Recent Reading: Wind, Sand and Stars

Most people know Antoine de Saint-Exupéry for his classic The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), but Amy introduced me to another of his famous works, Wind, Sand and Stars (originally Terre des Hommes in French), via an aged, yellowing volume which she had picked up from her church library.

The book is a collected series of autobiographical vignettes from Saint-Exupéry’s life as a pilot, interspersed with philosophical reflections on the human condition. Published in 1939, much of the narrative takes place in the period between world wars, when Saint-Exupéry flew post between Europe and Africa, in a time before weather radar and air traffic control grids, when pilots flew more by a primal understanding of the air and the earth than by the few instruments their planes had.

To Saint-Exupéry, flight is both a triumph of human achievement and a glorious spiritual vocation, one which both figuratively and literally lifts up the pilot who takes on the mantle of the aircraft, giving him superhuman powers, responsibilities, and challenges. He never fails to stress the burden of the air courier to deliver the post, who stands head and shoulders above the common crowd, to face down distance and wind and weather and darkness and crashes and Islamic desert warriors, while at the same time treating these troubles with the nonchalance of a seasoned veteran without fear of death. There is an especially thrilling chapter about his crashing onto a plateau in the African deserts and nearly dying of thirst with his engineer in the cold, bitter night.

Don’t approach this, however, as a book entirely about the historical wonders and dangers of early flight, else the final chapter about his philosophical wanderings through the Spanish Civil War will leave you disappointed. These meditations have little to do with his tenure as a pilot, but much to do with war and death. I found this to be the weakest section of the book, especially with the somewhat fuzzy and postmodern conceptual denouement on the resolution to conflicts of human belief.

The prose of the English version occasionally seems a bit stilted. I imagine the original French must have had a magical, flowing eloquence, but the philosophical lilt does not always come out in the English as well as it did in Little Prince. Because of this I occasionally found Wind, Sand and Stars a difficult read, but this was certainly not a grave fault.

(Small side note: this was a very old copy of the book, possibly a 1939 first edition, hardbound in blue without a dust jacket. It was previously used by Amy’s pastor when he was much younger, and still bears his margin notes in pencil, along with hasty bookmarks made from torn sheets of blank newsprint, and newspaper clippings about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry pasted or inserted in various locations. This made reading the book all the more charming for its historical personality.)