richard Aldington, debunker of T E Lawrence, as a 'blend of authentic man of action, thinker, moralist and artist'.
Webster's new biography is useful mainly for clarifying the circumstances of Saint-Exupery's death in 1944 (he was apparently shot down by one or more German planes off Nice) and for providing much information about his childhood and stormy marriage. All this is echoed in Webster's rather cloying subtitle, 'The Life and Death of the Little Prince'.
In general, the biography tends to be scrappy and a certain straining is evident as the author, the Paris correspondent of the Guardian, tries to squeeze his idiosyncratic subject into a respectable ideological pigeon-hole.
Along the way, however, he makes some interesting speculations: for instance, that Saint-Ex, his nostalgia for childhood intensified by personal anguish, may have taken his Lightning plane fatally off-course to afford himself views of old family landmarks in Nazi-occupied France.
He hints too that, given the pressures of a turbulent marriage on a man already scarred by the vicissitudes of aeronautical derring-do in North Africa and Latin America, a death wish may have prompted Saint-Exupery's return from wartime self-exile in the United States to active service.
Earlier biographies by Marcel Migeo and Curtis Cate put a more positive gloss on that decision, emphasising Saint-Exupery's desire to serve the freedom of France. In far more telling detail than Webster, Cate recounted how French exiles in America split not only into pro- and anti-Vichy factions but also, on the 'anti' side, into supporters and adversaries of De Gaulle. Saint- Exupery, cautiously favouring Vichy and consistently hostile to the domineering De Gaulle, believed that France's liberation depended on US intervention.
After the 1942 US landing in French North Africa, according to Cate, a rejuvenated Saint-Ex decided to quit the 'basket of crabs', as he called the exile community, and get back to active duty with the French flyers with whom he had served in 1940 (the episode chronicled in Flight to Arras).
Webster makes little of Saint- Exupery's arresting dispatches from the Spanish Civil War which, though describing the Republican side, avoided conventional Thirties partisanship and focused on the overriding calamities of war. He suggests that Saint-Exupery as an adult overcame the 'pernicious influence' of his first, Jesuit-inspired schooling. Yet he admits that some critics have found the authoritarian hero of Night Flight 'too fascist'.
Though seeking to cast Saint- Exupery as a man purged of 'pernicious' childhood influences, Webster ignores the 1943 Letter to a Hostage, so inspirational to its author's resumption of military service. 'Order for order's sake,' it declared, 'castrates man of his essential power . . . Life creates order, but order does not create life.'
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