Thursday, 29 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 2: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (1943)

The third book in a row, in this series, that I have loved egregiously since childhood. Indeed, of all the books on this strange list, it is surely the most intrinsically lovable. In this blogpost I have two points to make, one serious (or at least 'serious') and a little complicated; the other simple but profound. And that latter point has already been made, but bears repeating. This is a book that provokes love. I love its invention, its wit, its gentleness and wisdom; I love the little prince himself. When I was a child myself I felt in my heart the rightness of its mutual perspectives upon childishness and adulthood, and the losses of passing from the former state to the latter -- like a warmer, funnier, more charming version of Wordsworth's 'Immortality Ode'. That, shown a picture of a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant, grown-ups can only see a hat.  That grown-ups are besotted with material data. To quote from the English-language edition I read as a kid, and which I in turn read to my kids:
Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you about essential matters. They never say to you, "What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?" Instead they demand: "How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?" Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him. [16]
Of course I take the force of Saint-Exupéry's point here, although at the same time -- without the least hint of snark -- if my son came home saying 'I have made a new friend' and I replied How much does he weigh? I would get some very strange looks from my fellow grown-ups. The passage continues:
Say to the grown-ups: "I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof," and they would not be able to get any idea of the house at all. You would have to say to them: "I saw a house that cost £4000." Then they would exclaim: "Oh, what a pretty house that is!"
This, I feel, would be unlikely to be their 2011 reaction. Four grand for a house? It's like playing Monopoly. The kids enjoy the game, and the adults spend their time picking up cards, saying '"Solicitors Fee £50"? Oh HAHAHA!' and '"School Fees Due: £150"? I SHOULD COCOA!' and falling about clutching their sides.

But I'm getting distracted. Not only do I love this book, I love Saint-Exupéry himself, surely of all the authors of this list the most fundamentally likeable: a pioneer aviator and a righteous man. I love that although he was a patriot, who died (probably) defending his country against the Nazis, he was nonetheless deeply opposed to war (in 1942's Pilote de guerre he wrote: 'la guerre n'est pas une aventure. La guerre est une maladie. Comme le typhus.'). I love that he recognised fascism for the great evil it was early on; and I love that he championed the bravery and skill of his fellow pilot Jean Israël in the teeth of contemporary anti-Semitism (Pilote de guerre was banned in Vichy France, Saint-Exupéry's own country, because of this). And I love the fact that, instead of looking like a lantern-jawed, aquiline-profiled, muscular man-of-action stereotype, Saint-Exupéry actually looked like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.

Most of all, like millions, I love the message of this beautiful little book.  As the fox puts it, 'On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.' The only way to see properly is with the heart.  The most important things are invisible to the eyes.  True, that.

The conceit of the book, its miniature planetoids circling in space, and the various representative (crazy) humans who inhabit thereon, is charming. There's a Hillaire Belloc passage I like a great deal,and have quoted before [it starts 'The Inn Of The Margeride' (from Hills and the Sea, 1906)], about the appeal of miniaturisation:
Whatever, keeping its proportion and form, is designed upon a scale much greater or much less than that of our general experience, produces upon the mind an effect of phantasy.

A little perfect model of an engine or a ship does not only amuse or surprise; it rather casts over the imagination something of that veil through which the world is transfigured, and which I have called "the wing of Dalua"; the medium of appreciations beyond experience; the medium of vision, of original passion and of dreams. The principal spell of childhood returns as we bend over the astonishing details. We are giants--or there is no secure standard left in our intelligence.

So it is with the common thing built much larger than the million examples upon which we had based our petty security. It has been always in the nature of worship that heroes, or the gods made manifest, should be men, but larger than men. Not tall men or men grander, but men transcendent: men only in their form; in their dimension so much superior as to be lifted out of our world. An arch as old as Rome but not yet ruined, found on the sands of Africa, arrests the traveller in this fashion. In his modern cities he has seen greater things; but here in Africa, where men build so squat and punily, cowering under the heat upon the parched ground, so noble and so considerable a span, carved as men can carve under sober and temperate skies, catches the mind and clothes it with a sense of the strange. And of these emotions the strongest, perhaps, is that which most of those who travel to-day go seeking; the enchantment of mountains; the air by which we know them for something utterly different from high hills. Accustomed to the contour of downs and tors, or to the valleys and long slopes that introduce a range, we come to some wider horizon and see, far off, a further line of hills. To hills all the mind is attuned: a moderate ecstasy. The clouds are above the hills, lying level in the empty sky; men and their ploughs have visited, it seems, all the land about us; till, suddenly, faint but hard, a cloud less varied, a greyer portion of the infinite sky itself, is seen to be permanent above the world. Then all our grasp of the wide view breaks down. We change. The valleys and the tiny towns, the unseen mites of men, the gleams or thread of roads, are prostrate, covering a little watching space before the shrine of this dominant and towering presence.

