Back to the Classics: Le Petit Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (1949)

There are, I would argue, two main kinds of “children’s books.” First of all there are the books that address a child’s perspective, which means the point of view of someone who is growing into the physical world and all its possibilities and challenges. These are stories of outward adventure, learning, and growth, of the playful exploration that is the hallmark of a healthy childhood. Inner development and learning are there, too, as they always accompany our outer efforts, but the focus is not on introspection.

Adults can certainly enjoy these books, and when they are done well they are as worthy of literary status as any so-called “adult” book — but one can say in terms of emphasis that they are really “written for children”; they start from the place on the map where the child is, and aim to help them go further, to find their direction in life.

On the other hand, there are also books that address the childlike part of the adult, the part of us that never does grow up or completely adapt itself to the outer world, no matter how old and experienced we become. This part of us still needs to learn and grow, and is desperately in need of instruction. In fact, if we do not find it, we will die.

Children, for their part, can read and enjoy these books, but such reading gives them something they already possess. For children, they are reassuring and supportive, and help them to remember what they must not lose in the course of their journey into life. But they are actually written for adults, for people wandering and perhaps lost in the “adult” part of that journey. The orientation towards childhood is necessary, so that they can re-point themselves in the right direction again.

Le Petit Prince (which I reread in French during my Summer in Other Languages project this year) is one of the most famous and beloved examples of the latter kind of book. It presents itself as a book written for children — starting with the dedication, which is elaborately made to a friend of the author “when he was a little boy.” But even before the book really begins this highlights the fact that each grown-up was once a child, and that that child is still present in our inmost self, in the place to which we would dedicate ourselves, to which we should give our effort and our love. To the child-in-the-adult (and the child who must not lose himself in adulthood), the book is addressed.

You are probably familiar with the story: a pilot stranded in the desert has an encounter with a strange child-being, the Little Prince, whose origin and adventures are slowly revealed before he vanishes again. But — as you may also remember — the story begins with not with this encounter, but with the author’s childhood drawing of a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant. Adults look at this picture and see not a fearsome predator, but an innocuous hat.

The Little Prince, on the other hand, recognizes it right away. He also sees the sheep within the box that the author draws for him (having failed miserably to draw a sheep as requested). And so it is clear that outer appearances are not what is important to our child-self, but the inner essence. Thus, it is also very likely that the appearance of the Little Prince to a man lost in the desert, in the harsh conditions of material existence, is not an outer happening, but a revelation of inward reality. He is the inner child that we all must meet, must befriend and comfort and learn from, before he disappears again on our re-entrance into ordinary life.

It was another book that I read in French this month that brought this to awareness for me: Toucher la vie, which is based upon a conference discussing mindfulness meditation. Here the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh points out that an early stage on the path of trying to advance ourselves must be to turn towards the child within, to soothe its pain and bring it peace, acknowledging the hurts that have damaged us in life, and that we usually prefer to turn away from and ignore. If we do not have this healing encounter, then our efforts to do good in the world will fail, or we will even do harm.

He also uses the images of watering seeds of positive qualities like hope, understanding, compassion, and love, and not watering those seeds that will lead to suffering. This irresistibly reminded me of the Little Prince, the rose he waters faithfully, and the baobabs that would take over his tiny planet if they were allowed. (I suspect that Thich Nhat Hanh may have read The Little Prince, but plant-images are of course common to all forms of esoteric teaching.)

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”* The Little Prince learns this central truth from a fox that he has tamed — or is it he who has been tamed by the fox, by his rose, by that for which he dares to connect himself in ties of responsibility that bring sorrow, but also beauty and joy?

Through the patient acceptance of pain that is transformed through love and relationship, the inner eye may be opened. That is what the pilot/author learns, and passes along to us, in this small book of profound wisdom. It’s definitely worth reading at any age, and in any language.

“What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well…”*

*From the English translation by Katherine Woods

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation


New and Notable from Gallic Books

French seems to be the language from which I read translated fiction most often (see this post, and this one). This may be partly because of an affinity to the country and the culture — I studied French in school and spent a term in Paris in college — but I also have a sense that it’s one of the more popular languages for English translation. (I was not able to find any statistics to support that, so please correct me if I’m wrong.) Even so, the proportion of books that get translated from any foreign language and read in English is quite pitiful, so it’s always heartening to find a publisher who is doing the good work of bringing the world to us.

Since 2007, Gallic Books has sought to bring us “the best of French in English.” I recently read their newest titles from two popular authors, Antoine Laurain and Michel Déon, and recommend both to readers who would like to explore some Francophone literature.

Laurain’s French Rhapsody (translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce, October 2016) is a sly satire of contemporary French culture, set off when a Parisian doctor receives a letter, lost for 33 years by the post office, that seems to suggest that his defunct 80s band might have made the big time. He goes off on a quest to find the tape of their could-have-been hit single and track down some of the members of the band, who have gone off in quite different directions.

This opening device led me to expect that the book would focus on the doctor, but in fact it soon leaves his point of view and hops about rather erratically among the other characters who become involved in the twisted strands of the story. The main focus, if there is one, ends up being on the ultra-wealthy enigmatic man who produced that fateful demo tape for the group, and now is being primed by certain factions to become the next French president. There are some secrets in his past, though, that need to come to light before he can move forward to the next stage of his own life.

