The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Little Prince (French: Le Petit Prince; French pronunciation: [lə.pə.tiˈpʁɛ̃s]), first published in 1943, is a novella, the most famous work of the French aristocrat, writer, poet, and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944).
The novella is the fourth most-translated book in the world and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France. Translated into more than 250 languages and dialects (as well as Braille), selling nearly two million copies annually with sales totaling over 140 million copies worldwide, it has become one of the best-selling books ever published.
After the outbreak of the Second World War Saint-Exupéry was exiled to North America. In the midst of personal upheavals and failing health, he produced almost half of the writings for which he would be remembered, including a tender tale of loneliness, friendship, love, and loss, in the form of a young prince fallen to Earth. An earlier memoir by the author had recounted his aviation experiences in the Sahara Desert, and he is thought to have drawn on those same experiences in The Little Prince.
Since its first publication in the United States, the novella has been adapted to numerous art forms and media, including audio recordings, radio plays, live stage, film screen, television, ballet, and operatic works.
The Little Prince is a poetic tale, with watercolour illustrations by the author, in which a pilot stranded in the desert meets a young prince fallen to Earth from a tiny asteroid. The story is philosophical and includes social criticism, remarking on the strangeness of the adult world. It was written during a period when Saint-Exupéry fled to North America subsequent to the Fall of France during the Second World War, witnessed first hand by the author and captured in his memoir Flight to Arras. The adult fable, according to one review, is actually “…an allegory of Saint-Exupéry’s own life—his search for childhood certainties and interior peace, his mysticism, his belief in human courage and brotherhood, and his deep love for his wife Consuelo but also an allusion to the tortured nature of their relationship.”
Though ostensibly styled as a children’s book, The Little Prince makes several observations about life and human nature. For example, Saint-Exupéry tells of a fox meeting the young prince during his travels on Earth. The story’s essence is contained in the lines uttered by the fox to the little prince: “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.” Other key thematic messages are articulated by the fox, such as: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” and “It is the time you have lost for your rose that makes your rose so important.” The fox’s messages are arguably the book’s most famous quotations because they deal with human relationships.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry first published The Little Prince in 1943, only a year before his Lockheed P-38 vanished over the Mediterranean during a reconnaissance mission. More than a half century later, this fable of love and loneliness has lost none of its power. The narrator is a downed pilot in the Sahara Desert, frantically trying to repair his wrecked plane. His efforts are interrupted one day by the apparition of a little, well, prince, who asks him to draw a sheep. “In the face of an overpowering mystery, you don’t dare disobey,” the narrator recalls. “Absurd as it seemed, a thousand miles from all inhabited regions and in danger of death, I took a scrap of paper and a pen out of my pocket.” And so begins their dialogue, which stretches the narrator’s imagination in all sorts of surprising, childlike directions.
The Little Prince describes his journey from planet to planet, each tiny world populated by a single adult. It’s a wonderfully inventive sequence, which evokes not only the great fairy tales but also such monuments of postmodern whimsy as Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. And despite his tone of gentle bemusement, Saint-Exupéry pulls off some fine satiric touches, too. There’s the king, for example, who commands the Little Prince to function as a one-man (or one-boy) judiciary:
I have good reason to believe that there is an old rat living somewhere on my planet. I hear him at night. You could judge that old rat. From time to time you will condemn him to death. That way his life will depend on your justice. But you’ll pardon him each time for economy’s sake. There’s only one rat.
The author pokes similar fun at a businessman, a geographer, and a lamplighter, all of whom signify some futile aspect of adult existence. Yet his tale is ultimately a tender one–a heartfelt exposition of sadness and solitude, which never turns into Peter Pan-style treacle. Such delicacy of tone can present real headaches for a translator, and in her 1943 translation, Katherine Woods sometimes wandered off the mark, giving the text a slightly wooden or didactic accent. Happily, Richard Howard (who did a fine nip-and-tuck job on Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma in 1999) has streamlined and simplified to wonderful effect. The result is a new and improved version of an indestructible classic, which also restores the original artwork to full color. “Trying to be witty,” we’re told at one point, “leads to lying, more or less.” But Saint-Exupéry’s drawings offer a handy rebuttal: they’re fresh, funny, and like the book itself, rigorously truthful. –James Marcus
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