Mountain, Sea and Storm by Christopher Robbins
This article is from Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly
Issue 30, Summer 2011, ‘A Personal Landscape’
View issue content here.
The most unorthodox branch of the American Legion, the United States’s organization of war veterans, is ‘China Post One, Shanghai – Soldiers of Fortune in Exile’. Founded in 1919, it originally met in the American Club in Shanghai until war and revolution chased it out. Today it is the only American Legion post in exile and nominally headquartered in a Communist country. The membership roster, made up of adventurers, mercenaries, CIA-paramilitary types, spooks, old China hands, and a curious mélange of pilots, includes legendary ﬁgures from the Far East.
Some years ago I attended a China Post reunion at the invitation of several of the pilots. Among them were men who had ﬂown sup¬plies for Chiang Kai-shek’s troops in China, others who had resupplied the French at Dien Bien Phu, and a couple who had been shot down by the Vietnamese. There were pilots who had ﬂown spy planes over Soviet Russia, mercenary aviators who had worked for the CIA, and USAF ofﬁcers who had undertaken covert missions over Laos. A hundred or so paunchy, polyester-clad Asia hands spent a nostalgic weekend together remembering old times and consuming prodigious amounts of booze.
Although literature was not high on the weekend’s agenda, I made a point of asking the pilots to name their favourite book on ﬂying. Again and again, almost without exception, they cited Wind, Sand and Stars (1939) by Antoine de St-Exupéry. Their choice seemed unlikely. These hard-headed men of action had opted for a book that is dreamy and poetic at heart, almost hippy in its philosophy. But then I looked around me and realized that, despite their bravado, I was among incurable romantics.
St-Exupéry writes about ﬂying in the days when aviation was a dangerous and glorious adventure. His descriptions of flight are unequalled and capture its dream-like quality along with its drama. He believed its danger conferred transcendent powers that brought men face to face with themselves. As Joseph Conrad is the writer associated with the sea, so Antoine de St-Exupéry is the writer of the air.
Le vicomte de St-Exupéry came from one of France’s oldest fami¬lies but cared little for his title. He enjoyed a romantic and happy childhood and then, as a young man, he became obsessed with ﬂying to the point of fanaticism.
St-Ex – as he became universally known – was tall, balding, with black button eyes set in a scarred moon face. A shy man, with an almost feminine sensitivity, he was physically awkward and almost always shabbily dressed. He exerted, however, an enormous sex appeal over women and habitually fell in love with those whose temperaments were guaranteed to make him unhappy.
On re-reading Wind, Sand and Stars I was initially disappointed. At ﬁrst the book seems dated and clumsily structured, while for the English reader its lyricism teeters on the edge of purple prose. But St-Ex casts a spell and as I continued to read I was drawn in and taken over. I finished the book with an even greater regard for it than before.
It was easy to see why those American ﬂyboys had been hooked. St-Ex spoke their language. He wrote of the harsh joys of the pilot’s craft and the sacred rites of the profession. He understood the pilot’s three eternal divinities of mountain, sea and storm. He too had risked his life daily to fly an obsolete and unarmed aircraft over terrain where both men and nature were hostile. He too valued spirit over equipment and had experienced moments of stark fear and of exaltation.
St-Ex was the ﬁrst writer to put into words the unique emotions and experiences of pilots. He knew the threatening bubble within which an aviator must exist. Any pilot caught in bad weather in a small aircraft would respond to his description of battling a storm: ‘I had been spat out to sea by a monstrous cough, vomited out of my valley as from the mouth of a howitzer.’ Elsewhere he describes a col¬league’s ﬁrst crossing of the South Atlantic. As darkness falls, the pilot ﬂies into a tempest:
Tornadoes tied their tails together before him, as if a wall were taking shape . . . Waterspouts stood in apparently motionless ranks like the pillars of a temple. On their swollen capitals rested the dark and lowering arch of the storm, but blades of light sliced down through the cracks in the arch, and between the pillars the full moon gleamed on the cold stone tiles of the sea.
St-Ex had seen things that only other pilots saw and he turned their visions into literature. Flying at four in the morning over a deserted village he looked down and saw a pack of dogs: ‘When the moon rose white as a picked bone, a whole village bayed at the divin¬ity . . . No sum could buy the night with its 100,000 stars, its serenity, its few hours of sovereignty.’
The irony is that St-Ex was not a very good pilot. On his ﬁrst solo ﬂight he made such a bad landing that he injured himself, and other crashes followed. He was obliged to get around France’s licensing sys¬tem by qualifying as a military pilot in Morocco. In 1926 he joined a corps of adventurous pioneers ﬂying for an aviation company open¬ing up mail routes in South America and Africa, an enterprise that was to lose 150 men in the process.
