Friday, July 8, 2011

FFB: Wind, Sand & Stars - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I have surprised myself by once again shunning crime fiction for today's Forgotten Book. Not only shunning crime fiction but avoiding the entire category of fiction. All because of my estate sale visit last week and Richard Robinson's mention that he and I share a favorite book.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as nearly everyone who took a French class knows, is the author of The Little Prince and I think that tiny cultish book has overshadowed his far richer body of non-fiction. Of the several volumes he wrote about his experiences as a pilot during the 1920s and 1930s my favorite is Wind, Sand and Stars. As I mentioned elsewhere on this blog it is a work of non-fiction that reads like a novel. It is like a collection of philosophical essays covering observations about the planet and heavens, the forces of Nature, different cultures and their people and all of it enlivened with a few real life adventures both perilous and thrilling.

Briefly, the book is an account of Saint-Exupéry's days as a pilot from his earliest time as a student pilot in 1926 to his professional pilot life ending, in this volume, in 1936. He relates several of his more adventurous flights across the Sahara and the Andes, flying near a waterspout during an African typhoon, and recounts the dangers of flying in early airplanes that practically fell apart in the skies. There is a harrowing section detailing his crash in the Sahara desert and the several days he and his navigator, Andre Prévot, spent in search of food and water prior to their rescue.

The English translation is by the Lewis Galantière, a gifted writer himself. His translation of Jean Anouilh's play Antigone is a skillful work of poetry. Galantière does an equally remarkable job of capturing the essence and tone of the original French text which is a blend of lucid prose and rich metaphor that approaches true poetry. Here are some of my favorite passages:

But by the grace of the airplane I have known a more extraordinary experience than this, and have been made to ponder with even more bewilderment the fact that this earth that is our home is yet in truth a wandering star.
In the sky a thousand stars are magnetized, and I lie glued by the swing of the planet to the sand. A different weight brings me back to myself.  I feel the weight of my body drawing me towards so many things.  My dreams are more real than these dunes, than that moon, than these presences.
illustrations by John O'H. Cosgrove II, 1st US ed (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939)

It is another of the miraculous things about mankind that there is no pain nor passion that does not radiate to the ends of the earth. Let a man in a garret but burn with enough intensity and he will set fire to the world.
Men who have lived for years with a great love, and have lived on in noble solitude when it was taken from them, are likely now and then to be worn out by their exaltation.  Such men return humbly to a humdrum life, ready to accept contentment in a more commonplace love.

But in the end, Saint-Exupéry says "it is man not flying that concerns [him] most." The stories of his fellow mail pilots, his comrades of the air, the Bedouins who saved him in the desert, and even a sleeping child on a train provide him with confusion and enlightenment, despair and hope. This book written over 70 years ago still impresses me with insight and truths about a world that does not seem to have changed much since 1939.


  1. I enjoy Saint-Exupéry and his book "Le Petit Prince" is one of my favourites. I'm almost certain I've read this book, but I might be mistaking it for something else...

  2. Thanks for the name check. Yes,a favorite book, probably at the top of the list of "must re-read if had little time left" books. The beauty of the prose, the insights, the story telling are all exceptional. For met too the book doesn't seem to age, though I wonder if today's wired in youth would even understand the solitude and isolation described in some sections. If so, it's their loss.

    Highly, highly recommended!

  3. I do definitely want to read this, John. I will look for a copy. I've never read any of Saint-Exupery's books. Thanks for a great, heartfelt review. I so enjoy your work even when I know I'm not going to be reading the book. But this one I will definitely be looking for. :)

    LOVE the cover. I have some old 'boys' books that I found once upon a time in an 'antique' store:

    THE SEARCH FOR LOST FLYERS (part of the Ted Scott Flying Stories) by Franklin Dixon (Didn't he write the Hardy Boys or something along those lines?)

    This has the most wonderful cover. A bit tattered, but soon as I get a new camera I'll send you a photo. It's so fun.

    It also has an illustration facing the title page. A lot of these books do. Part of their charm.

    DAREDEVILS OF THE AIR by Thomson Burtis
    No dustjacket here but absolutely dazzling endpapers and a terrific illustration again facing the title page.

    THE BOY AVIATORS' POLAR DASH or Facing Death in the Antartic by Captain Wilbur Lawton

    This one has a photo facing the title page. Can't really tell if this book is fiction or non. Have to investigate a bit. Bought it for the cover which has no dustjacket and I suspect it never did. Just a wonderful design and drawing.

    I didn't - don't - buy these books to read, more to look at and hold. They are just so essentially books of another time and place.

    I have a few more, but these are my faves.

  4. WIND, SAND AND STAR has remained in print since it first appeared. I think you'll have no trouble finding a copy. Our library system in Chicago has 20 copies in various editions - six of them in the main branch where I spend much of my time.

    I have a copy of THE SEARCH FOR THE LOST FLYERS, Yvette. It does have great old DJ. I also had quite a few of Eustace Adams fighter pilot books for boys and other juvenile aviation books over the years. You've inspired the next "Jacket Required" post for this coming Sunday. I love when I'm given ideas. My brain and body quickly tire with all our garden work this summer. It's often a welcome relief to have other people give me blog ideas. So thanks!

  5. John

    How are you able to write such good reviews? :)

    You have absolutely sold this book to me.

  6. Not crime. not fiction, not forgotten. Otherwise an accurate description.

  7. Several people who read this blog enjoyed the review AND had never heard of the book and left comments or sent me emails o say so. It was my intention to reveal it to those people. Like we always said in the theater - If the audience seems unresponsive or dismissive, remember there's at least one person out there who is enjoying the play. Give your performance to that one person.

  8. John, I clicked over from the FFB list because of the handsome illustration. I share your opinion about book reviews. Done well, they are a literary form themselves and will find a receptive audience.

    Because I'm reading nonclassics (early-early westerns), I know readers will never pick up the books I'm reviewing, but if you can provide an appreciation and some insight as a takeaway, they will feel that they have read it. And that makes it worth doing.