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In Search of Lost Childhood

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, disappeared on his last reconnaissance mission 70 years ago. Saint-Ex was an ordinary genius who loved humankind, and pined always for his magical childhood and its memories. For him adulthood was an exile.

This year is an extraordinary year full of anniversaries of different events, which somehow have affected the history and the advancement of humankind. Many of them have been crucial in the footsteps of our past – the publication of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary in 1764, installation of the world’s first commercial electric telegraph line from Paddington station to West Drayton in 1838, start of the First World War in 1914, German invasion of Poland in 1939, D-day landings in 1944, Beatles’ first American number one and start of the British invasion in 1964, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to name a few. Unfortunately many of the above-mentioned events were tragic on both a global and a local, even a personal level.

On July 31, 1944, 70 years ago, a French writer, pioneering aviator, aristocrat and simply people loving humanist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry disappeared without a trace with his unarmed Lockheed P-38 over the Mediterranean on his last reconnaissance mission. As Stacy Schiff, a biographer, has written, it was as if all of the eulogies Saint-Exupéry had written over the years for his friends aviators, such as Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet, now came back to attach themselves to him. One of Saint-Exupéry’s best friends, Léon Werth, to whom Antoine dedicated The Little Prince, a chef d’oeuvre loved by many generations of children and adults, believed endlessly that his dear “Tonio” was lost but alive. Despite all hopes, family and friends were unfortunately forced to accept his death. As a Little Prince in the sad and unexpected ending of the famous novella, Antoine “remained motionless for an instant. He didn’t cry out. He fell gently, the way a tree falls”.

There have been many speculations and endless arguments about how Saint-Exupéry died. Was it because of an enemy fighter, an inhaler problem or a suicide he went down, finally it is groundless truth seeking. Saint-Exupéry’s family do not want to accept a possibility of a suicide because it is inconsistent with the moral values of Christianity and the family itself. In 1944, many of Antoine’s fellows didn’t speculate about his disappearance. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh, also an aviator and the wife of Charles Lindbergh, many grieved over Saint-Ex’ death but at the same time breathed a sigh of relief for him. “It’s for the best. He is free now”, stated an officer in Algiers.

Mystery of the disappearance and surprising parallels with the fate of Little Prince itself, have created a sort of myth. Very often these trivial legends have nothing to do with Saint-Exupéry’s person, or better, essence itself. Under the praises and myths we are in danger of forgetting Antoine’s natural conventionality that hides genius. He was anything but a flyer who, in spite of crashes, didn’t stop loving the solitude and the freedom of the skies above the Sahara desert, South American mountains and even fateful Mediterranean sea in 1944. He demonstrated his genius only in his works. His passion for flying and writing was in some way incompatible. A flyer has to be rational and dutiful, whereas a writer is an idealist and unpredictable. While Saint-Exupéry flew above deserts and devoutly controlled flight instruments, writers such as André Gide and Jean Cocteau enjoyed a bohemian life style full of imagination. Stacy Schiff writes in a biography about Saint-Exupéry: “He neither reinvented nor muddied the past. He was not untruthful. He put a gloss on things, but he lived, too, for that gloss, for a quixotism that would be his undoing. The fashion in which he shaped the events he faithfully reported ultimately tells us as much about him as do the events themselves.”

One of the most interesting and paradoxical aspects of Saint-Ex’ life was his inner conflict between childhood and adulthood. “There is one thing that will always sadden me, which is to have grown up”, remarked Antoine in his late thirties. He wanted always to return to the magical world of childhood. Even during his last reconnaissance mission, it is possible that he flew over dear nests from his childhood, not part of the scheduled mission.

The château of Saint-Maurice-de-Rémens was one of these nests, located in Ain department. Louis XVI building with its blooming garden was a real paradise and a “secret kingdom” for “Tonio” and his brother François and three sisters Marie-Madeleine, Gabrielle and Simone. Because of Antoine’s father’s early death, the mother Marie had to lead the group of lively children. Games, short plays, reading of books, and classical music were a permanent part of every day life. Marie even formed a choir with children, and they sang songs from the Middle Ages. Marie gave all her love and tenderness to her juveniles, unselfishly. Antoine writes in his letter to his mother: “What taught me the meaning of infinity was not the Milky Way, or aviation, or the sea, but the second bed in your room. It was a wonderful thing to be sick; each of us wanted to be so in his turn. That bed was an endless ocean to which the flu admitted us.” The correspondence between Marie and Antoine shows their strong spiritual ties full of care, love and gratitude. For the son his mother was his “reservoir of peace” and “all-powerful support”.

