When it is midday in the United States, the sun, as everyone knows, is setting in France. One would just have to travel in one minute to France to be able to watch the sun setting there. Unfortunately, France is too far away for that. But on your tiny little planet all you needed to do was to move your chair a few steps. And you could watch the twilight falling whenever you felt like it…
‘One day, I watched the sun setting forty-four times,’ you told me. And a little later you added: ‘You know… when one is terribly sad, one loves sunsets…’
I’m quite late to The Little Prince party, despite often having heard it referred to as a masterpiece of children’s literature. It’s high praise indeed and I was worried that, as so often happens, the product wouldn’t match the hype. It might, I thought, be one of those books that children find magical but which are difficult to appreciate as an adult. I always feel a little sad when this happens.
Thankfully I needn’t have worried; The Little Prince is kind of magical if you’re an adult too, possibly even more so. In fact I suspect that, however much children might enjoy the story, it’s the adults it really speaks to most. I’m not sure whether that was deliberate on Saint-Exupery’s part; I imagine he probably knew exactly what he was doing here.
The story is a very simple one, involving an airman whose plane crashes in the desert, miles from civilisation. Here he meets a little prince who has fallen to earth from a tiny asteroid. While the airman fixes his plane the prince tells him about his home, the planets he’s visited and the strange folk he’s met on the way.
My feelings about this book were a little conflicted at first. I thought it was beautifully written and beautifully illustrated (even in my cheap black and white paperback) but I wondered if maybe there were too many messages here, too many lessons for the prince to learn at once. I wasn’t sure if there was a bigger theme uniting it all that I’d somehow missed. It just felt a bit incoherent and I was disappointed.
After a couple of days thinking about it I decided that actually my feelings were much more positive than I’d first realised. I like the fact that this was such a personal book for Saint-Exupery, one that drew directly on his own experiences in the desert and his own personal relationships. It’s really not a happy story; it’s about loneliness, growing up, friendship and longing for home when you’re far away. It’s a revealing portrait of how its author must have been feeling at the time.
Going back to the adult/children debate; I’m sure the feelings evoked by this book are more potent if you’re old enough to have experience of them, if you can look at yourself and realise that you’re more like the geographer or the rose than the little prince. I’d like to read it again, I think, in a year or two to see if I take anything else away from it. I think it’s probably one that gets better with each reread.