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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Vol de nuit (Night Flight)

Saint-Exupéry’s second novel is his shortest but it is still very powerful. It tells the story of an aviation company based in Buenos Aires, which flies in mail from various parts of Latin America and then flies it onward to Europe. There are three main characters. Rivière, fifty years old, is the director and the consummate boss. Errors are ruthlessly punished, even if the guilty person is not really to blame, e.g. because of weather conditions. He worries slightly about whether he is being unfair but, ultimately, accepts that he has to do it for the greater good of the company and safety. Robineau is the inspector, a man of limited imagination who is the foil for Rivière’s toughness. He does what he is told because, frankly, he does not know any other way. Finally there is the pilot, Fabien, bringing the mail up from Patagonia, and recently married.

Saint-Exupéry sets the scene well with all of these characters and then plunges us into the story. What should have been a routine night run up from Patagonia goes bad as storms come in from all sides. Fabien tries to find a way out of the storms, worrying about his height (he is, of course, flying near the Andes), whether he has enough petrol, whether he can finally find the dawn which will give him some light, whether his radio operator can contact Buenos Aires or some other post for help on where the storm is and where it is moving to. Rivière, meanwhile, is relatively helpless in Buenos Aires but does all he can to track the plane and the course of the storm, all the while worrying about getting the mail off to Europe, with a pilot who turned round on his last trip. He also has to deal with Fabien’s wife, Simone, who comes in to the office when she realises that her husband has been delayed. Robineau, meanwhile, is helpless, not knowing what to do and where to turn. Saint-Exupéry takes us back and forth between the main players. We follow Fabien in his flight who, as with Jacques Bernis in Courrier Sud (Southern Mail), seems to take much of this in his stride. He does try to look for light and is overjoyed when he rises up above the storm and finds a relatively clear sky but, generally, he is more focused on the technical nature of getting out of the storm and, unlike the Europe pilot, never loses his nerve. As with Jacques Bernis, the end is tragic but it is the mail that is paramount, not the life of the pilot.

Publishing history

First published in French 1931 by Gallimard
First published in English 1932 by Harmsworth, London
Translated by Stuart Gilbert (early editions); Curtis Cate (later editions), David Carter (latest editions)