Monday, March 30, 2015

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

People where you live, the little prince said, grow five thousand roses in one garden... Yet they don't find what they're looking for... And yet what they're looking for could be found in a single rose... It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.

For years I was convinced I had read this story and did not like it one bit. As it turns out, the story I had been thinking of was The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde, which I do find unpardonably boring. The moment I realized The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a novella, described by many as a children's fantasy that serves as an adult's spiritual fable, I wanted to pick it up. This was about a year ago. I read it today as the first book for my favourite not-challenge, Once Upon a Time, an annual event in its ninth year, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.

Summary: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth where he meets our narrator, a pilot crash-landed in the middle of an endless dessert. 

My thoughts: The Goodreads reviews of this book all seem to have one word in common, "metaphor." I hate to be redundant and talk about what a wonderful allegory The Little Prince presents. Most of you have probably read this book and already know all about it. And every new reader of the book will eventually end up on the author's life story, to make sense of the allusions and connect the metaphorical autobiographical dots.  I would recommend you this book mostly because almost everyone who reads it finds in it something to love. It is precious, and honestly, a chunk of its charm lies in its slim size. It demands little of your time, give it that. The thing that I truly like about this book is its sincere duality, of both intention and style.

My fascination with children's books fascinates me. I assume that the fact that children's books can be enjoyed by adults is uncontested. According to this article in The Guardian,

"One explanation may be the way in which they (children's books) are read. They become part of our emotional autobiographies, acquiring associations and memories, more like music than prose.  Another explanation may lie in the fact that children’s books are designed with re-reading in mind. For all children’s writers are conscious that our books may be re-read by children themselves."

I thought that reading The Little Prince would be like getting wholly engrossed in a Roald Dahl book at twenty or delightedly revisiting one of my childhood favourite Enid Blyton stories. It was nothing like that. It may be difficult to write children's books that would give pleasure to grown-ups too. Authors like Neil Gaiman are good at that sort of thing.

The Little Prince on the other hand is something entirely else. It is not a simple children's book that adults would enjoy as well. What makes The Little Prince unique is that it contains in its pages two different stories at once - one for children and another for grown-ups. It reminds me of my experience reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, a series of books so adult in its themes and messages, it made me wonder what I would have made of it as a kid. And yet, I am sure, had I read the series when I was twelve, I would have found lovely treasures in the books quite separate from the ones my adult-self found.

I don't know what little-Priya would have made of The Little Prince. Young-me would likely have loved the illustrations, thrilled at the absurd planets, their whimsical inhabitants and the talking foxes, enjoyed the reaffirmation of the importance of being a child. Meanwhile, on the other side of time, today, catching my eye are little fractions of well-composed truth in the writing, like reaching success by "the inspiring force of urgent necessity." I shake my head at the many droll depictions of empty human life. I mull over coming-of-age, the loss of innocence and our place in the great big picture. I contemplate the futility of that exact train of thought... and with the very same logical disinterest the book mocks, find myself dissecting those pesky metaphors!

The book never sounds overtly preachy, that helps. The narrator in his straightforward manner rarely expresses his opinions on the lessons the little prince teaches him. The book remains staunchly bizarre, surreal, to its very end. The original French must be beautifully written, I am guessing, from the admirably seamless translation by Katherine Woods. I should learn French. Out of curiosity, how exactly do you pronounce the author's name? Now that I have read him, it may be time to stop calling him MumbledeMumble-Mumble.

I am happy to have finally read the book. That said, I will not read the book again. I doubt that there is any new insight to be gained from another read, which I must say, is not true of Philip Pullman and his complex constructions. I do however see myself revisiting nice passages, and forcing the book on all my future young-acquaintances, if only as guinea-pigs to satisfy my curiosity about how a child would react to the incongruously dark ending.

11 comments:

Divers and Sundry said...

I've loved this book since I first read it, and I've kept it on my shelf. I read it as a story -arguably science fiction ;) - and I don't think of it as metaphor or allegory. I think it's a literary treasure. I also love the Gene Wilder film based on it. He plays the Fox, and he's brilliant. Here's the pronunciation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTjs7seJUmg

Priya said...

Divers and Sundry - Oh of course, I should have said science fiction! Something about its tone made me call it fantasy. How old were you when you read the book? I haven't seen the movie, but I will watch it. Thanks for the link!

Viktoria Berg said...

I was absolutely too old when I read this; I found it very dull. I do think the author is an interesting person, though. You find two people (French and Canadian) offering the pronounciation of the author´s name here: http://sv.forvo.com/word/antoine_de_saint_exupery/#fr

Divers and Sundry said...

I don't remember how old I was when I first read it, but I was no longer a child. My heart was more in tune with the pilot.

Priya said...

Viktoria, I am sorry you found this book dull. Maybe you missed the "window" like I feel I missed for Charlotte's Web - a book I so so wish I had read as a child!
Oh, and thanks for the link, it was all in Swedish(?) and my browser doesn't offer to translate! But I suppose the man was the Canadian one because he said "Saint" as you would in English. I kind of knew how to say "Antoine", I was doubtful about the "Exupery" but it seems phonetic enough!

Viktoria Berg said...

Yes, I think there is a "window" for some books. I am sorry I missed it, so many people really love this book and I was very keen on it. It could also be that it doesn´t speak to Swedish sensitivities (if there is such a thing), I have never heard anyone here name it as a childhood favourite and I never came across it when I was little - and I was a pretty ferocious reader, even then.

Perhaps this link will be better: http://www.forvo.com/word/antoine_de_saint_exupery/
I didn´t realize it was Swedish on that page, it becomes invisible to me sometimes, passing from one language to another, but at the bottom of the page are links to several language-versions. It´s a pretty useful site, I find.

Jason C. said...

No matter how older I get, I still remain a kid at heart. That might also explain why I tend to be stuck in a perpetual state of arrested development...

Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite literary works and only discovered it during my adult years. Similar to yourself, it is difficult to say what the young-me would have thought about this novel but I get the distinct impression that he would have found it generally amusing but the concepts would go over his head. The story is innocent enough but it deals with a lot of serious themes and philosophical/moral ideas that might be fully appreciated by younger eyes.

Such a great review!

Priya said...

Thanks, Jason. I suppose you mean might not be fully appreciated by younger eyes? I agree it does deal with many serious, moral ideas. And truth be told, while parts of the story have that simple repetitive children's book-like structure, towards the end and the very beginning, even the story demands a somewhat mature reader... I might have liked it inspite of this as a kid, but I guess we'll never know!

Grace @Bookswithoutanypictures said...

This is one of those books that I love more and more the older I get.

Jason C. said...

Yeah sorry, that was a typo. You're right though, that ending is especially dark.

Have you started Lions of Al-Rassan yet? :P

Priya said...

Viktoria, I can relate to that! I have mostly only heard people around here mention it as a book they read as grown ups that they wish they had discovered as children! I read quite a bit as a kid too, but having grown up here in India I consider it unfair to not have had access to the "right" books in English till I was old enough to look for them myself...
Sorry for this rant here... the site does seem helpful.

Grace, that's good to know! I might just read it again a few years down the line...

Jason, guess what, I'm about halfway into it already! :)

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