29 June: birth of Antoine Jean-Baptiste Marie Roger de Saint-Exupéry, third of five children born to Jean de Saint-Exupéry, insurance inspector, and Marie de Fonscolombe. The Saint-Exupéry name appears in the Crusades Hall in Versailles.
Death of Jean de Saint-Exupéry.
Pupil at the Jesuit school of Notre-Dame de Sainte-Croix in Le Mans, and the Saint-Jean de Fribourg school in Switzerland. In 1912, during his summer holidays, Antoine experiences his maiden flight from the Ambérieu en Bugey aerodrome.
– June: Saint-Exupéry passes his baccalaureate exam.
– July: death of younger brother François.
– Saint-Exupéry prepares to sit the Naval Academy entrance examination in a higher maths class at the Lycée Saint-Louis preparatory school in Paris, and then at the Lycée Lakanal in Sceaux.
After passing the written entrance exam for the Naval Academy, Saint-Exupéry fails the oral exam.
Student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (architecture department).
– 1921: national service in the 2nd Aviation regiment in Strasbourg. Saint-Exupéry is awarded his civil and military pilot’s licence.
– 1922: promoted to sub-lieutenant, assigned to the 34th Aviation regiment at Le Bourget.
– January 1923: involved in a plane crash at Le Bourget (fractured skull). Saint-Exupéry leaves the armed forces.
Engagement, broken off after 3 months, to Louise de Vilmorin. Saint-Exupéry works as production inspector at the Tuileries de Boiron tile factory, then as a salesman for Saurer trucks.
– 1 April: his short story L’Aviateur (The Aviator) is published in the magazine Le Navire d’Argent.
– October: hired by the Compagnie Latécoère, which would later become l’Aéropostale, flying between Toulouse and Dakar and later, from 1928 onwards, as far as Buenos Aires, then Santiago, Chile, and Tierra del Fuego.
October: appointed head of the Cap Juby airfield in the south of Morocco; writes Courrier Sud (Southern Mail).
– appointed director of Aeropostal Argentina and moves to Buenos Aires.
– Courrier Sud published by Gallimard.
June: Guillaumet’s plane crash-lands in the Andes. Saint-Exupéry makes numerous attempted rescue flights. Guillaumet successfully crosses the mountains on foot to safety.
– April: marries Consuelo Suncin (1902-1979), Salvadorian by birth but with Argentine nationality.
– May to December: Saint-Exupéry pilots night flights on the Casablanca-Port Etienne line.
– Vol de Nuit (Night Flight) published by Gallimard, wins the Femina prize.
1932 à 1933
Based in Casablanca then, after the collapse of l’Aéropostale, he signed on as a test pilot to help with the financial difficulties that were to dog him throughout his life. Splashes down in the bay of Saint-Raphaël.
1934 à 1935
Once again based in Paris, Saint-Exupéry travels to North African and Indochina. Newspaper Paris-Soir sends him as correspondent to Moscow. Takes part in the attempt on the Paris-Saigon speed record, resulting in another accident: his plane comes down in the middle of the desert, 200 kilometres from Cairo.
– Newspaper L’Intransigeant sends him to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War.
– Saint-Exupéry writes the screenplay based on Courrier Sud. Pierre Bion directs the film.
– At the request of Air France, Saint-Exupéry scouts a possible air route between Casablanca and Timbuktu.
– Writes the screenplay of Anne-Marie.
– October to November: Saint-Exupéry registers four patents (out of a total of a dozen registered up to 1944).
– January: travels to the United States.
– February: sets off to fly from New York to Tierra del Fuego, yet another accident in Guatemala (seven fractures to the skull).
– February: Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) published by Gallimard, wins the Académie Française Grand Prix du Roman novel-writing prize.
– September: called up in Toulouse as a flying instructor, he talks his way into a transfer to the 2/33 reconnaissance squadron based at Orconte. Saint-Exupéry flies high-risk missions. Continuing into 1940, his missions, particularly over Arras, inspire the story of his next novel, Pilote de Guerre (Flight to Arras).
– 2/33 Squadron falls back to Algiers.
– After demobilisation, Saint-Exupéry finally leaves in December for the United States.
– Pilote de Guerre published in France (where the book is banned by the Vichy government) at the same time as its English translation, Flight to Arras, in the USA.
– Summer/autumn: Saint-Exupéry writes and illustrates Le Petit Prince, dedicated to his friend Léon Werth.
