A man out of his time
The mysterious death of Antoine de Saint-Exupery
31 August 2009
Around the time you’re reading this, 65 years ago, the friends of the great French author, Antoine Jean-Baptiste Marie Roger de Saint-Exupery, were, one by one, giving him up for dead.
At 8.30am on 31 July 1944, St-Ex took off from a Corsican airfield on a dangerous photo-reconnaisance mission over occupied France. At 44, The author of The Little Prince was already an old man. Depressed, drinking heavily, and in constant pain from old injuries, he was too big for the cockpit he was shoe-horned into and officially ten years too old to be flying a P38 Lightning. Allied radar tracked his plane crossing into southern France but he never returned. Like the Little Prince, he just vanished.
And there one of the mysteries of literature and aviation rested, until 1998, when a fisherman, working south of Marseilles, pulled up a silver identity bracelet on which was inscribed the names of St-Ex and his wife Consuelo and the address of his American publisher. The spot was 200 kilometres from where St-Ex’s mission should have taken him and it was immediately alleged that the bracelet was a forgery, but the fisherman stuck to his story and subsequently a professional diver located incomplete wreckage of a P38 nearby. The remains were raised in 2004 and a manufacturer’s serial number proved it was indeed St-Ex’s plane.
Then, last year, came a sensational claim by an 85-year-old ex-Luftwaffe pilot, later a TV journalist, Horst Rippert, that he had shot down St-Ex’s plane. The story had added poignancy because Rippert had been a fan of St-Ex’s pre-war books. But there is no confirmation in any surviving German records and Rippert’s report of his victory should have showed up amongst the carefully-compiled and preserved Allied intercepts of Luftwaffe radio traffic. On balance his claim seems unlikely.
From the wreckage, there was nothing to say, either way, that St-Ex had been shot down, but it was clear, from the shattered remains, that his plane had hit the water at a steep angle.
So the inevitable question arises: Did he just decide to end it all by diving into the sea?
Even at the start of WWII, St-Ex was a man out of his time – when he vanished he was both massively esteemed and politically controversial.
St-Ex was famous because he both embodied and popularised the heroic birth of commercial aviation. Beginning in 1926 with the French firm Aeropostale, he had been a pioneer of early airmail routes through Africa and South America.
The planes were little advanced on WWI types – indeed, many were surplus WWI machines – flimsy, slow, underpowered aircraft with few instruments. It was a time when you flew by the seat of your pants. To figure out where the hell you were you often descended through low cloud to eyeball the ground. It was a time of which St-Ex wrote: “By virtue of what emotion do we risk our lives, sometimes so casually, to move the mail?” His books: Southern Mail, Night Flight, Wind, Sand and Stars brought this brave new world alive for millions, but even as he wrote, aviation’s heroic era was fading remorselessly. In reality, the period he mythologised lasted barely a decade. Month by month, the planes became stronger, faster, more complex, more sophisticated and reliable. Flying them was less art and more science.
St-Ex was called up in 1939, and in May 1940 on the eve of the collapse of France, he flew a near suicidal recon mission over Nazi-occupied Arras. After the armistice, with France divided and demoralised, he fled the Vichy zone for the US where the Arras escapade was published to enormous acclaim as Flight to Arras, a narrative and philosophical discourse.
Hitting the shelves a few weeks after Pearl Harbour, the book was a publishing sensation and it greatly raised the low prestige of France in the US. It was hailed as the best answer the democracies had found to Mein Kampf, but St-Ex had a political problem. He instinctively distrusted General De Gaulle, the British-backed Free French leader whom he viewed as a potential totalitarian dictator. He was closer to US President Roosevelt’s politics – the US recognised Vichy – which aimed at inveigling the Petain regime back into the Allied fold. For this he was ostracised and vilified by the Gaullists.
After the US entered the war and invaded North Africa, and the Vichy forces there came into the war on the Allied side, St-Ex wangled an appointment to his old squadron, now based in Tunis. In spite of his anti-Gaullist stance, he was to become a sort of literary mascot for the Free French.
The Little Prince – the most translated work in French literature – was published as St-Ex’s sailed from New York. “All fairy tales are portents”, the Herald Tribune’s reviewer wrote. It is a strange children’s book – both an absurdist political parable and the final testament of a man obsessively depressed about the prospect of his country descending into a fratricidal bloodbath after the liberation; a man who knew that he had no relevance in the post-war world. In his soul, he had identified completely with a technological heroic age that had passed into history.
Did he put his Lightning into an irrecoverable dive? Was it suicide by Messerschmitt, or maybe just engine failure? We may never know, but one thing is certain: Saint-Exupery was a man with a death-wish.