Just Finished Reading: Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (FP: 1939)
I’m not entirely sure why I bought this slim (a mere 119 pages) volume, but I’m glad I did. I’d heard of the author and this, together with his other works, kept coming up as ‘also bought’ on my Amazon searches so I thought I’d give it a punt.
The author was born into wealth and position in the French aristocracy but early on developed a love of flying. Just missing action in WW1 he finally landed a job as pilot for pioneering airline Latecoere (later known as Aeropostale) flying mail and, sometimes passengers, across North Africa and in South America. Contained between the covers of this truly fascinating narrative are some of his adventures and experiences. The stories themselves are interesting enough in and of themselves. Pioneering in any activity tends to bring out the best and the bizarre in human experience. This was no exception. Flying in the 1920’s in aircraft that today would be judged barely airworthy these enterprising pilots and their much needed engineers travelled across uncharted deserts, deeply isolated areas where humans rarely ventured, braved weather, bandits, mechanical failure, primitive navigation aids and the every present possibility of sudden death in order to deliver letters and parcels in record time and to areas previously considered cut off from all human communication. They were heroes to many a school boy (and no doubt some school girls), rebels and eccentrics to the authorities that had to deal with them and visiting aliens to the tribesmen they flew over and, when required, dropped in on. It was, by all accounts a strange and exciting time to be an aerial pioneer.
But, at least for me, even the well told stories and the insights into the origins of the airmail we take for granted are only part of the joy of this amazing volume. What jumps out at you from the very first page is that this is an exquisitely crafted book. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, beautifully written. Not only are there brilliant observations of the human condition scattered throughout – more than one of which took my breath away with their diamond like perception – there are whole sections that are so blindly amazing that they can only be called works of art. I am in no doubt at all that this work deserves the title of classic. On starting it I was confident that I could polish off the whole thing in a few days before moving on to my next book. Indeed I was consciously using this slim volume as a means of bulking up my review pile which was looking a little bare. It actually took me more like five days. Why you ask. Was it a slow read? Yes, but not in the way you might think. Difficult? Not really except that there was no real opportunity to speed read your way through. Was it a poor translation? On the contrary, it was one of the best I’ve come across. So what was the problem? Why did it take me so long to finish it? The ‘problem’ was that the prose was so beautiful (and I’m not using that word lightly) that it was impossible not to linger over it and, from time to time, read it out loud just to hear how it sounded (I did this mostly at home because my work colleagues think I’m strange enough as it is) and on almost every page was an idea or an observation that demanded that you think about it a bit before reading more and coming across the next brilliant insight. This is one of those rare books that you could read two or three times a year for the rest of your life and get something from each time. I can hardly recommend this book too highly. Read it before you die. You’ll thank me for it later.
Translated from the French by William Rees.