– April: publishers Reynal & Hitchcock publish Le Petit Prince simultaneously in french and in english translation.
– May: Saint-Exupéry returns to Algeria to rejoin 2/33 Squadron, now part of the Free French forces. Because of his age, he has difficulty convincing the authorities to let him fly.
– The squadron transfers to Corsica. Saint-Exupéry is made its commander. He is authorised to fly five missions, and in fact flies eight.
– 31 July: For his ninth mission, Saint-Exupéry is sent on a reconnaissance flight in preparation for the Allied landings in the South of France. His plane is shot down by a German fighter pilot and lost at sea.
Citadelle (The Wisdom of the Sands) published posthumously.
Off the coast of Marseilles, Jean-Claude Bianco, a fisherman, picks up in its nets an identity bracelet bearing Saint-Exupéry’s name.
The wreck of a P-38 Lightning is found near the Ile de Riou. The serial number on the body identifies the plane as the one Saint-Exupéry was flying on his last mission.
Brother François, two years younger, was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s playmate. He died at the age of 15 as a result of rheumatoid arthritis. He appointed Antoine his « testamentary executor ». Antoine, who profoundly affected by this, was not to speak of it until 20 years later: « Had he been a builder of towers, he would have left me his tower to build. Had he been a father, he would have left me his son to raise. Had he been a fighter pilot, he would have left me his flying logs. But he was only a child. All he left me was a steam engine, a bicycle and a rifle. »
Louise de Vilmorin
Born on 4 April 1902, to a wealthy family of seed merchants, she was the youngest of six children. Throughout her childhood she lacked for nothing, except perhaps her mother’s affection. Though left with a limp by tuberculosis of the bones, she was nonetheless considered a good match by the many young men who courted her. Saint-Exupéry won her affections, but the engagement announced in June 1923 was broken off only a few months later. Geneviève, the main female character in Southern Mail, resembles her on occasions, and this love story almost certainly had an influence on Saint-Exupéry’s earliest writings.
In 1925 Louise de Vilmorin married Henry Leigh Hunt, a wealthy American, but divorced him in 1937 to marry Comte Paul Pállfy.
A well-known figure and leading light in society, Louise de Vilmorin wrote several successful novels and was a major figure in Parisian life both before and after the Second World War. At the latter end of her life, she became the companion of André Malraux.
She died in 1969, leaving behind an inconsistent and lightweight body of work, and a considerable correspondence.
The Aviator was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s first published work. At the literary salon hosted by his cousin Yvonne de Lestrange, he met Jean Prévost, editorial secretary of the magazine Le Navire d’Argent, who, after reading his short story, agreed to publish six extracts in the issue of April 1926. The manuscript has since been lost, and it is hard to imagine what the short story in its entirety might have been, although it was probably a first sketch of what was later to become Southern Mail, since the main character is already Jacques Bernis. He manages to « escape » (the short story’s initial title was The Escape of Jacques Bernis) twice in his life. The first time, by becoming an aviator, he escapes from a constricting and effete environment. Flying offers him a freedom that ordinary life denies him. His second escape is his death, which appears to be an accident. In fact, it is his punishment for engaging in over-ambitious aerobatics, for too bold a use of the freedom acquired through his first « escape ».
In the 1920s, the sky was unexplored and dangerous territory. The pilots of the day were real-life adventurers, risking their lives in unreliable aircraft vulnerable to accidents of every kind and with only the most rudimentary flight instruments. At the end of the First World War, aircraft manufacturer Pierre-Georges Latécoère had a vision of an airline to transport mail from Toulouse, where his factory was located, to Casablanca and then, in 1926, on to Dakar and even to South America. He founded the Latécoère airline company, whose first « heroes » were Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz and Guillaumet. Latécoère later sold the South American operation to Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont, who founded the Compagnie Générale Aéropostale, better known as l’Aéropostale. Didier Daurat appointed Saint-Exupéry « airfield head » at Cap Juby (Tarfaya, Morocco), and later director of Aeroposta Argentina, at a time when l’Aéropostale was extending its services as far as Tierra del Fuego and across the Andes to Santiago, Chile.
