Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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Translated by David Carter

Reviewed by Simon

If the name Antoine de Saint-Exupéry means anything to you, it probably only means one thing: The Little Prince. It was this contrast between legacy and his 1931 novel Night Flight that intrigued me to pick up a copy when Alma Classics printed it with a new translation by David Carter – and what an intriguing little book it is.

Based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s real experiences as a commercial pilot in South America, Night Flight looks at the postal planes which flew at night between major towns – without, it seems, any light, and with plenty of danger. But this is no thriller – instead, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry focuses on psychology and on natural beauty for his two strengths in this account – starting from the opening paragraphs:

Below the aircraft the shadowy wake of the hills was already sinking into the gold of the evening. The plains were becoming luminous, but with an indestructible light: in this country they do not completely yield up their gold, just as, after winter, they do not completely yield up their snow.

And the pilot Fabien, who was bringing back to Buenos Aires from the far south the mail from the Patagonia, could recognize the approach of evening by the same signs that enable one to identify the sea around a port: by the calm, by the light ripples that were only faintly sketched out by the peaceful clouds. He was entering a huge and blessed harbour.

We are not in Biggles territory here, you see. It helps, of course, that this is a depiction of pilots were there is no war, no enemy, no bombs – a trio which has rather taken over pilots in popular culture, I would argue. Or, rather, there is an enemy: nature. In the darkness, when the weather is terrible and radios aren’t working properly, every darkness could be a mountain and every few feet could take a pilot into a fatal storm.

The nearest thing Fabien has to a human enemy is Rivière, the decision-maker at the base. He chooses whether or not the weather is too bad for take-off – and his main motto is making sure that nobody takes advantage of him. He rules the pilots with a rod of iron, and takes the decision that Fabien should fly back out into the storms with the night mail.

Yet even Rivière – perhaps especially he – is a nuanced character. As the night continues, we see anxiety from Fabien’s perspective, growing worry from his wife’s, and life-changing doubt about his methods from Rivière. The latter receives the most complex psychological portrait, as we see why he has acted as he has, and been the sort of boss he has been, while also seeing the human effects of that power dawn more fully upon him.

The novel is quite slight, and at times I did wonder if it might better suit a short story than a novel (or perhaps novella; it is only 110 pages). That might have made the multiple perspectives tricky, and offered less room for the beautiful descriptions which are perhaps the author’s finest quality – alongside the authenticity of the details. Or perhaps it should have been a little longer? It falls slightly between two stools, though this is far from a major detraction from Night Flight. It is certainly preferable that it focuses on one perilous flight than on a series of them – and the ending came as something of a surprise to me, more intriguing and artistic than I had anticipated.

Will this overtake The Little Prince in the stakes of the author’s reputation? Unlikely – but, even as an unusual footnote to a career, it is well worth having this back in print and available for English audiences.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight (Alma: Surrey, 2016). 978-1847495891, 110pp., paperback.

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