By Linda McK.Stewart
Was he poet then pilot? Or pilot then poet? Good question. Even those who knew him best might hesitate to reply. Antoine de Saint Exupéry, French war hero, airman, scholar, poet and author who wrote and illustrated Le Petit Prince or, to its English-speaking readers, The Little Prince, translated into 250 languages, remains today one of the most enigmatic figures in contemporary French history.
Born the third of five children in 1900 in Lyon in the Rhone-Alpes region of east-central France, his was an ancient family of noble lineage. His father, Count Jean de Saint Exupéry, died when Antoine was 4. His mother, Countess Marie de Saint Exupéry, newly widowed and financially strapped, moved her brood out of Lyon to the outskirts of Ambérieu, a small commune in the Département d’Ain.
Apart from its train museum, called the Musée de Cheminôt, and a nearby medieval fortress, the Château des Allymes, there is not much to lure tourists to Ambérieu. With a small but notable exception: Those of us for whom Antoine de Saint Exupéry remains a fascinating human and literary personage, Ambérieu and its surrounding countryside is of compelling interest.
Driving due west on the D-904 out of Ambérieu, just beyond the town limits – it would be easy to miss – on the left side of the road, a small plaque inscribed Place Saint Exupéry affixed to a nondescript building overlooking a small public park. There’s not much else to assist the would-be visitor.
If you’re lucky, a local en route to pick up a pack of Gauloises or a copy of Le Progres will point you up the hill to where the two-lane blacktop dwindles to little more than a cart-track. The Chateau de Saint-Maurice de Rémens, where the five Saint Exupéry children and their mother settled after the count’s death, stands at the top of the short hill. Its gates are padlocked on all but a handful of days when, on the occasion of a local feast day or a high-falutin’ literary event (in which the French excel), the gates are opened to people like me, a lifelong de Saint Exupéry admirer, as well as to the general public.
The chateau stands just beyond a brief stretch of lawn, a handsome sandstone edifice in classic mid-19th century style. It was obviously constructed as a family residence where comfort and serenity were of prime importance. The windows are full length on the ground floor and only slightly less generous on the upper floors. Stables and a sturdy barn adjoin the lawn. It would be hard to imagine a more ideal environment for five lively children.
“When I was a little boy,” wrote Antoine de Saint Exupéry in Le Petit Prince, “I lived in an old house … a treasure was buried in it somewhere … My house held a secret in the depths of its heart.”
He was only 12 when he was invited by a family friend, Jules Charles Toussaint Védrines , an aviation pioneer and the first man to ever fly at more than 100 mph, to come along on a short flight from the Ambérieu airport. It was a near sublime experience for Antoine. It shaped the rest of his life.
At 21 he joined the French Air Force and for several years was posted in Casablanca, Morocco. He played a vital role in the development of airmail between Toulouse and Dakar. He loved flying by night, calling himself “a shepherd of the stars,” un berger des étoiles.
In 1935 while attempting to break the speed record between Paris and Saigon, he and his mechanic crashed in the eastern Sahara. For four days the two men, dazed and hallucinating, wandered, sun-scorched by day, near frozen by night. Rescue came by a Bedouin passing on his camel who administered native rehydration procedures that saved both their sanity and their lives.
Accounts of that near-death experience were described not only in The Little Prince but in his other books including Wind Sand and Stars, Night Flight, Flight to Arras and Letter to a Hostage. His books found an immediate audience throughout France and once translated, in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain as well. Literary honors showered on him included the National Book Award, the Prix Femina, the Grand Prix from the Academie Française as well as the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre.
In 1940 with France under German occupation, he appealed to the U.S. to join the Allies and the Free French against the Axis powers. When the Americans entered the war and established air bases in North Africa, he sought to join the U.S. forces. He was overage, in poor health and would have been denied but for direct intervention on his behalf by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. On July 31, 1944, flying an American P-38, he took off on a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean. He never returned. Did he crash? Was he brought down by enemy fire? To this day that’s still unknown.
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