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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Courrier Sud (Southern Mail)
Saint-Exupéry’s first novel is not his shortest but it is still fairly short – fewer than a hundred pages. However, it is still a very fine novel. The story is fairly simple and is based on Saint-Exupéry’s own life and experience. There is a narrator, who is low key as well as being a character in the book as manager of the airfield at Cap Juby (as Saint-Exupéry was). But the main character – presumably also based on Saint-Exupéry – is the pilot, Jacques Bernis. Bernis is a pilot for the postal service, flying between France and Africa. Bernis is clearly not a happy man, not able to adapt to life on land but not overly excited about his job. His bosses have made it clear that the mail has to get through, whatever the cost. In other words, the mail is more important than the life of a pilot. This does not bother Bernis too much as he takes it all in his stride. When his instruments jam and he looks like crashing, he casually unjams the instruments with his heel and carries on as though nothing has happened. When he crashes in the desert, it is only a minor inconvenience. While he is at ease in the air, looking down at the people and, more particularly, the Sahara below, he is far less so on land.
The middle part of the story is about his relationship with Geneviève, based clearly on Saint-Exupéry’s own failed romance with Louise de Vilmorin. Geneviève is married with a son. However, her husband clearly is not a nice man and treats her badly, even physically abusing her. When the son dies of an illness and the husband partially blames her, she walks out and goes to Bernis. But things are no better off there. They drive away from Paris but they have car problems, she is unwell and they cannot find a hotel. Moreover, as Bernis later tells the narrator, he was trying to bring her into his world and she clearly did not fit. He thought he loved her but could not adjust to a relationship. After all, he was an aviator, used to being alone up in the sky and not able to adjust to life on land.
The rest of the novel is the story of Bernis’ flights between Europe and Africa – the problems he faces, the need to get on, his isolation (but not loneliness), his realisation that he is not made for love. Saint-Exupéry’s description of the flying and Bernis’ reactions and thoughts are superb. Ultimately, Bernis is not a happy man and, like his creator, will pay the ultimate price.
First published in French 1929 by Gallimard
First published in English 1933 by H. Smith and R. Haas, New York
Translated by Stuart Gilbert (early editions); Curtis Cate (later editions)