1931 was a grim year. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the indifference of the French authorities drove l’Aéropostale into liquidation. In 1933, at the government’s urging, the private airline companies merged to create Air France, which bought out the Compagnie Générale Aéropostale. Saint-Exupéry, working as a test pilot on flying boats for Latécoère, was sidelined and only joined Air France in 1934 in the promotion department (known at the time as the « propaganda » department). In his new role, he wrote several articles (often unsigned) for the Compagnie Air France magazine.
Southern Mail revisits and expands upon Saint-Exupéry’s short story The Aviator, published in 1926 in the magazine Le Navire d’Argent. Jacques Bernis, a pilot for Latécoère airlines, flies the mail to South America. He is flying over the desert and is forced to make an emergency landing at the risk of his life. Solitude and danger prompt him to question the meaning of his existence. He discovers that the happiness of his ordinary life with Geneviève, the woman he loves and would like to win away from her husband, is in conflict with the exacting demands of his calling and the sacrifice that anyone who seeks to give meaning to his life must be willing to make. If Jacques Bernis has chosen a job that requires him to travel, it is partly because « to travel is to change flesh », and that he who wishes to travel far, beyond himself, must choose a more durable vessel. Geneviève returns to her husband and Jacques continues his quest – in the same way as Saint-Exupéry, perhaps, who was forced to break off his engagement to Louise de Vilmorin because her family considered his profession far too dangerous.
« In order to exist, we need to have lasting realities around us. »
Henri Guillaumet, a close friend of Saint-Exupéry, was one of the best and most intrepid pilots of his generation. Born in 1902, this pioneer of aviation and of l’Aéropostale opened up the airways across the Andes and over the North and South Atlantic. Saint-Exupéry dedicated his novel Wind, Sand and Stars to him.
On 13 June 1930, flying over the Andes for l’Aéropostale, Guillaumet crashed in the midst of the mountains at a spot known as Laguna Diamante. The aviator trekked cross-country for five days and four nights, knowing that if his body were not found, his wife would have to wait four years for payment of his insurance. After a week, he reached a village. When Antoine de Saint-Exupéry came to take him home, Guillaumet said, « I swear to you, no animal could have done what I did. »
Guillaumet’s plane was shot down on 27 November 1940 by an Italian fighter pilot over the Mediterranean.
Consuelo Suncin Sandoval de Gomez was born on 10 April 1901 in Armenia, El Salvador, the daughter of a colonel and coffee plantation owner and one of the richest men in the country. At the age of 22, she separated from her first husband whom she had met as an art student in San Francisco. She joined Mexican writer José Vasconcelos in Paris where she married Enrique Gomez Carrillo, a Guatelaman writer almost 30 years her senior. Widowed at 26, Consuelo returned to South America where she became famous for her paintings and sculptures.
In 1930, she met Antoine de Saint-Exupéry at the Alliance Française salons in Buenos Aires. They married a year later, on 22 April 1931, in Agay. Her black lace wedding dress shocked many, and she received no more than a lukewarm welcome from her husband’s family.
Her relations with her husband were turbulent and passionate, often disconcerting. They pushed one another away the better to attract, moved apart in order to be closer through letters that reveal their mutual attraction. When they were together, Saint-Exupéry would often wake her in the middle of the night to read to her what he had just written; when she was not there, in his letters he called her « my rose », a term which cannot but remind us of The Little Prince’s rose: proud, capricious, spoilt, unique, fascinating, marvellous, insufferable, irreplaceable. She continued to paint and her close friendships with the Surrealists had an influence on her own style.
During the Second World War, with the agreement of Saint-Exupéry (then in exile in New York), she joined a group of art students in the Luberon. The leader of the group, Bernard Zehrfuss, organised a Resistance network. Consuelo joined Saint-Exupéry in New York and was responsible, at her husband’s request, for finding the house on Long Island where he wrote The Little Prince.
After her husband’s death, Consuelo returned to France once the war was over and divided her time between Paris and Grasse, between her activities as a painter and sculptor and her dedication to honouring her husband’s memory. Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry died in Grasse in 1979 and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Her diary was published in 2000 by Plon under the title Mémoires de la Rose (The Tale of the Rose).
