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The Strange Triumph of “The Little Prince”

30 April 2014

From The Page-Turner blog at The New Yorker:

Of all the books written in French over the past century, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Le Petit Prince” is surely the best loved in the most tongues. This is very strange, because the book’s meanings—its purpose and intent and moral—still seem far from transparent, even seventy-five plus years after its first appearance. Indeed, the startling thing, looking again at the first reviews of the book, is that, far from being welcomed as a necessary and beautiful parable, it bewildered and puzzled its readers. Among the early reviewers, only P. L. Travers—who had, with a symmetry that makes the nonbeliever shiver, written an equivalent myth for England in her Mary Poppins books—really grasped the book’s dimensions, or its importance.

Over time, the suffrage of readers has altered that conclusion, of course: a classic is a classic. But it has altered the conclusion without really changing the point. This year marks an efflorescence of attention, including a full-scale exhibition of Saint-Exupéry’s original artwork at the Morgan Library, in New York. But we are no closer to penetrating the central riddle: What is “The Little Prince” about?

. . . .

It took many years—and many readings—for this reader to begin to understand that the book is a war story. Not an allegory of war, rather, a fable of it, in which the central emotions of conflict—isolation, fear, and uncertainty—are alleviated only by intimate speech and love. But the “Petit Prince” is a war story in a very literal sense, too—everything about its making has to do not just with the onset of war but with the “strange defeat” of France, with the experience of Vichy and the Occupation. Saint-Exupéry’s sense of shame and confusion at the devasation led him to make a fable of abstract ideas set against specific loves. In this enterprise, he sang in unconscious harmony with the other great poets of the war’s loss, from J. D. Salinger—whose great post-war story, “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” shows us moral breakdown eased only by the speech of a lucid child—to his contemporary Albert Camus, who also took from the war the need to engage in a perpetual battle “between each man’s happiness and the illness of abstraction,” meaning the act of distancing real emotion from normal life.

. . . .

In the deepest parts of his psyche, he had felt the loss of France not just as a loss of battle but also as a loss of meaning. The desert of the strange defeat was more bewildering than the desert of Libya had been; nothing any longer made sense. Saint-Ex’s own war was honorable: he flew with the GR II/33 reconnaissance squadron of the Armée de l’Air. And, after the bitter defeat, he fled Europe like so many other patriotic Frenchmen, travelling through Portugal and arriving in New York on the last day of 1940. But, as anyone who lived through it knew, what made the loss so traumatic was the sense that the entire underpinning of French civilization, not merely its armies, had come, so to speak, under the scrutiny of the gods and, with remarkable speed, collapsed.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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4 Comments to “The Strange Triumph of “The Little Prince””

  1. My high school French teacher wrote an in-depth analysis of Le Petit Prince. One must know French and the double entendres St. Exupery used in order to excavate the layers. It can be read as a children’s book–just for the plot alone, but then everything important will be missed.

  2. I’ve never read The Little Prince. I now have the theme song in my head from the Nickelodeon cartoon I watched when I was little. Based on the description in this post I’m going to guess that the two are only loosely related. I never knew there was more to the Little Prince than children’s adventure stories.

  3. A profoundly beautiful book.

    Unfortunately for those who read English, they changed the translation recently, and the new translator did a poor job – took most of the layered meaning out of it. Such a shame.

    If people have never read it, I hope they find an older translation.

    • Offhand, do you have one you’d recommend? Or will any of them do so long as it’s not the latest? You’re making me wish I’d gone further in my French studies.

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