Monday, August 8, 2016

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“PILOTE DE GUERRE” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (first published in 1942; English language translation by Louis Galantiere called “FLIGHT TO ARRAS”)

            When I was an undergraduate 40-plus years ago, doing a double major in English and French at the University of Auckland, I was sometimes exasperated by the poor choice of modern novels and other prose that were set as part of our French course. I would have been happy to study in detail the poetry of Paul Valery, with which I was able to catch up only years later; but instead we had foisted on us the tired surrealism of Paul Eluard and the dated Marxist versifying of Louis Aragon. I didn’t mind reading Anatole France’s Les Dieux ont Soif and La Revolte des Anges, because at least the latter was kind of funny and the former neatly cynical in a Voltairean sort of way. But how come we had a middle-range non-classic yarn like Henri Troyat’s La Tete sur les Epaules thrust on us when we could have been reading some Francois Mauriac or even Andre Malraux? I guess Camus’ L’Etranger was inevitable (it’s short and simple enough to be read by freshers), but why did we have to put up with Simone de Beauvoir’s incredibly tedious first volume of autobiography Memoires d’une Jeune Fille Rangee? And what sheer insult to give us Boris Vian’s beatnik effort L’Ecume des Jours!
            My final impression was that, while the French Department’s range of older authors was solid enough (Corneille, Racine, Moliere, l’Abbe Prevost, Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac, Flaubert etc.), the modern novels seemed to have been chosen haphazardly and at the whim of French Department lecturers, and did not give us a good range of what 20th century French literature had to offer.
But there was one set 20th century French author I didn’t mind having to read, for the same reason that I enjoyed reading Joseph Conrad. He intellectualised physical action, and so for a weedy would-be intellectual like me, he became a good substitute for physical action. This was the aviator author Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-44). We were marched through his early novel Vol de Nuit (Night Flight), and then in more detail his Terre des Hommes (fancifully translated as Wind, Sand and Stars).
I may be wrong, but I’m fairly sure that Saint-Ex’s literary reputation has suffered a bit of an eclipse in the last few decades. Of course there is still a huge audience for his children’s book Le Petit Prince, and sentimentalists from the 1960s can still burst out with the chorus “L’important c’est la rose”. But perhaps Saint-Ex. was too much the man of his own times. Like so many French authors of the mid-20th century (Malraux, Camus, Sartre etc.), he was more-or-less existentialist in his views, but it was a self-devised existentialism, not drawn from textbooks and café discussions.
As a pioneer aviator, mail-pilot (in South America), setter of international speed records within the old French Empire (Paris to Saigon in record time), French Air Force reconnaissance pilot and later pilot for the Free French – in which role he went missing in his final sortie – Saint-Exupery was the man of action first and the author second. But this was to lead to the accusation that his existentialism was too masculinist, glorying in male athleticism, the courage of the warrior and so forth. Some saw a crypto-fascist in him, even if his war record was one of honourable resistance to Hitler.
I replayed all these impressions in my mind recently when I read one of Saint-Exupery’s works, which I did not get around to as a student.
Pilote de Guerre had a difficult publication history. Saint-Exupery left France after the capitulation in 1940 and went to America where he lived in New York for two years, spending much of his time propagandising for American intervention against Hitler. It was in America that he wrote Pilote de Guerre. It was originally published in censored form in Occupied France in 1942. All negative references to Hitler and Germans were removed, making it a straight account of reconnaissance sorties. Later it was banned outright in Vichy France, although there were clandestine printings of it. Only after the Liberation in 1944 was an uncensored version released in France. This was two years after the complete version had become known in translation to English-speakers under the title Flight to Arras.
            Pilote de Guerre is not a novel but a memoir with philosophical asides.
Saint-Exupery gives his account of his reconnaissance missions with the French Air Force during the Battle of France in mid-1940. As a pilot, accompanied by a navigator and a gunner, he was asked to fly over and photograph the embattled town of Arras. Defeat was already in the air. As Saint-Exupery repeatedly reminds us, France’s smaller and largely agrarian population was pitted against Germany’s larger, and largely industrialised population, and French forces were outnumbered three-to-one.
The reconnaissance mission seems pointless.
There are many suggestions that at this point, French ground forces were simply “playing a game” or going through the motions of fighting a war. Much of the book is concerned with the psychology of defeat. There are vivid accounts of villages deserted and left defenceless for no strategic reason, and even more vivid descriptions of roads in northern France clogged with refugees to the point where both their own movement and military manoeuvres are impossible.
There is also the “sensual” description of the reconnaissance flight itself. The colour of tracer bullets rising in rosary-like streams. The smoky blue murk rising from destroyed villages. The movement of the ‘plane. This is intermixed with memories of other actions by Saint-Exupery’s comrades in other sorties (17 of the 23 crews in his air-group had already been wiped out before Saint-Ex. took his flight to Arras). And the hospitality of village billets recalls for him childhood memories.
Significantly the book opens with memories of his being in a classroom. Saint-Exupery is the grown schoolboy going out to do his duty and undertaking a reconnaissance mission like a homework assignment.
The mission returns safely to base.
The last 20 or so pages of Pilote de Guerre are a philosophical essay, in which Saint-Exupery renews his humanism in the face of military defeat. France is not defeated so long as it retains human beings who accept their common humanity with others and look to the future. Saint-Exupery implicitly rejects mere individualism (=anarchy), fascism (=the state) and Marxism (=the collective). His faith is in an open society underpinned by a sense of responsibility to all human beings. That is what he means by the term “Man”. He likens this to, but does not identify it with, the traditional Christian teaching of charity. What God once was, Man should now be – the factor that unites us. As always, the difficulty of this concept of human solidarity (as expressed, for example, in Mazzini’s Duties of Man) is how to teach or enforce it.
Pilote de Guerre is said to have boosted respect for the French in wartime America by showing that some of them had shown a warrior spirit and that they did fight a real campaign in earnest before they were defeated.
Even so, from this distance it reads mainly as an apologia for defeat – a sad and melancholy book by a man who regretted that his compatriots did not have the same stomach for the fight that he had.
Another memorial of France’s greatest humiliation in the 20th century.

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