Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born in Lyon in 1900 to a family of small gentry. His father, Jean de Saint-Exupéry, who worked for an insurance company, died before Antoine was four years old, and the five remaining children were brought up in two beautiful chateaux - one in Saint-Maurice-de-Remence, owned by a great-aunt, and another near Saint-Tropez, owned by their maternal grandparents.
It was in the former, with its mysterious attics and beautiful woodland park, that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry created what he described as the "secret realm" of his childhood, his "inner world of roses and fairies". All his life he was haunted by nostalgia for his early years. Already in adulthood he wrote: "This world of childhood memories will always seem hopelessly more real to me than the other world.
The little ones were spoiled by their mother, Marie, who was loving, devout and always attentive. The children were notorious in the neighbourhood for their unruly behaviour, and Antoine, with his golden curls, was the most willful and unruly of all. In step with the times, he took an early interest in flight experiments and at the age of twelve he attempted to construct an air bicycle. He also read a lot - especially loved Jules Verne and Hans Christian Andersen - and began composing poetry at an early age. He did this mainly at night, ruthlessly waking his siblings and dragging them into his mother's room in the early hours to listen to him recite his latest composition.
Not surprisingly, the adult relatives considered the children terribly spoilt and periodically did their best to impose discipline on them, which the children's caring mother could never enforce. It was this disapproving attitude of the aunts and uncles that caused the writer in The Little Prince to despise the adult world. "I have lived a lot among adults," he says. "I've seen them up close. It didn't improve my opinion much." Madame de Saint-Exupery, however, was an exception: her son saw her as a source of tenderness. He wore this fierce maternal love like a kind of cloak wherever he went, and as he grew older, he pulled it more and more tightly over himself.
Aviation as a vocation. The writer's childhood and youth.
Antoine did not do well at school, then failed as a candidate, at the Bossuet Naval College in Paris. And, as a last resort, enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts to become an architect, showing, as a fellow student remarked, as little aptitude for architecture as for dentistry. He supported himself on the money he borrowed from his mother, often living simply but dining in the luxurious homes his family name provided access to. Even as a writer he was never part of the international literary community in Paris - the world of Stratford-upon-Odeon, Pound, Hemingway and Joyce (though when Stuart Gilbert, translator of Ulysses, set out to translate The Night Flying into English, he was so baffled by the subtleties of language that he turned to Joyce for help).
A man of action, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was intolerant of intellectuals and disliked the 'claustrophobic' company of super-gratin literati, preferring his fellow aviators, his publisher, Gaston Gallimard, and several French writers such as Malraux and Morois. While the writer lived in Paris between trips abroad, he preferred to spend his working and social life in cafés, starting the day at Deux Magots, then moving on to Brasserie Lipp. But, however friendly the earlier hours, he usually ended the evening alone - with a glass of wine at his elbow, a cigarette in his hand, silently wrestling with a piece of paper.
In 1921, Saint-Exupéry was drafted into the army, and from the Strasbourg military base where he was training, he wrote to his mother: "Maman, if you only knew how irresistible my thirst for flying is. It is from this moment, his ascent into the air, that Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book also begins. For these were the great days of flying, and France magnificently preceded them. Even before the outbreak of the First World War, France had more aircraft than the United States, England and Germany combined, and by 1918 the French aviation industry was one of the largest in the world.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry obtained his pilot's licence in 1922; his first flying job was with a commercial company which specialised in twenty-minute tourist walks. After a brief period of this undemanding activity, he joined Compagnie Latécoère, the most ambitious of the country's postal airlines, which became known as Aéropostale. At the time, France was the second largest colonial power and Latécoère, with a fleet of Breguet 14 aircraft, was opening a network of postal routes to French Morocco, to Dakar and then on to Buenos Aires, Rio and Patagonia.
Nothing could have suited the bold, uncompromising Antoine better than the life of an Aéropostale pilot. The work was dangerous and arduous, the discipline strict and the loneliness incessant. The hours spent alone in the cockpit are emotional: the writer recalls piloting his aircraft from Toulouse to Casablanca and Dakar, braving sandstorms, snow and stray winds, flying low over mountain passes and mile after mile of desert, where Mauritanian tribes shot at the tiny planes like grouse.