It is as though humanity were permitted to break through the vulgar illusion of daily sense, and to learn in a physical experience how unreal are all the absolute standards by which we build. It is as though the vast and the unexpected had a purpose, and that purpose were the showing to mankind in rare glimpses what places are designed for the soul--those ultimate places where things common become shadows and fail, and the divine part in us, which adores and desires, breathes its own air, and is at last alive.
I said at the beginning of this post that I wanted to make two points about the book. The first is made, and it is less a critical point than a simple assertion of the charm of the book, although we might dilate for a moment upon the particular kind of charm. It would be wrong, I think, to talk about the Little Prince himself in terms of 'innocence'.  Despite his bafflement in the face of various grown-up eccentricities and obsessivenesses, the Prince is not innocent in a wide-eyed, or foolish, or unworldly (hah!) way. Indeed, the larger thrust of the book as a whole is surely that it is adults who are the innocents -- for the true vibrancy of things goes over their (our) heads; and they (we) simply don't know, or simply don't see, how the heart's-blood flows. Besides, the Prince patently isn't 'innocent'. He knows more about death, which he actively welcomes, than most. It is not that the little prince is innocent; it is that he is holy. I can't think of another character in literature of whom that is so marvellously true.

So what is my second point? Well, it has to do with the character's title. Why 'prince'? Now, it is true that -- for a country whose modern identity was established by a revolution that supposedly did away with all that aristocratic-monarchist gobbledegook -- France is unusually fascinated with ranks, titles and princeishnesses. Saint-Exupéry, himself a Count, knew a good deal about this airless status-discourse; but the mouthfeel of his book is so removed from the absurdity of all that (and indeed, in several of the adult characters, the book actively satirises all that) that it puzzles me his protagonist has the distinguished title of 'prince' at all. Perhaps he is 'prince' in the sense that, as his world's only inhabit, he is necessarily its ruler. But 'prince' makes me wonder whether there isn't some easy-for-an-Anglo-to-miss allusion to the last 'prince' to rule France, Prince Louis Napoleon, otherwise known as Napoleon III. Two thirds of a century separate Napoleon III's downfall from Saint-Exupéry's writing; but as his country's last absolute ruler (he was known as the 'Prince-President', and initially swept to power on the back of an 1848 plebsicite; but he seized absolute power in a coup-d-etat in 1851 and ruled as a dictator until the Prussians invaded in 1870 and chased him out) he was still a name to conjure with. More, he was known to satirists precisely as a little prince, a pygmy version of his much more famous uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte: Victor Hugo's savage 1852 book Napoléon le Petit was banned in France until the Prince-President's regime came to an end (you can read it here). This is Saint-Exupéry's 'best portrait' of his little prince:

Elsewhere in the book he is dressed more casually; but this first image is (it seems to me) a deliberate confection of the two most celebrated official portraits of Napoleon III: taking the cloak and boots from one, the colours and trappings from the other.

Beyond that (and assuming you swallow the parallel) it's hard to see the function of the parallel, unless it is there precisely to operate by a sort of photographic negative mode. Louis Napoleon, the 'little' Prince-President: calculating and cynical, addicted to pomp and pleasure, inward-looking and decadent, elderly and infirm. The Saintly Exupéry's little prince: young, holy, charming, widely-travelled, loving and loved, self-effacing and wise.


Jared said...


(proudly contributing to intelligent discourse on the internet)

Ruzz said...

I had no idea it dated from 1943. Interesting time - as an exiled Frenchman - to write such a book. I'd always assumed it was pre-war.

Nick Smale said...

Fascinating to discover that the second best selling book of all time is one I've never heard of. I must read it.

H E Callaghan said...

It's fascinating that so many of the other fantasy books in your list are so polarising. I know of no-one that takes violent exception to "The Little Prince", and while that normally means something is to anodyne to give offence, I don't feel that about this very charming but ultimately rather mystical book.

Anyway, lovely to learn that it was so well loved, both in general and in particular.

Adam Roberts said...

Ruzz: yes, very much shaped by war as mortality, I think.

Nick: you must!

H E: I agree. But its mysticism is hard-edged and clear, not foggy or vague.

Mike Taylor said...

Provoked by your review, I just ordered this book, as it's been decades since I read it. I was delighted to find that it's £1.99 on Amazon, including delivery.

Irene Jennings said...

One of the best books I have read so far. Kudos to the author.

Irene (Soapbox Photo Booth Rentals)