Saint-Exupéry’s continuous longing for childhood’s magical world, and unconscious criticism of adulthood leaved a clear mark on both his works and his personal life. He writes in The Little Prince: “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.” I could say that in his soul, Antoine was a child, a real Little Prince who curiously asked questions and questioned things, but didn’t get an answer, or rather, a liberating truth about existence. Few could understand his inner child. He was loved and hated, understood by few and misunderstood by many. Especially during his stay in the United States (1940–1943), in New York, Antoine was regarded as strange and impulsive. A French film director Jean Renoir, a journalist Jean-Gérard Fleury and a translator Lewis Galantière to name a few, got tired of Antoine’s late night or early morning calls which deprived them of a night’s sleep. At Saint-Maurice-de-Rémens, he also used to wake his mother, brother and sisters for readings of his verses and other writings at night. Fleury once looked back on the funny situation when he, Jean Gabin, Marlene Dietrich and Bernard Lamotte had to listen to Antoine’s favourite LP – Mozart’s 40th Symphony for hours long.

“I am not sure I have lived since my childhood”, wrote Saint-Ex to Marie. We can’t say that Antoine was only a child, in the literal sense of the word. He was an adult. There is no doubt about that. But he was an extraordinary adult who believed that he could grab at childhood’s independence of mind, which was incompatible with the severe reality of the life. Even Antoine’s union with a Salvadoran artist Consuelo, The Little Prince’s “Rose”, was a tumultuous and stormy union that encountered difficulties, disappointments, and even extramarital affairs. As Paul Webster, the longtime Guardian correspondent in Paris has stated, Consuelo was both Antoine’s muse and the source of his angst. Antoine even accused her of wrecking his life by constant party-going. Saint-Ex wrote to Consuelo in one of his wartime letters: “You must be like the little stove of my childhood at Saint-Maurice, which puffed away peacefully in my room when the winter night frosted the windows…I had the impression I was protected by this little household god – and I would go back to sleep, happy to be alive.” A grown-up “Tonio” suffered mentally from “being torn from the maternal arms”.

Saint-Exupéry was a real fighter who fought for humanity. He fought for love, freedom, justice, friendship and fraternity. For him, a human itself was the most invaluable creature. Antoine wished to have faith in the goodness of human nature, but he understood that the human race is very far from a real brotherhood and unity. He writes in Wind, Sand and Stars: “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.” He believed that an individual can mature mentally only within other people, not alone. Antoine wished to find a soulful human, but he found the exact opposite of his ideals – a boring and dull adult who would “talk about bridge and golf and politics and neckties”.

Probably one of the most painful moments of Saint-Exupéry’s life was the Fall of France in 1940. He couldn’t believe that République fell down in one month and 12 days. Antoine acknowledged the annoying fact that the British were still fighting a war his own country had surrendered to Nazi Germany. His agony increased even more when his dear country had divided to two hostile sides – Marshal Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy France and Charles de Gaulle’s Free France. Antoine distrusted De Gaulle and didn’t accept his political views. The latter was even aware of this attitude towards him. Saint-Ex hoped that both sides could reunite and fight together against Nazi Germany. Unfortunately his hope remained a dream. The former Paris-Soir correspondent Raoul de Roussy de Sales reported about Antoine in New York: “He seemed more like a bird than ever, a bird with a tendency to hide its head under its wing. He is, so to speak, weather-beaten by the war.” In 1943 Antoine had a nervous breakdown after De Gaulle implied publicly that he was a collaborationist and supported Germany. In these days of desolation, Antoine had neither a refuge, nor a mother’s tenderness. At a major exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York this year, among author’s original manuscript, watercolours, personal letters and photographs was shown a short draft of The Little Prince, never before exhibited, which conveys Saint-Ex’ personal sadness and anxiety about the war and the fate of his country. In this next deleted passage the author expresses his hidden depression: ”On one star someone has lost a friend, on another someone is ill, on another someone is at war.”

Stacy Schiff pays attention in Saint-Exupéry biography to very important thing. “No one who met Antoine ever forgot him”, she writes. This is a baffling truth. Saint-Exupéry’s personality has something eternal, bright, unassuming, powerful and charming, and I sometimes feel that I have known him personally for years. Who could expect in 1943 that a little book about a little boy who lived on his tiny asteroid B-612 would become one of the top best-selling books ever published? The book spent only one week on the New York Times best-seller list in June 1943 and two months on the Herald Tribune list. In spite of that, it is now the most-read and most-translated book in the French language. It had left a mark of love and wisdom both on the bookshelves and in people’s hearts. It’s magic, indeed.

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