Although the Breguet 14 was the most reliable aircraft of its day, by today's standards it was very flimsy, with a wooden propeller, an open cockpit and a range of less than four hundred miles; it had no radio, no suspension, no sophisticated instruments and no brakes. Planes regularly broke down or crashed, and pilots were captured and held hostage by the tribes for weeks. Maps were rough and pilots were guided by landmarks - a row of trees, a farmhouse, a field, a river. It was easy to get lost in heavy rain, fog or just darkness, and weather forecasts were often fatally unreliable. In Night Flight, for example, pilot Fabien nearly dies in an unexpected thunderstorm.
A year later, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was appointed head of the airfield at Cape Joubi in the Western Sahara - perhaps the most deserted airstrip in the world. He has never been happier. "I have a great need for solitude," the writer wrote. "I suffocate if I live fifteen days among the same twenty people." He loved the wide expanses of the Sahara and the silence:
There is a stillness of peace when the tribes are reconciled, when the cool evening comes... . There is the midday silence when the sun suspends all thoughts and movements. There is a false silence when the north wind subsides and the insects, bursting out like pollen from the inner oases, fly in to herald sandstorms from the east.
The aviator loved the isolation and independence and the long, lonely flights which are chronicled in his first novel, Southern Mail (1929). He befriended the children of nomads and became dependent on the fierce esprit de corps that existed between the company members. His religion was the Post Office, and in his devotion to it he was inextricably linked with his comrades. It was during this period that his reputation as a writer was born, and through him 'la Ligne' became known throughout the world.
After Cape Jubie, St X was sent to South America to take part in the opening of postal routes linking Buenos Aires to Rio, Patagonia and Paraguay. Here, in the violent storms and majestic silence of the Andes, he found romance no less potent than in the African desert. For the rest of his life he spoke of his memories of Patagonia, of the glaciers and the Indians, of the sheep in Tierra del Fuego 'which, as they fell asleep, disappeared into the snow, but their frozen breath peeping out of the air like hundreds of tiny chimneys'.
He often flew at night, and it was this nocturnal 'battle with the stars' that provided the basis for The Night Flight, his second novel. The book was an instant success with the public, a film was made based on it and Guerlain launched Vol de Nuit, a fragrance dedicated to Saint-Exupéry and sold in a bottle adorned with propellers.
For all his courage and instinct for adventure, there was something immature in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a tendency towards childishness. In life, as in his works, he constantly returned to his childhood. He often showed an irascibility. He found it amusing to throw water bombs from upper floor windows, and his favourite game was to roll oranges on the piano keys, which made him sound like Debussy. He was great at word games and card tricks - "He spent less time writing letters than he did choosing a dozen spades," one of his editors lamented - and he was also an expert at making miniature helicopters out of maple seeds and hairpins.
The writer often illustrated his letters with cute drawings. In one letter, he sketched three parts of a journey - the last part as a bold black square, 'because it was night'. Antoine de Saint-Exupery once excused himself to his American publisher for turning in a chapter late, on the grounds that his guardian angel had appeared and stayed to talk.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, writer and woman
When it came to women, Antoine fell in love with those with whom he could maintain his world of illusions. His first serious love was Louise de Vilmorin, a small-time writer and femme fatale who, like him, was deeply nostalgic for her "enchanted childhood in the garden". In her mother's sumptuous house on the Rue de la Chèse she told her stories, he read his sonnets, and together they played fairy prince and princess. But Loulou, for all her coquetry, was a tough Frenchwoman, and when the question of marriage came up, Antoine's lack of fortune easily outweighed the fantasies they wove together in her upstairs room.
It was not until 1931 that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry finally found himself a wife, Consuelo Gomez Carillo, who at first sight must have seemed perfect. She was petite, sweet and capricious. On seeing them together, one friend described the couple as a small bird sitting on a huge stuffed bear, "the huge, flying stuffed bear that was St. X". Once, when the young woman was asked where she came from, she charmingly replied: 'I came down from the sky, the stars are my sisters'.
Her husband found such things charming - which was fortunate, since she had other traits that were less attractive. Consuelo was a mythomaniac of epic proportions, wildly extravagant and fiercely jealous of her husband's success as both a writer and a pilot. (She was, however, delighted to play the role of celebrity widow when Saint-Exupery disappeared for a few days in December 1935 during a much-publicised flight over the Libyan desert; and after his death she became rich by opening a restaurant called Le Petit Prince, in which she ran, wearing a sailor's cap with the gilded letters 'Saint-Ex' on the visor on her head.)
