A flier's finely honed exuberance for life

October 16, 1994|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds,Los Angeles Times

Near death in the Libyan desert after his plane had gone down and he had long since used up the 19 hours estimated life expectancy of a man without water in that part of the world, Antoine de Saint-Exupery thinks to himself: "Flying is a man's job and its worries are a man's worries. A pilot's business is with the wind, with the stars, with night, with sand, with the sea. . . . Truth for him is what lives in the stars."

This adventure was during a 1935 Paris-Saigon flight, one of many recounted here from the years that Saint-Exupery, author of "The Little Prince," was a mail pilot (the late 1920s and '30s) flying through the Andes, across Africa and through the Saharan desert that he loved. "Only the unknown frightens men," he writes. "But once a man has faced the unknown, the terror becomes the known."

It seems that the guiding principle of Saint-Exupery's life was the fight against indifference. What leaps from these pages is a love of life and a perspective on the earth and earthly things that may in fact have sprung from his chosen profession and a courage, moral, emotional, physical.

In the end, he writes that it is not necessary to "get oneself killed in Madrid, or to fly mail planes, or to struggle wearily in the snows out of respect for the dignity of life." The struggle is to stay awake and find joy in a cup of coffee and hot milk ("that first burning and aromatic swallow . . .").

And Saint-Exupery, with his gorgeous writing, breathed life into the weather itself: "The blue sky glittered like a new-honed knife. I felt in advance the vague distaste that accompanies the prospect of physical exertion. The purity of the sky upset me. Give me a good black storm in which the enemy is plainly !B visible."

Title: "Wind, Sand and Stars"

Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupery; translated from the French by Lewis Galantiere

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Length, price: 227 pages, $15.95

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