The Little Prince and Letter to a Hostage by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, translated by T.V.F. Cuffe

The Little Prince

An enchanting story that can be read in an afternoon, The Little Prince is short but packed full of ideas that keep stretching out long after you’ve finished it.

The Little Prince was written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French author whose own life was almost as extraordinary as his fable (there are certainly elements of autobiography in The Little Prince). Saint-Exupery was born in France in 1900 and grew up to become a pilot and a writer. These two occupations are not particularly compatible, it seems – Saint-Exupery would often daydream at his controls, and he was involved in numerous near-fatal crashes. In 1935, for example, his plane went down in the Libyan desert. He survived, and wrote about his ordeal in Wind, Sand and Stars. During the Second World War Saint-Exupery was exiled to the U.S., where he wrote The Little Prince and Letter to a Hostage. However writing was not enough for him, and he somehow persuaded the Allies to let him fly again. He disappeared in July 1944, probably shot down by a German fighter plane.

The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language, and it is easy to understand why. It is beautifully simple, and yet full of the kind of philosophy that can keep you thinking and comfort you for a lifetime. It is the sort of book that needs to be read again and again, at different ages and moments in life. The sort of book that should be kept and carried from home to home.

The Little Prince tells the story of an alien-boy (the prince) who journeys from his star to Earth where he meets a pilot (the story’s narrator) trying to fix his plane in an African desert. The Prince is sad to have left his planet. He misses his three volcanoes (which he swept out every day, even though one of them is extinct) and his beautiful but demanding flower. He is excited to experience new worlds, however, and before he reaches Earth the little prince travels to six other planets. He meets a king, a conceited man, a drunkard, a lamplighter, a businessman, and a geographer. When he finally arrives on Earth the little prince finds the pilot and slowly reveals his adventures.

There are so many lovely images and ideas in this book, accompanied by drawings by Saint-Exupery. Fat boab trees clinging to the sides of planets, the narrator’s drawing of an elephant being eaten by a boa constrictor, the selfish but beautiful flower that the little prince loves, the simple wisdom of children. My favourite moment in the story comes when the little prince meets a fox. The boy is agonising over the discovery that his flower is not unique, but is just like a whole garden of others. The fox tells the prince the following secret: “you can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” This idea is also expressed, although in a different way, in Letter to a Hostage.

Letter to a Hostage

A very short book included in my edition of The Little Prince, Letter to a Hostage is an extended communication written by Saint-Exupery to a Jewish friend left behind in France during World War II. The letter doesn’t have the simplicity of The Little Prince – it is much more adult in terms of language, and more obviously political. However, many of the ideas are similar. For me, Letter to a Hostage seems to serve as a meditation on friendship and happiness. One of the moments that has stayed with me from this book is Saint-Exupery’s description of a perfect day at a restaurant with his friend. Saint-Exupery remembers that day as being full of the right light and smiles, but the “essential, as usual, is imponderable”. He is unable to put into words exactly what made this moment in this restaurant on this day so wonderful. It seems a product of a hundred different small things – the sun, the waitress smiling and so on. Reading this passage reminded me (again) of Virginia Woolf, and her idea that life is run through with something ineffable, something we can’t describe that gives us meaning.

The Little Prince and Letter to a Hostage are very different in form, but Saint-Exupery’s philosophy is evident in both. Two books that are short, thoughtful, charming, and certainly worth reading a second or third time.

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