home | links | contact

art by suzette chanjournalism by suzette chanradio hosted by suzette chanweb design by suzette chan

suzette chan > journalism > stacy schiff


Timothy Findley
Rohinton Mistry
Anne Rice
Stacy Schiff
Carol Shields

Amazing Grace
Poverty's Bonds


stacy schiff:
saint-exupery: a biography



For The Edmonton Sun

Stacy Schiff
Saint-Exupery: A Biography,  book cover


Stacy Schiff's agent warned her against being too optimistic about publishing giant Alfred A. Knopf buying her biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, best known in North America as the author of The Little Prince.

"She wrote me a fax, and she said, 'don't get all excited, remember that you are writing about a dead Frenchman with an unpronounceable name who wrote one children's book' — which is indeed how many people see it," says first-time author Schiff.

But Knopf did indeed buy the book on the strength of Saint-Exupery's fascinating double career as an author and an aviation pioneer.

Many Canadians are familiar with The Little Prince — a metaphysical 1943 classic about the intergalactic travels of a Little Prince who came from a planet that was "scarcely larger than a house."

But in France, Saint-Exupery was celebrated as the author of several books based on his early flying days. After his 1944 disappearance during a World War II reconnaissance mission, Saint-Exupery was posthumously decorated as a war hero.

Schiff says she started work on Saint-Exupery: A Biography after re-reading Wind, Sand and Stars, one of Saint-Exupery's books on flying.

"I was struck by how beautifully it was written, what an incredibly lyrical piece of prose it was... I began to think about how the circumstances of his death were still unsolved and began to realize there are huge parts of his life no one had examined before," says Schiff, a Massachusetts native who had been working in New York as a book editor first for Viking/Penguin, then for Simon & Shuster. Schiff moved to Edmonton five years ago after marrying an Edmontonian.

Saint-Exupery was born in 1904 to a downwardly-mobile aristocratic family in France. His father, who held a succession of short-lived careers, died when Saint-Exupery was a child, leaving his mother, Marie Boyer de Fonscolombe, to raise five children.

"It was a very aristocratic family where you generally became an officer or a diplomat," Schiff explains. "St. Exupery was a bad student, he was a misdirected soul, and diplomacy and the military was not in his future, so it was hard for him to find a place in the world that he did have to make a living."

Fascinated with the aviation boom that took place in France after a series of flight demonstrations by Wilbur Wright in 1908, St. Exupery — called Saint-Ex by his friends — looked to the skies for his future.

"Saint-Ex is lucky enough to come of age when all of that aviation fever had set in in France," says Schiff, who often speaks about St. Exupery in the present tense. "He learns to fly while doing his military service in his early 20s, largely because he doesn't know what else to do with his life at that point."

Saint-Exupery eventually found a job with Latecoere, a burgeoning air line which flew mail from Paris to France's colonies in West Africa and South America. What seems routine in 1995 was a huge risk in the late 1920s.

"In about 1928, flying down the coast of Africa, you always flew those days in tandem; two planes went out at the same time because it was likely that one of them would break down," says Schiff. "You're flying over an arid coast with fairly bad weather most of the time: sand storms, fog and things along the coast, and furthermore with dissident tribes of Moors who live there. They think that the French are basically flying pouches of gold over their heads, so they like to try to shoot the planes out of the air - not with much success. But they do kidnap the French aviators, and so it's a fairly dicey proposition to get the mail down the coast."

During one of these trips, says Schiff, both airplanes experienced technical difficulties and land in Mauritania, not far from an isolated French fort whose sole inhabitant is a French soldier.

"The sergeant throws himself upon them because they for him are emissaries from the homeland," says Schiff. "He's a man who lives with very little in the middle of this vast desert. He looks upon the mother country as something which is years away because his mail takes so long to get back to France. St. Ex is so impressed with just the very bare essentials of this man's existence and his great, overweening love for this country which is so far away that he manages to write about that night in just about every one of his books."

Schiff says other accidents are immortalized in Saint-Exupery's writing. "Of each one of those mishaps, Saint-Exupery manages to make literature in the end, so we should be grateful that he was flying such lousy aircraft!"

In fact, Saint-Exupery sometimes wrote about flying while flying: his friends pointed out that his cockpit was often littered with crumpled balls of paper.

Despite Saint-Exupery's ability to write about the romanticism of aviation, he was never able to write about romantic relationships. In fact, Schiff characterizes Saint-Exupery's love life as being "extremely complicated."

"He never had a perfectly gratifying affair with anyone. He had one long-term mistress in France, he had a couple of close girlfriends when he was living in North America and he had a wife. None of them was a perfect relationship for him."

And yet, the preservation of Saint-Exupery's work and legend is due to a number of women in his life. Schiff interviewed Saint-Exupery's mistress "30 or 40 times" on the condition her identity not be revealed.

"She (is) the keeper of the manuscripts," Schiff says of "Madame B". "The actual say for what happens to them does belong to his sister's children. St. Exupery had no children of his own, so the actual taking care of the legacy falls to his sister's children and to their children today. However, in an interesting twist, his long-term mistress, who is a very powerful woman in France, was left with the manuscripts, and she has sole care of the manuscripts. So what happens to the image of St. Ex and what happens to those manuscripts and those letters are entirely in her hands. It's a very strange situation where you have essentially two different parties controlling the legacy."

Schiff also spoke to Silvia Reinhardt, in whose New York apartment Saint-Exupery wrote The Little Prince during his exile from France due to the German occupation. Schiff says the years leading up to his departure from his homeland were bitter ones, marked by unemployment, destitution and his crumbling marriage to Salvadoran native Consuelo Gomez Carillo. In America, he found himself outside the community of other French exiles. Reinhardt's home was an oasis.

"She was with him essentially every day," says Schiff. "He came to her house at night, she gave him dinner, and he wrote and he read to her. The charming thing about it was she spoke no French and he spoke no English, and they had this passionate relationship without the use of language. When he read her these passages, he would lie down on the chaise-lounge of her apartment and she would sit at his feet. He would read to her these flowing passages, and she didn't understand a word of what he was saying. She just played along because she was madly in love with him. It was just a wonderful love story! And then he leaves to go off to the front and leaves her behind."

Last summer marked the 50th anniversary of Saint-Exupery's disappearance during World War II, a fact not lost on Schiff's French publishers, who rushed a French translation of the biography to coincide with the anniversary.

With excerpts of Saint-Exupery: A Biography published in the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post, positive reviews and appearances on American and Canadian media, Schiff's career as a biographer has taken off. She has already begun work on her next book, about the 54-year marriage of Vera and Vladimir Nabokov (Vladamir wrote the novel Lolita). Still, she does not tire of talking about Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

"It's very hard to get tired of him because I suppose it's a very sad life and your heart goes out to him at the very end," says Schiff. "It was very hard for me to survive without him for the first few months."




suzette chan | art | journalism | radio | web

back to top | home | links | contact