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Biography bares soul of Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
By Stacy Schiff

Knopf: 1994

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This review first appeared in the North County Blade-Citizen (now North County Times) in 1994.

The late French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is best known for his whimsical quasi-children's book, "The Little Prince." Ironically, during his own life Saint-Exupéry was more famed for his books on aviation – "Night Flight," "Southern Mail" "Wind, Sand and Stars" and "Flight to Arras" (all of which are still in print in paperback). Equally ironic, as brought out in Stacy Schiff's poetic new biography, is that while the protagonists of Saint-Exupéry's aviation works led ordered lives of sober dedication to duty, the author himself was a complex, contradictory figure who chafed at military order and was unable to organize his life.

This is a sympathetic book, but Schiff never shies from laying Saint-Exupéry's faults out for the world to see. We learn of his numerous affairs, of his wife's own faithlessness, of Saint-Exupéry's melancholy in his last years as his fellow aviation pioneers were killed in the line of duty, leaving him no one with whom to reminisce.

Schiff is generally content to reconstruct Saint-Exupéry the man from his correspondence and others' memoirs, engaging in very little of the wretched habit of psychoanalysis so common to modern biographers. Schiff's two exceptions are in trying to explain much of Saint-Exupéry's writing and life by way of his father dying when he was young, and of his (in her view) over-romanticization of women. But even here, Schiff only makes suggestions, and by and large lets Saint-Exupéry and those who know him speak for themselves – thus allowing the reader to draw her or his own conclusions.

Saint-Exupéry's break as a writer came in the mid-1920s when he was hired as a mail pilot for Air France's predecessor, Aeropostale. Never a first-rate pilot himself, Saint-Exupéry's talent was in capturing the exploits of those who were, making them heroic figures. If not a first-rate pilot (some of his best writing was about his own crashes), his friends in the 1920s and '30s felt he was still a larger-than-life figure, able to hold a room transfixed with his rambling narratives or card tricks.

A man practically devoid of political intrigue, Saint-Exupéry saw his public reputation soiled by the political fratricide that tore France up after the surrender to Germany in World War II. When Charles de Gaulle won the battle over who would speak for Free France, Saint-Exupéry – who endorsed no faction – found himself out of favor with the paranoid de Gaulle. He pulled every string he could, getting himself assigned back on active duty with the French Air Force – and disappeared on a combat mission off the coast of southern France on July 31, 1944.

While "Saint-Exupéry" will be illuminating to any fans of his books, displaying a man with far more faults than one would guess from his books, ultimately we come to know Saint-Exupéry as a man of hope, a man who believed in humanity's ability to improve itself – no matter how unlikely the prospect.