The Book Group started its first meeting with this unmistakably French – but highly individualistic – blend of narrative and meditation. We all agreed this had been a first class choice to start off the Book Group – a pleasantly short book with lots to debate.
Some debate was caused by the use of two different translations – the original 1939 Lewis Galantiere version, authorised by Saint-Exupery himself, and the 1995 version by William Rees. A brief comparison of the translations suggested to us that the flowing and somewhat flowery language of Galantiere seemed best suited to the evocative poetic parts of the text, while the concision of Rees dealt better with the meditation. Nevertheless, we were aware that “poetry is what gets lost in the translation”. Interestingly, one of us complained about two or three political passages as being of poor judgement, which turned out to be passages omitted from the Rees version. This was because they had not appeared in the final French text, but had been included as contextual material for the benefit of American readers under pressure from Galantiere. We also did not agree with the translators that it would be unsatisfactory to stick with the French title “Terre des hommes” translated into English as, say, “Land of Men” .
We were agreed that the passages of storytelling were particularly powerful. In these the author recounted atmospheric tales of aviation, the desert and war in which individuals lived on the edge and found themselves through battling against the immensity and dangers of the natural world. All the episodes were intensely imagined and realised. One of the reasons the proposer of the book had been attracted to it was his experience of living in deserts, and he felt it also accurately portrayed the Arab character. One of the episodes involved a kind of “magic realism”, similar to that seen in South American authors. The book was weaker in the middle section where it had a long section of meditation which was not leavened with narrative content.
More controversial were the meditative/philosophical sections, in which Saint-Exupery sought to extract the significance for life and self-realization of these extreme situations. Some felt that he identified much of great truth – for example the way in which people bond in the face of adversity. Others felt that his was a partial and upper class view, missing out the importance of male/female relationships, and patronising the masses – such as the Polish migrant workers discussed at the end, who did not have the opportunity for such heroism. We noted some influence of existentialism, for example in his discussion of what freedom meant for the freed slave. Some felt that Saint-Exupery was inconsistent in his philosophical positions, although others felt that this was irrelevant, as essentially he was writing a work of prose poetry, not of philosophy.
Some of us were familiar with Saint-Exupery’s work the Little Prince, ostensibly for children and said to be the most widely translated French book. We were intrigued that it started with the same story of the planewreck in the desert that is the dominant story in Wind, Sand and Stars. However, its philosophy – which this time does emphasise the importance of relationships – is put forward in the more easily digested format of a playful fable.
We concluded with a discussion of literary analogies in English for Saint-Exupery’s work, though noting that if you picked it up without knowing the author you would soon assume it was French. We could find no close analogy. One introduction had compared him to Joseph Conrad, which was interesting in terms of the poetic prose comparison but, we felt, understated the philosophical content of Saint-Exupery and the narrative content of Conrad. A more apt analogy might be Wordsworth’s Prelude, with its poetic blend of narration and meditation on the elemental.