SEEING WITH THE HEART

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's  LE PETIT PRINCE

by Alan Wakeman

Thirty-seven years ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Antoine de Saint Exupéry's Le Petit Prince at one of those pavement booksellers that still cling precariously to the stone parapets of the River Seine in Paris. The year before I'd dropped out of the fourth year of a part-time architecture course, sold all my worldly goods - it didn't amount to much - and taken a one-way ticket to Paris. At the time I couldn't explain why to bewildered friends or family but, looking back, I'm surprised it took me so long. I was young, idealistic, full of passion and desperate to find something meaningful to do with my life. Instead I found myself doing routine architectural jobs for a succession of clients who boasted that their only interest was "maximum floorspace for minimum money". Small wonder I fled.

So at the age of twenty-three I found myself alone in a country where I hardly spoke the language, painting walls by day and reading in cafés by night. But now at least my situation matched my feelings: I'd always felt an outsider, now I genuinely was one. Inevitably, as my language skills improved, I discovered the French could be just as materialistic as the English. But during the three years I lived in France I happened upon a series of books that were to change my life. Le Petit Prince was the first. "We only really see with our hearts," the fox says to the little prince. "What matters is invisible to the eyes..." Exactly.
Imagine my disappointment then, on my return to London a few years later, to find this profound magical book was only available in English in a ponderous translation that failed utterly to capture the spirit of the original. I abandoned my plan to buy copies as presents and got on with my new job - a job which I found satisfying because it helped people communicate with one another. I became an English language teacher.
In 1979, twenty years after I'd first read it, I resolved to attempt a new translation of Le Petit Prince myself. I rented my favourite hillside cabin on my favourite Mediterranean island and set about my labour of love - for I knew that no matter how successful my new version it couldn't be published before the expiry of the copyright in 1994. But I was on holiday, and the view was inspiring. A chain of islands known as Les Iles d'Or stretches away to the west and every evening I was treated to spectacular sunsets over the Golfe de Giens where the last island becomes a peninsular linked to the mainland at Hyères. As I sat on my terrace, my favourite view in the world spread before me, serenaded by nightingales, struggling with my self-appointed task, I would scarcely have credited what would happen at the focal point of this scene fourteen years later. For, in December 1993, even as I finally began preparing my new translation for publication*, the wreckage of Saint-Exupéry's plane was found in this selfsame Golfe de Giens, where it had lain undiscovered since he crashed and died there on 31st July 1944.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry was born in Lyon on 29th June 1900 into a family with an aristocratic lineage extending back seven centuries. When his father died before his fourth birthday he inherited the title Le Comte de Saint-Exupéry (though he rarely used it). Despite this loss he and his three sisters and younger brother, François, had an idyllic childhood thanks to their mother, Marie, who created a secure loving atmosphere at the family estate at Saint-Maurice de Rémens to shield her children from the loss of their father and the financial blow it had dealt them. (It eventually forced her to sell the entire estate.) Antoine was influenced all his life by her simple goodness which for him set an example no other woman could match, while she for her part loved her son's gentle nature and cherished the curious tender boy she observed picking his way cautiously along the footpaths to avoid treading on insects. Thirty years later when he was a famous aviator, bestselling author and enfant terrible of the French establishment, he could still write to his mother: "I'm not sure I've lived since childhood..."
Yet his life was crammed with adventure. Saint-Exupéry pioneered remote airmail routes across deserts and mountain ranges, flew long-distance record attempts (some ending in near-fatal crashes), patented more than a dozen inventions (including an aircraft landing system) and wrote numerous prize-winning books and successful screenplays. His 1934 film of his bestselling novel, Night Flight, starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, ran for months on both sides of the Atlantic while another bestseller, Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) won the Prix du Roman in France in 1939. This brave passionate man also won three Croix de Guerre as a reconnaissance pilot in the Second World War, went into voluntary exile in the United States when France was occupied by the Nazis, and returned to fly perilous reconnaissance missions over southern France from Algeria and Corsica. Indeed it seemed to his friends he sometimes "forgot" to take the most elementary precautions when flying in order to flirt with death. In France he is a national hero whose life is celebrated in more than forty biographies - though we can easily imagine the retort his cheeky star child would have made on seeing the now obsolete fifty-franc banknote with its rudimentary depiction of Saint-Exupéry and the little prince himself on his planet.
As a writer he was a perfectionist. The simple beauty and purity of his prose was the result of hours of painstaking distillation of his thoughts to their irreducible essence. His friends were accustomed to being wakened at three in the morning to listen to rewrites of chapters they'd heard a dozen times before in wordier versions. He even invaded printers' workshops to make changes to "final" copy. Such an author deserves careful translation.
Shortly after I completed mine and returned to London I met by chance a young man who turned out to be a member of the author's family. He passed a copy of my new translation on to his mother, Mme Huguette Imbert de Saint-Exupéry, who commented: "I hope you'll move heaven and earth to get it published!" and sent it on to Saint-Exupéry's last surviving sister in Provence. As a result of their delight at my new version, I was invited to spend a holiday at their country home on an island off the Brittany coast. So I found myself honing the text I'd begun on an island off the South coast of France within sight of the place where the author had died, on another island off the North coast, staying with his family.
These serendipitous events have enhanced my feelings of personal involvement with Saint-Exupéry's marvellous fable of life, love and death. Rereading it now, I'm astonished how relevant it still is. Fifty years ago it presaged our current despair as the certain result if self-serving materialistic politicians were allowed to continue treating their citizens as mere consumers. The Little Prince is a manifesto for a saner way to conduct our lives. No one listened then. Will anyone listen now? Are we ready to see with our hearts yet?

© Alan Wakeman 1994

*1995 The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Pavilion Books, London. My new translation of this classic French children's book was finally published with new illustrations by Michael Foreman. It sold extremely well for a couple of years before a dispute between my publisher and the copyright owner resulted in its suppression two years later. Copies are still occasionally available on Amazon.
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