Monday, January 07, 2013

Review: 'Night Flight' by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Just finished reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 1942 novel, Night Flight, a gnarled paperback copy of which I picked up for a buck at Half Price Books some months ago.

The author, of course, is best known for writing The Little Prince, a book I've never read.

For someone as prosaic as I am, Saint-Exupéry's style can at times be infuriating. It isn't that his style is florid. Nor is he wordy; Night Flight only runs to 128 pages. It's that he uses lots of metaphors. Sentence after sentence they come marching at you until, after about two pages, you almost feel you're drowning in them.

Truth is, I became so fed up with Saint-Exupéry's style in the early going that I nearly threw Night Flight into the Half Price sell pile.

But after a while, I got used to his writing and even came to enjoy the word pictures Saint-Exupéry painted.

The plot is taut and engaging.

Night Flight, set probably in the 1930s, is the story of French aviation pioneers who introduce airmail service in South America, circulating not only there, but also carrying mail to and from Europe.

It's less a novel than it is a short story, tightly focused on a few characters, particularly the psychological drama playing out, on a night of dangerous storms, in the mind and will of the man in charge of the mail service.

Saint-Exupéry, himself an aviation pioneer, portrays the dangers and challenges--physical and psychological--the pioneers in any field are likely to face.

The book's vivid portrayal of these dangers is its greatest attribute. Its greatest deficiency, to me, is its inherent nihilism and anthropocentric narcissism. Saint-Exupéry seems to have believed in a life without God or much purpose apart from whatever purpose human beings choose to impose on it.

As I read Night Flight, I was struck constantly by the fact that Saint-Exupéry himself, died on a reconnaissance mission for the Free French during World War II.

If you can find this book in the library or at Half Price for a buck, it could be worth the time you spend on reading it. Some of the metaphors are stunning.

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