Consuelo was irascible, neurotic, flamboyantly unfaithful. At a cocktail party in New York, she spent the evening sitting under a large table, 'from which a pale hand with an empty martini glass on the end occasionally stuck out'.
The couple quarrelled murderously all the time and were constantly separated, but it was to Consuelo that Antoine returned again and again, and without her, as he always felt, he could not live.
Shortly after the publication of Night Flight, in 1931, the writer's career as a commercial pilot came to an end. Despite the pioneering expansion of Latécoère, it was forced into liquidation and by August 1933 there were no more independent airlines; they were subordinated to the overarching Air France. By this time Saint-Exupery was a star, Joseph Conrad of the sky. Although he was hopelessly irresponsible for money and almost always struggling, he was earning an ample income from journalism and propaganda work for the newly established national airline.
It was on a mission of goodwill for France that he travelled to the USA in 1938 to make the record flight from New York to Nicaragua. The flight ended with a premature landing in Guatemala, he survived but suffered many injuries.
The Little Prince. The war and the writer's final years.
In 1940, St. X returned to New York, intending to spend four weeks promoting the French war effort. He ended up staying there for two years, seeing no role for himself in the surrendered France. It was the most miserable period of his life. He was isolated and ill; he refused to learn English and was crippled by fever, suffering the results of years of physical trauma and neglecting his health. A friend who visited him after surgery found him lying in a darkened room, silent and depressed, with a copy of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales next to his bed.
St Axe was also politically at odds with many of his compatriots in exile, stubbornly maintaining his neutrality. He consoled himself with a few love affairs, but increasingly sought cosy intimacy rather than sex. With one of his young girlfriends, Sylvia Reinhardt, he met almost every evening for a year, despite the fact that she did not speak French and he hardly knew any English.
Saint-Ex, arriving late at night at her flat, would settle down in a chaise lounge in her bedroom and, as witnesses memorably describe the scene, "read to her from his unfinished work, tears rolling down his face" and "a half-asleep Sylvia did not understand a word". When Consuelo eventually arrived in the States to see her husband, she spread the word that high-altitude flying had made him impotent.
All the while, St Axe was desperate to return to Europe and take an active part in the war. Finally, in April 1943, he left America to join a French squadron in Algeria. Needless to say, he was its most experienced and stubborn member. His fellow pilots were proud of him; his superiors regarded him as the most difficult commander in North Africa. Although he was technically too old and far from in shape - "fit only for card tricks", his critics said - Saint-Exupery insisted on being allowed to fly. He drank heavily to numb the pain of old injuries, and had to be helped into the plane: 'His shoes were laced because he could not bend over. They had to get him in and out of the cockpit.
One pilot remarked: "St. Axe was doomed, and he knew it. Nevertheless, he made a few sorties, but he was too impatient and too stiff to master the complex technology of his aircraft, the US Air Force Lightning P-38. On one of his first sorties he damaged his plane's wings and a few days later, after landing at a hundred miles an hour and failing to pump the brakes, he drove off the end of the runway and crashed into an olive grove. The plane crashed and the St. X was grounded.
Insulted and humiliated, he told his American operations officer, Leon Gray: "Sir, I want to die for France". Gray replied: "I don't care if you die for France or not, but you won't do it on one of our planes.
In the end, it was felt that restoring St Axe's flying status was not as difficult as dealing with his vehement pleas. In May 1944 he was posted to Sardinia and shortly afterwards disappeared on a reconnaissance flight over southern France. When the war ended, he was hailed as a hero and given "une mort glorieuse" in the records. Consuelo said that at the end of his life, in pursuit of the stars, he made a meteoric fall. His death ensured the growth of his posthumous fame, particularly his last work of fiction, The Little Prince, written while he was in the United States and published in 1943.
In 1944 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry left an airfield in Corsica for a reconnaissance flight over France and did not return. Sixty years later, wreckage recovered from the seabed near Marseille was identified as belonging to his aircraft. It was probably shot down by an enemy fighter, although the exact cause of the crash may never be known. Nor has the writer's body been found. Who knows, perhaps tired of the hustle and bustle of a ruthless adult world, he is now watching everything from an asteroid B-612 and smiles.