At a time when aerial navigation was based on visual observation only and pilots navigated according to the terrain, measured the risks of a storm by the shape and colour of the clouds and, in the event of a breakdown, could hope to land on any spot that looked, from the air, to be suitable, l’Aéropostale decided to cut mail delivery times by introducing night flights. Any error thus became fatal, any weakness catastrophic. It was a matter not just of improving the aircraft and flight instruments, but of toughening up the pilots. Courage offers a way of surpassing oneself, discipline combats the disorder that reigns in the world. Rivière, the network chief, is hard on his men because he wants them to stay alive and Fabien, the pilot, faces death not to deliver the mail but because he makes duty the meaning of his existence. Death becomes a victory, even at the price of the tears and sufferings of ordinary life.
« To him [Rivière], man was unformed wax to be moulded. It was important to invest this matter with a soul, to create a will to inhabit it. He did not believe he was enslaving them by such harshness, but rather propelling them out of themselves. »
Crash landing in the desert
On 30 December 1935, at 2.45 in the morning, the plane carrying Saint-Exupéry and Prévot crashed in the Libyan desert. Their water supply was lost in the crash, and the two men had very little food. They decided to risk the desert. After three days on foot, exhausted, having found nothing but the morning dew to quench their thirst, they were rescued by a Bedouin caravan. They arrived safe and sound in Cairo, where Consuleo joined her husband. Given up for dead, the miraculous return of the two survivors made the headlines. Saint-Exupéry gave an account of this adventure in six articles published by the newspaper L’Intransigeant.
Courrier Sud, the movie
Adapted for the big screen by its author, the film was directed by Pierre Billon and starred Pierre-Richard Willm, Charles Vanel, Jany Holt and Gabrielle Dorziat. Shooting began in October 1936 in Mogador, Morocco. Saint-Exupéry, who was present during filming, had won the trust of the nomad tribes to such an extent that they agreed to take part in the film as extras. He himself flew the planes taking the aerial shots and even turned stuntman when the pilot on the film crew backed out of certain scenes.
Accident in Guatemala
On 14 February 1938, Saint-Exupéry and Prévot left New York aboard their Simoun on an attempt to beat the record between New York and Punta Arenas, in Tierra del Fuego. The first stage of the flight went smoothly. On take-off from Guatemala City, however, a mix-up over units of measurement (the Guatemalan gallon and the US gallon being different), the aircraft was overloaded with fuel and crashed at the end of the runway. « When they pulled me out of the plane, I was the biggest piece of wreckage, » Saint-Exupéry was to say later, after spending several days in a coma. He was found to have suffered seven fractures of the skull and risked losing an arm. His recovery was slow and not without consequences and he was hospitalised once again in 1941.
Wind, Sand and Stars
Recounting the exploits of l’Aéropostale pilots and some of the fortunate and less fortunate episodes of his life as a pilot enabled Saint-Exupéry to offer a meditation on the condition of man and the meaning of existence. Enclosed in a « shell » (which some strive to build up around them), the spirit slumbers if man does not make efforts to keep it awake. The ceaseless and courageous battle to tame the matter that resists us, a battle we wage with our bare hands or with instruments such as the plough and the airplane, offers us the opportunity to discover our vocation in this world. We are men by virtue of the responsibilities that we accept, that push us to give of ourselves and to sacrifice. Greatness is the reward but, in the Europe of 1939, Saint-Exupéry sees it as his duty to point out that he prefers those who die « for the advancement of knowledge or the curing of diseases » to those who rot in war. Terre des Hommes was awarded the Grand Prix du Roman by the Académie Française, while Wind, Sand and Stars won the National Book Award in the USA.
« Only the spirit, blowing upon the clay, can create a man. »
« To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel, in laying your stone, that you are helping to build the world. »
Flight to Arras
Ignorance breeds contempt. In America, where Saint-Exupéry had taken refuge, France’s capitulation was perceived as a consequence of its moral decline. Worse still, for strategists who measured a nation’s strength solely in terms of its cannon power, France counted for little in the battle against Nazism. The account of the missions completed between 23 May and 6 June 1940 by the 2/33 Squadron of which he was a member enabled Saint-Exupéry to pay tribute to those who had sacrificed their lives not to win a battle (a battle that France lost) but to honour the strength of a civilisation capable of inspiring men with values more important individual survival. Saint-Exupéry believed in victory because he believed in the virtues of a spiritual tradition that offers each individual reasons to grow, to surpass himself, to sacrifice himself in order to build the world.
