ONLY A FEW feet above the runway, he sees the ground lights vanish and knows there is something big right in front of him. Captain Saint-Exup'ery pushes forward on the stick. The plane nosedives, its wheels hitting hard, then rebounds back into the air over a truck that is carrying, of all things, a spare floodlight. Tonight, though, the floods are out while the pilots of Group 2/33 practice night landings. The only lights are faint, there to reveal the landing axis. Saint-Exupe'ry has saved his life, his co-pilot's and the truckdriver's by doing something he learned when flying air mail before the war. It is January 12, 1940. There are no stars.
A letter to an unidentified eyewitness follows, in which Saint-Exupe'ry chides himself for acting foolishly but explains, "I was very tense," and muses on the pastness of things past before getting back to his near-miss on landing. "Injustice," he writes, "is the irretrievable." It is the "gouging out of the eyes." It is also "the sight of the black truck thirty feet from me as I sped toward it at 110 miles an hour. And I 'should have' pulled the stick back in order to clear it . . . I had not a hundredth of a second to think it over. The surest reflex had come into play . . . For you, the plane was visible, since it was vaguely lit up. But for me, dazzled by the lights, all the rest was darkness. When I chose to hit the ground in order to bounce over it, I had the impression of burrowing into the earth up to my midriff before leaping over. I left a dip in the ground behind me, like a nest molded in my shape. But I didn't know what I had hatched in that nest. I didn't know what I should find in the rounded mold of my chest. And since those idiots took their time before switching on the floodlights again, I thought: There it is . . . I've killed them all." Although he claims that what's done is done, he keeps on going back to the same incident, for a day or two at least, even while driving his car. He curses "the inertia of the material world," but only four days later moves with his group to a new airfield.
He still has not flown a single military mission. His fellow-officers think he is too old at 39. The author of Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars, he has already won a couple of France's most prestigious literary prizes and, despite his inexperience at aerial warfare, ranks as one of the world's master-pilots: a genius at survival in desert and over ocean; a brooding, metaphysically-minded monk manqu'e, as apolitical as he is hypersensitive, as patriotic as he is compassionate. He hates the 20th century, not so much for its ingenuities as for its materialism, its conveyor-belts, its lack of pride in its agrarian, pastoral heritage. In fact he is something of a Luddite, this would-be combatant who complains that his fellow-fliers mollycoddle him because they think his white beard will get tangled among the controls of his Lockheed Lightning photo-reconnaissance ship. He is, all through his letters, touchy, acerbic, lyrical, lonely, a poet of the stratosphere who, long before the notion becomes fashionable, realizes that we all live on the same small planet with nowhere else to go. IF YOU want him in action, as on January 12, 1940, here he is, looking back on a pre-war crash landing in Libya; refusing to fly bombers; forgetting to switch on his electrically heated flying boots at 35,000 feet; noting that "where you breathe ice" breath turns into thin needles inside the oxygen mask; inventing and patenting an altimeter device; stealing a four-engine Farman at Bordeaux and flying 40 young pilots to continue the war in North Africa.
Illness dogs him. An old injury to a bone near the optical nerve makes his eye flare up. Wood splinters from a 1923 crash have given him septicemia. Inexplicable fevers beset him. He goes off to America, where he fumes, and then he returns to Europe aboard a troop ship, talking incessantly to a Jungian psychiatrist. He takes a drink with a couple of bargemen. He eats fried fish and creamed chicken. Within the space of one year, he changes base 12 times (Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, Casablanca, Naples, Alghero, and so on). On August 1, 1943, he has engine trouble, overshoots the field, and slightly scrapes a wing. He slips on some stairs and breaks his back. Recovered, and flying over Anne'cy, he has mechanical trouble at the precise moment he turns 44, pursued by German fighters. Only the day after telling this to a friend in a letter, he goes up again, for "MAPPING EAST OF LYON," and does not come back. "Saint-Ex." dies on July 31, 1944, 11 days after Stauffenberg's futile bomb goes off in Hitler's East Prussian HQ.
There are other Saint-Exupe'rys, however, one a swift shaper of indelible images, less ponderous than the philosophizer of Citadelle, less hokey than the author of The Little Prince. He notes "the pathetic nature of the plane," how vulnerable it is: something between contraption and greyhound. A man can explode at 35,000 feet but never "enter into another person." He loves wood fires and icy beds. Disliking too many creature comforts, he prefers his lodgings to evoke "that atmosphere of the bear hunt." In his frequent vein of manual voluptuousness, he insists that "the carpenter should plane his board as if it were essential to the earth's rotation." He deplores a generation with no spiritual values beyond "the bistro, mathematics, and the Bugatti" and yearns for the monastery of Solesmes. He considers weeping against a tree and writes in a petulant rage.
He seems almost to be cracking up in at least a tenth of his letters, but he always bucks up again, assigning himself a complex puzzle in math or changing his mind about high altitude -- he likes it because it's uncluttered, he dislikes it because it's empty. Thinking of Vichy France, he decides that "an organism creates its own anal passage."
Sometimes in these writings he can be a bit of a bore, windily going on about De Gaulle (who always thwarted him) or the American view of the French view of America, or the French view of the American view of France, all of it dusty stuff not worth culling from wherever it moldered. I don't have the French to hand (some of it would be hard to find, even), but Norah Purcell's generally readable version sometimes gets out of tune: "How much heavy a train must be!," which is not English at all, or, especially in such a polemic as "An Open Letter to Frenchmen Everywhere," limp: "This blackmail ought to be despised." Under political and social pressure, Saint-Ex. could get banal, but, when you are low over the runway with a truck in front of you, whom would you rather have in the left-hand seat? Paul West's most recent novel is "Rat Man of Paris." His memoir, "Words for a Deaf Daughter," has just been reissued.