He was assigned to the Casablanca-Dakar run and posted to Cape Juby – near modern-day Tarfaya, in Morocco. A desolate spot 600 miles south of Casablanca, the town consisted of an old Spanish fort, a few wooden huts and a small native population. The unpaved airstrip was lit at night by three petrol ﬂares. The surrounding terrain was barren, ﬂat and featureless. Apart from the near-criminal military personnel of the Spanish Foreign Legion, there was a handful of French ﬂying colleagues and a collection of animals – a gazelle, a chameleon, a hyena and a pet monkey. Men were shot at 60 feet beyond the fort; at 150 feet they were either killed or sold into slavery; and dissident natives ﬁred upon the planes as a matter of course. Veterans remembered their posting to this baked wilderness of 100°heat, constant wind and regular sandstorms, as a time of claustrophobic tedium. St-Ex thought it heaven. He lived in a hut, his bed a straw mattress over planks, his table an old door balancing on oil drums; his few possessions consisted of a deck of cards, a gramophone and a typewriter. But the time spent in this austere desert outpost moulded him as a writer, providing the raw material for his books: idealized camaraderie, the mixture of responsibility and risk that was every pilot’s lot, the beauty of the natural world, and the glory of ﬂight.
St-Ex ﬂew a First World War bi-plane at Cape Juby, the Breguet XIV. It had a wooden propeller, an open cockpit, minimal naviga¬tional equipment and no radio – carrier pigeons were taken on ﬂights in case of emergency. Engines were unreliable and broke down on average every 15,000 miles. ‘They would often give up on you with a great crashing of breaking crockery,’ St-Ex wrote.
Wind, Sand and Stars appeared more than a decade after St-Ex’s time in Cape Juby. Published in April 1939, as the world moved towards war, its rhapsodic humanism and belief in the individual was a stirring antidote to Nazism. The book is a hymn to the glory of the human spirit, and all its characters, from the heroes down to the wretched slave who lived on the edge of the camp and whose freedom St-Ex bought, are imbued with magniﬁcence. He believed that life was a luxury, consciousness a miracle, and every individual a universe.
‘If our purpose is to understand mankind and its yearnings . . . we must never set one man’s truth against another’s.’
Wind, Sand and Stars is a short book and something of a mishmash, made up of a reworked collection of articles, fragments of stories, travelogue and character studies. The style is particularly Gallic in the abstract musings that accompany the compelling narrative of men of action stretched to the limit. It certainly proved a challenge to the translator, a task made doubly onerous by the author’s barrage of letters insisting on corrections, deletions and rewrites.
The book was received enthusiastically. The Académie française awarded it the Prix Roman, even though it was not a novel, and in the USA it won a National Book Award. French critics compared St-Ex to Plutarch and Emerson, and wrote that no one since Chateaubriand had so skilfully coaxed poetry out of prose; as an adventurer he was compared to Columbus and Magellan; as a philosopher to Descartes and Nietzsche. One small criticism, how¬ever, made St-Ex truly miserable: his sister cabled from Saigon that she had discovered a grammatical error.
The most memorable episode in the book, when St-Ex crashes in the Libyan Desert with a colleague, is part Boy’s Own adventure story and part profound psychological insight into men of action on the point of death. St-Ex had rescued many crashed aviators and knew it could take a fortnight to ﬁnd a plane in 2,000 miles of desert. So, together with his companion, he began to walk north. At ﬁrst the desert tricked the men with endless mirages, and then their own minds began to trick them with extraordinary hallucinations. A last shared orange provided St-Ex with one of the greatest joys of his life. He began to interpret the intense emotions of regret and suffering he felt as a form of wealth . . . but at the end of a 140-mile trek there was no wealth left.
And then, on the point of certain death, a miracle. A Bedouin approached across the sand, ‘like a god on the surface of the sea’.
After the fall of France in 1940, St-Ex spent several years in exile in America where he wrote his most famous book, The Little Prince. When the USA ﬁnally entered the war he was desperate to go into action. Over-age, over-weight and under-qualiﬁed, he used his fame to pull strings and was assigned to a US reconnaissance squadron ﬂy¬ing the latest in American aviation technology, the P-38 Lightning.
The ﬁghter was too fast and sophisticated for someone who pre¬ferred old-style ﬂight in a bi-plane with an open cockpit and few controls. St-Ex complained that the pilot was no longer embarking on an adventure but shutting himself in a laboratory, and he described the Lightning as a ‘ﬂying torpedo that has nothing what¬ever to do with ﬂying and, with all its screens and buttons, makes of its pilot a sort of chief accountant’.
In reality, the ﬁghter was beyond him. He destroyed a couple of the aircraft in crash landings and was ofﬁcially grounded as a result. He ignored the restriction and continued to ﬂy. On 31 July 1944, St-Ex took off from his base in Corsica on a reconnaissance ﬂight over France and never returned.
There has been speculation over his disappearance ever since. The most likely explanation is that he was shot down. Suicide was suspected by some colleagues who knew he had been suffering from depression. Whatever the cause, at the age of 44 Antoine de St-Exupéry was the most famous writer to become a casualty of the war. His prose had celebrated the risky business of being brieﬂy among the blessed minority of the living, but he was also a fatalist. He might have been referring to his own death when he wrote, ‘Fate carried out a successful raid, the grunt of destiny keeping his appointment.’ Or perhaps a more poetic wish was granted: ‘I lived in the realm of ﬂight . . . I could have gone on ﬂying through space forever.’
Christopher Robbins has chronicled the adventures of romantic aviators in his books Air America and The Ravens.
Antoine de St-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars (published in French as Terre des hommes, 1939) Penguin • Pb • 144pp •£8.99 • isbn 9780141183190