Shattering recital of the debacle of June 1940, manifesto of a France that rejects defeat, and intellectual reflection on the foundations of Christian civilisation, Pilote de Guerre was published simultaneously in the United States (under the title Flight to Arras) and France, where the book was eventually banned by the German occupying authorities, despite their having initially given permission for its publication. One reason for the ban was the section in which the author pays tribute to the outstanding courage and patriotism of Colonel Jean Israël at a time when Jews were being persecuted and hounded. A number of clandestine editions of Pilote de Guerre circulated in France, spread by the Resistance movements. In the USA, where it topped the best-seller lists for some time, Saint-Exupéry’s book helped to restore the image of France in the eyes of public opinion and the politicians.
« We must restore Man. He is the essence of my culture. He is the key to my community. He is the principle of my victory. »
« Each of us is responsible for everyone. France is responsible for the world. »
Léon Werth was born on 17 February 1878 in Remiremont, in the Vosges, the son of a Jewish draper. After an outstanding student career, winning the top prize for Philosophy in a nationwide competition, he became an art historian and critic and led a Bohemian lifestyle. An independent and non-conformist thinker, he opposed the clerical party and was an ironic critic of bourgeois life. In 1913, his novel La Maison Blanche (The White House) narrowly missed winning the Prix Goncourt. He was called up in 1914 and spent fifteen months in the trenches. After being wounded, he left the front and was henceforth to be a committed pacifist. Clavel Soldat (Clavel Soldier), published in 1919, provoked outrage. In the 1920s and 30s, Léon Werth was just as harsh in his condemnation of French colonialism (though in the teeth of public opinion), Stalin’s totalitarianism and the rise of Nazism. He met Saint-Exupéry in 1931 and the two men formed a deep and lasting friendship, to which the dedication to The Little Prince bears witness.
Léon Werth died in Paris in 1955.
On 31 July 1944, Saint-Exupéry was to fly a reconnaissance mission over the French coastline in preparation for the Allied landings in the South of France. This was his ninth mission, despite the fact that, being over the regulation age-limit for a pilot, he had only been authorised to fly a total of five missions. He took off at 8 a.m. with enough fuel for six hours of flying time in his tank. At 1 p.m., there was no sign of his aircraft returning to base. By 2 p.m., all hope was gone.
The circumstances of Saint-Exupéry’s disappearance remained a complete mystery until March 2008: on 31 July 1944, German radar picked up an enemy aircraft. Horst Rippert, a young pilot, was ordered to take off and intercept. He opened fire, hit the aircraft in the wings and saw it crash into the sea. A few days later, Rippert found out that the plane he had shot down was Saint-Exupéry’s. He was mortified: he knew and admired the writer’s works and he knew of and admired the pilot by reputation. Rippert, who worked as a journalist, kept his silence for 64 years. Journalists happened by chance upon documents relating to the mission of 31 July 1944. They questioned Rippert and, at last, he broke his silence. He confirmed the facts in a television interview. « Had I known, I never would have fired. Not on him », he said.
The Wisdom of the Sands
First sketched out in 1936, Saint-Exupéry was working on this posthumously published work at the same time as completing his final books, Terre des Hommes, Pilote de Guerre and Le Petit Prince. It consists of a collection of thoughts on the condition of man, and a pool into which Saint-Exupéry dips to find inspiration for his other writings. It is difficult to imagine what would have been the final form of a text that we know the author intended to correct – which, for Saint-Exupéry, meant to rewrite.
Nevertheless, in the course of the 219 chapters – which are not necessarily in the order the author might have chosen had he been able to complete his work – there emerges a coherent vision of existence. Between the animal domain (incoherent and perishable) to which we belong by virtue of our flesh and blood, and that of God, towards which the spirit leads us, the life of man is a constant struggle to organise coarse matter, to force the clay to acquire a meaning that « binds » things together and offers them a grain of eternity, in the same way that a pile of bricks may one day become a cathedral. Our greatness is measured by our ability to create meaning – which is invented as it is in children’s play – and thus to overcome our mortal condition through the quest for a God, the keystone capable of uniting all that exists in a single meaning, inconceivable to us.
« Citadel, I will build you in the heart of man. »
« Man, » said my father, « is first and foremost one who creates. »
« To create is to create being, and all creation is inexpressible. »
« I know that mind alone governs men, and governs them absolutely. »
« Of course there is an instinct towards life. But it is only one aspect of an even stronger instinct. The essential instinct is the instinct for permanence. »
« I no longer know myself if You are not keystone, common measure and meaning for all men. »