Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

If you’re a long-term reader like me, there are always books and authors on your radar you’ve always meant to read but never got round to. Antoine de Saint-Exupery is one of those. I’ve been aware of his book “The Little Prince” for as long as I can remember, though I’ve never actually read it; but it’s his other books that have appealed to me more, covering his experiences during the early days of flight. I’ve kept running across them recently, and then the lovely Alma Classics produced a new edition of his book “Night Flight” and kindly provided a review copy – so I’ve had no excuse not to read it.

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I wonder why SE’s best known work has tended to overshadow his others? Be that as it may, I approached “Night Flight” with little knowledge about the man and his work apart from the fact that he was something of a flying pioneer and that he died young. NF is a slim novel, almost a novella, and it tells the story of one night in the life of several characters involved in the work of the mail planes in South America. Fabien is a young pilot, making a night flight over Argentina carrying the mail to link up with the European mail plane. In these early days of flight, travelling at night is dangerous – the planes have limited instrumentation and navigation aids, and simply can’t handle the dark or bad weather. But Rivière, Fabien’s boss, is determined to show that planes are the most efficient way to carry the mail and he will risk all – even his pilots’ lives – to prove this.

The earth was spread with lights sending out their appeals, each house lighting up its own star, in the face of the immensity of the night, like a lighthouse turning towards the sea. Everything which sheltered a human life was now sparkling. And Fabien adored the way his entry into the night was like a slow and beautiful entry into a harbour.

So Fabien flies on through the night in his mail plane, contemplating his life and the bigger universe. As the storm increases and the weather deteriorates, so do the chances of the plane making it through. As the characters on the ground (including the inspector, Robineau, and Fabien’s wife) watch and wait, we share their anxiety as we wonder whether Fabien and the plane will make it through.

Fabien is roaming around in the night over the splendour of a sea of clouds, but down below him is eternity. He is lost among the constellations, where he alone dwells. He still holds the world in his hands and balances it against his chest. In his joystick he grasps the weight of human wealth, and carries, from one star to another, this useless treasure which he will have to give up…

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While this is a deceptively simple tale on the surface of things, and a slim volume at 110 pages, “Night Flight” certainly punches above its weight, as they say. The book is about many things: the desire of mankind to conquer the elements, whether the end justifies the means, collective responsibility vs the individual – and all couched in the most poetic prose. The translation, by David Carter, reads beautifully and captures wonderfully the feeling of working through the night, the sense of being out of the normal run of things, and the tensions of those on watch. Fabien himself is an elusive figure, contemplating the world and his lot with relative calm, and Saint-Exupery paints the pilots as pioneers – which they were – and heroic figures, battling the elements for the common good. There are no clear-cut conclusions at the end, and although Rivière is responsible for Fabien’s ultimate fate, he does not entirely take the blame.

“Night Flight” is one of those books that stays with you; the imagery of the night flying, the vigil on the ground and the thoughtful explorations of life and living are evocative, and still lingering in my mind long after finishing the book. If the qualities here are reflected in Saint-Exupery’s other books, I’ll certainly be wanting to read more – and fortunately, I do have a few more titles on the TBR…. 🙂

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(A word about the book itself – my review copy was kindly provided by Alma, and it’s an absolutely lovely edition. The cover image and design is perfect for the content, and it’s that almost plasticky type of cover you sometimes get nowadays. I wasn’t sure about it on one book I had this on, but here it works really well, lending the book the air of something that should be resilient enough to go on a Night Flight with you! If you plan to get a copy, I really recommend this one!)

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