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27 MAY, 2014

The Pilot and the Little Prince: Beloved Illustrator Peter Sís Captures the Bittersweet Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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How an adventurous little boy came to dream up the loveliest children’s book of all time.

“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” So sang a 1943 review of The Little Prince, published a few months before the beloved book’s author disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. But though it ultimately became the cause of his tragic death, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot also informed the richness of his life and the expansive reach of his spirit, from his reflection on what his time in the Sahara desert taught him about the meaning of life to his beautiful meditation on the life-saving potential of a human smile. It was at the root of his identity and his imagination, and as such inspired the inception of The Little Prince.

That interplay between Saint-Exupéry the pilot and Saint-Exupéry the imaginative creator of a cultural classic is what celebrated Czech-born American children’s book author and illustrator Peter Sís explores in the beautiful graphic biography The Pilot and the Little Prince (public library) — a sensitive account of Saint-Exupéry’s life, underpinned by a fascinating chronicle of how aviation came to change humanity and a poignant undercurrent of political history, absolutely magical it its harmonized entirety.

Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900, a golden age of discovery, just as airplanes had been invented in France and the dawn of aviation was emanating an exhilarating spirit of exploration and invention. Young Antoine quickly became enchanted with that exhilaration and at the age of twelve, he built a makeshift flying machine.

Sís writes:

It did not take off, but this didn’t discourage him.

That summer, he rode his bike to a nearby airfield every day to watch the pilots test planes. He told them he had permission from his mother to fly, so one pilot took him up in the air. His mother was not happy. Antoine couldn’t wait to go up again.

The obsession had permanently lodged itself into his psyche. When the war came and he was summoned to military duty, young Saint-Exupéry requested the air force but was assigned to the ground crew. Again, he remained unperturbed. Two years later, when he heard about a new airline operated by the postal service to deliver the mail, he got himself hired — first as a mechanic, and soon as a test pilot, eventually learning to fly by accompanying other pilots on mail routes. Sís writes:

One day, he heard the news he had been waiting for: he would fly the mail from France to Spain by himself. Henri Guillaumet, another pilot and later Antoine’s good friend, told him not just to depend on the map but to follow the face of the landscape.

Saint-Exupéry was living his dream, flying in Europe and West Africa. Eventually, the airline assigned him to an airfield in Cape Juby in southern Morocco, and the two years he spent in the desert were among the happiest in his life, a period he would go on to cherish with beautiful and bittersweet wistfulness for the rest of his days. Sís captures the romantic poetics of the experience:

He lived in a wooden shack and had few belongings and fewer visitors. With an ocean on one side and desert everywhere else, it seemed like one of the loneliest places in the world. But he loved the solitude and being under millions of stars.

The locals came to call him Captain of the Birds as he rescued stranded pilots and appeased hostile nomads who had shot down planes and kidnapped flyers. His time in the desert became powerful fuel for his writing and the raw inspiration for The Little Prince. But the skies remained his greatest love. Sís traces the trajectory of Saint-Exupéry’s travels and passions:

Eager to explore other skies, Antoine joined his fellow aviators in creating new mail routes in South America. Nothing could stop them as they crossed glaciers, rain forests, and mountain peaks, battling fierce winds and wild storms.

Antoine spent more time in the air here than anywhere else because the pilots now also flew at night. With stars above and lights below, his world felt both immense and small.

Upon returning to France, Saint-Exupéry fell in love, got married, and reached significant fame as both a pilot and an author. But driven by his chronic adventurer’s restlessness, he continued to dream up expeditions that came to border on stunts. In one, he competed for a prize for the fastest flight between Paris and Saigon, but he and his copilot crashed in North Africa, surviving by a hair and wandering the desert for days before being rescued. In another, he set out to become the first French pilot to fly from New York to the tip of South America. The plane crashed near Guatemala City but, miraculously, he survived once more.

As World War II engulfed Europe, Saint-Exupéry was called for military duty once more, this time as a pilot, observing from high in the skies the atrocities the Germans inflicted all over. Once his war service ended, he decided he couldn’t continue to live in France under German occupation and fled to Portugal on a ship — a trip that would stir the very foundations of his soul and inspire his magnificent Letter to a Hostage — eventually ending up in New York, where he found himself lonesome and alienated.

