Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: "Night Flight" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery is remembered today, above all, for his beloved children's fable, The Little Prince, but that particular work is anomalous within his oeuvre, which mostly consists of writing about aviation, both fiction and non-fiction. His 1931 novel, Night Flight (Vol de nuit in the original French), is a typical example of his style and his favored subject matter. Taking place over one night in which an airmail pilot and his wireless operator are lost in a storm flying from Patagonia to Buenos Aires, the novel shifts perspectives, providing a kaleidoscopic portrait of the lives around Riviere, the boss and the man who keeps the night flights going through.

Riviere sees himself as a lone hero and his own reflections sometimes verge on the Napoleonic. He is likened (and likens himself) to a war-weary general, unable to sympathize with his men for fear of softening them and abating their courage, and even to a god, dispensing the virtues necessary to spur men to great heights and guiding their planes through the treacherous South American mountains and over the Atlantic. Even his employees see him in those terms. Robineau, the inspector, "likened himself to the N.C.O. who joins his wounded general under fire, follows him in defeat and, in exile, plays a brother's part." Andre Gide, in his preface, subscribes wholeheartedly to this view of Riviere, lauding his "superhuman heights of valor" and "nobility." I must confess myself less convinced of the heroism of the stoic airmail director.

It seems likely that Saint-Exupery would ascribe my skepticism towards his hero as a result of my being a woman, member of that half of humanity Riviere wants to "thrust... aside," for "mothers and women are not allowed in an operating theater." There are only two women in the novel, both unnamed pilots' wives. They are opaque and interchangeable, but Saint-Exupery seems less interested in empathizing with their suffering as they send off their husbands to possible death with each flight than in using their emotional power as an oppositional force against Riviere's hyper-masculinity and insistence on action even at the cost of human life. The wives are described as guardians, ensconced in an elevated domestic role, frequently described in conjunction with flowers, books, and beds, the emphasis of bodily descriptions falling heavily on breasts and lips. Riviere, reflecting on facing the lost pilot's wife, thinks, "Hearing that timid voice, he could but pity its infinite distress - and know it for an enemy!" Pitting himself against the, to him, feminine world of inaction and ordinary life, Riviere forges ahead and relegates human suffering to collateral damage in the, to him, heroic battle for dominion over the night.

Gender, however, is not really at issue. Saint-Exupery divides humanity into types for a larger purpose (echoing the actions of Riviere): the pilots are brave, handsome, and unafraid, their wives are maternal, loving, and beautiful, the mechanics take pride above all in their labor, and the peasants are simple and immured in an eminently "natural" daily life. Saint-Exupery is far more interested in the experience of flight itself than in his characters, deployed rather as symbols. The exception is Riviere, the man at the controls, and this is perhaps why I find him so unconvincing.

Night Flight is nevertheless an astoundingly beautiful novel. Saint-Exupery opens up the mystery of human flight and illuminates the extraordinary experience of being a pilot in the early days of aviation. On nearly any page of the novel, one finds passages of luminous beauty: "The engine's five-hundred horse-power bred in its texture a very gentle current, fraying its ice-cold rind into a velvety bloom. Once again the pilot in full flight experienced neither giddiness nor any thrill; only the mystery of metal turned to living flesh." And again: "Now all grew luminous, his hands, his clothes, the wings, and Fabien thought that he was in a limbo of strange magic; for the light did not come down from the stars but welled up from below, from all that snowy whiteness." With writing as gorgeous as this, character, and even plot, lose their cruciality.

That being said, Night Flight pales in comparison with Saint-Exupery's memoir of his life as a pilot, Wind, Sand, and Stars, which is simply the best book on early aviation that exists. It's heart-stoppingly beautiful, but Saint-Exupery is also at his best when dealing with actual people, rather than types, and he himself comes alive as a charismatic trailblazer. In Night Flight, Riviere seems to be the author's stand-in, directing the various workers under his command like the pieces on a chessboard in a game against Nature; in Wind, Sand, and Stars, a very human voice describes how men transcend the limits of our physical space, rising to heights hitherto only dreamed and mythologized. Saint-Exupery disappeared in 1944 while on an Allied reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean, the last in a life of heroic exploits. He was a far greater hero than the Riviere of his imagination.

The translation by Stuart Gilbert is over all very good, though he occasionally succumbs to awkward phrases that could have been more smoothly Anglicized, one example being "It rejoiced him" - it's not so much incorrect or inaccurate as jarring for an English-language reader. Saint-Exupery's language is coldly poetic, an icy counterpoint to the poetry of Rimbaud. Occasional elegant French phrases simply elude translation into English, a harder, more structurally rigid language, but the radiant qualities of Saint-Exupery's shine even through the sporadic imperfections of the translation.

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