Why The Little Prince is still teaching us life lessons nearly 80 years after it was first published
While the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris is opening “Meeting the Little Prince”, the first major museum exhibition in France devoted to the literary masterpiece written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in New York during the Second World War, the he traveling exhibition “The Little Prince Among Humans” organized by Tempora is preparing to be launched next week at Brussels Expo in Belgium, after its successful premiere in Lyon, France. Both exhibitions run until the end of June 2022. I sit down with Olivier d’Agay, great-nephew of the illustrious French author-pilot and secretary general of the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Foundation for Youth, to discover the timelessness of The little Prince almost eight decades after its first release.
In the whole of the literary work of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, what is the place of The little Prince?
The place of The little Prince in his work is both central and unique. It is central because it is the most famous work. It is the most translated book in the world (480 languages) and the number of editions and copies sold worldwide (more than 200 million) is incalculable. Unique because this literary object does not resemble a novel or the rest of his work. The form looks a bit like a tale, supposedly for children, but which is in fact addressed to adults (who have not forgotten their childhood). Its success is due as much to the watercolors painted by the author himself as to the text. The author does not present it as his testament, but it contains the quintessence of his earthly experiences and his philosophy. Remember that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry published very little during his lifetime – six books – and that as many posthumous works were “produced” after his death over a period of 70 years, including The wisdom of the sandsaccording to his many manuscripts preserved after his disappearance on July 31, 1944. The little Prince, commissioned by its American publisher (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was in New York at the time between 1941 and 1943 before going to war in North Africa), began as a nice project to pay the bills and became, at the thread of the miracles of the inspiration and genius of my great-uncle, the most universal, timeless and modern fable, which has spoken to people for almost 80 years (2023). In terms of style, and I’m not talking about the drawings, which are more the graphic work of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry than literary, perfection has been achieved, and the quotes from the book have gone around the world: “It’s only with the heart that can be seen correctly; the essential is invisible to the eyes” or “For me, you will be unique in the world”, etc.
Why The little Prince become one of the most important French literary works in the world, translated into nearly 500 different languages and dialects, and a best-seller nearly 80 years after its first publication?
The reasons for the success of the Little Prince are its power and its usefulness. His circulation was slow but very gradual. There were three main periods in the spread of the text. Between 1943 and 1960, the major languages took over, allowing large linguistic communities to discover its existence and share it: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Italian and Russian. Then each country had its own translation, from Greek to Korean, via Arabic and Swedish between 1960 and 1980. Then came the many regional languages in Europe (more than 50), Africa, India and in the Soviet Union. Finally, since 1980, we have seen the appearance of translations in indigenous languages (Inuit, Inca, Berliner, Aramaic, Creole, Quechua), in specialized languages (Braille, Volapük, Esperanto) and in dead or imaginary languages (hieroglyphs, Latin, Greek elder, Klingon). In short, everyone had access to the book and the phenomenon of propagation could be amplified because it is a book with which we want to share the pleasure of reading and its benefits with those around us. Word of mouth has worked wonders. The little Prince is a book that you pass on to your children, grandchildren, friends and loved ones. It is first and foremost a book that consoles the loss of a loved one; there are millions of testimonies to this effect. It is also a guide and a survival manual in this absurd world (in the Camusian sense of the term) for those who doubt or wonder about the meaning of life, death and relationships between individuals. It is an esoteric book that provides real answers to these questions if you know how to read between the lines. We can speak of three levels of reading for The little Prince: that of the story, that which the author wanted to hide in his story and that of our interpretation. The little Prince has the power of poetic seduction, enchantment and healing. It has the power to bring us serenity and hope. It is crucial for each of us. It is therefore useful and advisable to read it frequently.
What does it mean for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s family to finally have the original manuscript and watercolors of The little Prince In France?
The possibility of exhibiting the original manuscript in France is an immense satisfaction and joy for us. Firstly because 79 years later and knowing the incredible success of this work, it is time for France to take an interest in it and pay tribute to both the author and the man Saint-Exupéry. The discovery of the original watercolors of The little Prince (for the first time in the world) in the exhibition of the Museum of Decorative Arts will be a moment of fantastic emotional intensity for the public. The examination of the pages of the original manuscript in the Morgan Library is fascinating. We discover new planets that were not included in the book! We will thus be able to share and commune with the French public around this unique work, but also discover the genesis of the work and remember the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a life of commitment in the service of humanist and positive values. . He was both a simple man, a hero and a visionary.
How do you explain that Saint-Exupéry was both a man of action and a man of letters? Is it rare for a person to be recognized in both areas?
Joseph Kessel said that among all the men and women he had met in his life (and there were thousands of them!), only one was 100% writer and 100% man of action in his eyes. It was Saint-Exupéry. He meant by this that this quality is extremely rare and that Saint-Ex effortlessly excelled in both areas because the action nourished his reflection, which nourished his writing. Saint-Ex stopped publishing novels between 1932 and 1938 because some of his fellow pilots had called him an intellectual and his life had become erratic. At the end of his life, he became a real philosopher, and the action became a justification for his writing of The wisdom of the sands. Indeed, the action had for him only one virtue (he was the oldest pilot of the war at 44 years old and only flew thanks to the protection granted to him by the American president): that of exonerating him from any accusation of cowardice. He had reached the stage of wisdom, fruit of the lived experience, where the elevation of the soul becomes more important than the pure action to interact with its environment. This era of the 20and century offers several examples of the same type of man immersed in action and finding inspiration to write: François Mauriac, Paul Morand, Curzio Malaparte or Joseph Kessel. There was a search for authenticity and inspiration from real life, but also the moral of the writing. We had the right to write or testify if we had tasted the action and the truth of the experience, even if it meant paying dearly for this right. It is also that this type of writer did not write about himself but about others. His work was not centered on himself but open to others and to the world.