After writing Flight to Arras and sending a copy to President Roosevelt with the inscription “For President Franklin Roosevelt, whose country is taking on the heavy burden of saving the world,”Saint-Exupéry bought a set of watercolor paints and began working on the illustrations for the story that would become The Little Prince. Sís captures the layered message of the book, informed both by Saint-Exupéry’s passions and his forlorn homesickness, with beautiful simplicity:

He described a planet more innocent than his own, with a boy who ventured far from home, questioned how things worked, and searched for answers.

But the author grew increasingly restless once more. Longing to fly again and to see his family, who had remained in France, he rejoined his old squadron in North Africa, requesting flights that would take him back to France. Sís captures the tragic bluntness of how Saint-Exupéry’s story ended, at once almost sterile in its abruptness and richly poetic in the context of his lifelong obsession:

On July 31, 1944, at 8:45am, he took off from Borgo, Corsica, to photograph enemy positions east of Lyon. It was a beautiful day. He was due back at 12:30.

But he never returned. Some say he forgot his oxygen mask and vanished at sea.

Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars.

The Pilot and the Little Prince is a thing of beauty for both eye and spirit, and a fine addition to other delightful graphic biographies, including those of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí. Complement it with Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince and his soul-stretching meditations on solitude and the meaning of life and our shared humanity.

Illustrations courtesy of Macmillan

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27 MAY, 2014

A Lesson in Listening from John Cage

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A simple and beautiful reminder that we only hear what we listen to.

“Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around,” the legendary avant-garde composer, artist, and Zen Buddhist scholar John Cage once remarked. But even though life began with a Big Bang that was actually silent, our civilization has evolved away from silence, rendering true listening an art reserved for the eccentric few. Still: “How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her diary. Or listen.

In “At the Microphone,” one of the shortest and most wonderful essays in the altogether fantastic collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (public library) — which also gave us the celebrated author on what to say when people ask you why you write or make art — Tillman describes a 1975 conference called “Schizo-Culture” held at Columbia University for an audience of 300 or so grad students, where a roster of “magnetic and illustrious” speakers discussed such subjects as the structure of the unconscious. Among them was John Cage — perhaps humanity’s greatest champion of the beauty and transcendence of silence as medium of art and life. Tillman captures the essence of his character and credo in a short fable-like anecdote with exquisite, subject-appropriate economy of words:

All day, men — no women — took the microphone and spoke. There was always a buzz in the audience, whispers, an audible hum of excitement. Then it was time for John Cage. He walked onto the stage and began to speak, without the microphone. He stood at the center of the small stage and addressed the crowd. He talked, without amplification, and soon people in the audience shouted, “We can’t hear you, use the mic. We can’t hear you.” John Cage said, “You can, if you listen.” Everyone settled down, there was no more buzz, hum or rustling, there was silence, and John Cage spoke again, without the microphone, and everyone listened and heard perfectly.

In 1962, in Japan for the first time, Cage visits his Zen Buddhist master, D.T. Suzuki, who had shown him the heart of silence.

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, which goes on to explore everything from Kafka to Gertrude Stein to the poetics of downtown, is a dimensional and pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement this particular meditation with Kay Larsen’s breathtaking Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.

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27 MAY, 2014

Rare and Stunning Etchings for Ulysses by Italian Artist Mimmo Paladino

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Emanating James Joyce in black, white, and gold.

I have a soft spot for visual artists’ reimaginings of literary classics, including Allen Crawford’s gorgeous hand-lettered take on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, John Vernon Lord’s illustrations for Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Lisbeth Zwerger’s take on Alice in Wonderland, and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975. So I was enormously delighted to come across a rare 1998 Folio Society limited edition of Ulysses (public library), featuring magnificent black-white-and-gold etchings by the celebrated Italian sculptor, painter, and printmaker Mimmo Paladino.

Stephen Joyce, James’s nephew — for whom the beloved author’s little-known children’s book was written — writes in the preface:

Ulysses is by no means an easy or straightforward book; it is a challenging book… Reading a book such as Ulysses is not only a challenge, it is a unique face à face between writer and reader…

The ultimate arbiter … must remain the reader, the listener, the beholder; not the academic or critic. I do not believe that literature can be taught. En revanche one can when the human appetite, open the human mind. If our cultures and civilizations are to be preserved and carried forward down through the ages, the creator must remain the master of his oeuvre, particularly beyond the grave.

It is that timeless Joycean mastery that Paladino’s illustrations amplify with delicate expressiveness and resonance of sensibility. Though this breathtaking edition is long out of print, I was fortunate enough to track down a copy for our shared enjoyment.

The Paladino-illustrated edition of Ulysses is well worth the hunt. Compare and contrast with Henri Matisse’s take on the Joyce classic.

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