This political slant, along with another story strand concerning a band member who has become an ultra-right-wing thug, brings in some pertinent reflections on the explosive mix of celebrity, money, and extremism in today’s world. The silliness of modern art also gets a dig through the medium of another former band member who’s created a giant blow-up model of his own brain; and the doctor’s quest ends with an ironic twist that punctures the vanity of our dreams. Overall, this was a more acerbic, less heart-warming read than Laurain’s other Gallic books (The Red Notebook and The President’s Hat), and it didn’t hold my attention as well with its haphazard structure. Still, for some contemporary French wit, it’s worth a try.

Though written in French, Déon’s The Great and the Good (first publication 1996; translated by Julian Evans, January 2017) is mostly set in 1950s America — we meet the protagonist as he sails for the East Coast university he’ll attend on a Fulbright scholarship. Though not wealthy, his mother has paid for his first-class passage so that he will make connections with “the great and the good,” and so he meets the people who will haunt him for the rest of his life. A drunken professor, a haughty aspiring actress, and a South American con artist and his beautiful sister become the true instruments of his education in the sorrows and sufferings of the heart.

With glimpses of Cold War government machinations, the Bohemian squalor of Greenwich Village, and the experimental theater scene, Déon gives us a wry and ironic portrait of postwar America from a foreigner’s point of view. For me the weakest link was the central love story — the object of our young hero’s passion remained curiously null and featureless to me, and his attachment to her felt more like a narrative necessity than an actual relationship.

I did think that The Great and the Good would make a terrific film, along the lines of Brooklyn, and the weakness in characterization could be offset by some atmospheric visuals. Michel Déon died in December, an icon of the French literary scene with more than 50 books to his credit, only one of which had been translated before Gallic took him up. Now that he’s finally being published in English, let’s hope we might see some of his works hit the big time.


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Paris in July: Four French Delights


Paris in July is an event hosted by Thyme for Tea that encourages us to enjoy and blog about all things French — books, movies, food, what have you. In a burst of synchronicity, when I learned of this event I already had not just one, but four books on my shelf to go with the theme, including several newly published or reissued translations from French, and one debut novel in English. I had a fabulous time immersing myself in French history, culture, and atmosphere with these books, and I hope you will too!



The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Lego and Denis Lepee, translated by Sue Dyson
This historical novel is set during the early years of the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. A highly complex tapestry of voices, and plot threads, it seems to attempt to put a “Da Vinci Code”-type spin on French history, with mixed success. For me the first half, which we spend waiting for the death of Cardinal Mazarin, the real power behind the throne for many years, dragged a bit. The second half, when Louis comes into his own and some fortunes rise while others fall, was more exciting, but the concluding reveal of the great conspiracy that had been anticipated throughout the book was a letdown — silly and unconvincing. The large cast of characters and short chapters, with their abrupt scene changes, could also be confusing. Still, I enjoyed the panoramic view of a time and place about which I had previously read very little, even though the perspective on certain historical characters and events should be taken with a large grain of salt.
Gallic Books, April 2016 (reissue) • Source: ARC from publisher

Constellation by Adrien Bosc, translated by Willard Wood
On October 27, 1949, the Air France aircraft Constellation-BAZN took off from Orly airport with 48 souls. In the early hours of October 28, as it was landing for refueling in the Azores, the plane disappeared. In this short novel, Bosc gives voice to some of the individuals who perished, both famous and unknown, as well as retracing the response of the world to the tragedy, and even giving some insight into his personal research journey. Structured as brief vignettes that switch from one topic and point of view to another, it was more like a tantalizing set of appetizers than a full meal, leaving me wanting to know more about some of the lives we glimpse so fleetingly. Yet perhaps that was partly the point — to highlight the briefness and transience of life, leaving us with an impression like a sprinkling of stars in the night.
Other Press, May 2016 • Source: ARC from publisher

Girl in the Afternoon by Serena Burdick
Burdick’s debut novel was a compelling read that I finished in nearly a single sitting, with its story of two young painters in 1870s Paris, and the web of family secrets, deceit and betrayal that both binds and divides them. Though the subject matter is sensationalistic, Burdick’s treatment of it is not; rather than aiming at big, splashy effects, she quietly makes us feel the emotional impact of the events she describes, through subtle and evocative turns of phrase that make her writing a pleasure to read. It wasn’t quite what I thought it would be — the artistic themes stayed more in the background than I had expected — but that turned out not to be a problem, as the result was moving, surprising, and thought-provoking.
St. Martin’s Press, July 2016 • Source: ARC from publisher

The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
I haven’t quite finished this one yet, but I already know that it’s one readers will find either magically poetic or utterly impenetrable — and I know that I tend toward the first camp, though with understanding for the second. An atmospheric, slow-moving fantasy about two extraordinary girls in pre-WWII France and Italy, it’s one of those rare books I can enjoy without always entirely understanding what is going on. It reminded me in various ways of Little, Big; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; the Gormenghast books; and The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. . . so if you love any of those, it is probably worth a try.
Europa Editions, February 2016 • Source: E-book from library

Some copies were received for review consideration from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.