“In a flash, the very instant he had risen clear, the pilot found a peace that passed his understanding. Not a ripple tilted the plane but, like a ship that has crossed the bar, it moved across a tranquil anchorage. In an unknown and secret corner of the sky it floated, as in a harbour of the Happy Isles. Below him still the storm was fashioning another world, thridded with squalls and cloudbursts and lightnings, but turning to the stars a face of crystal snow.”
(Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
After wanting to do this for a couple of years, I finally picked up my second-hand volume of Saint-Exupéry last week to read it again. The things blogging does for you! I swear I read more than ever since I started blogging (I don’t know where I’m finding the time). I also think more about what I read and bore my family less, all good things…
The book I’ve got is four novels bound in one volume: Southern Mail, Night Flight, Wind, Sand and Stars and Flight to Arras; in that order. It’s the chronological order in which Saint-Exupéry wrote them, the earliest from 1929 and the last from 1942, and between them, they tell Saint-Exupéry’s life story. I had virtually no recollection of the stories contained in the book, apart from a vivid image of the Sahara below the plane and a pilot crash-landing there. That would be Wind, Sand and Stars, I guess; but this is about Night Flight.
The plot switches between the main characters; mostly between Fabien, the pilot of the Patagonia flight and Rivière, the boss of the air postal service in Buenos Aires. This is the era of the first postal flights and Rivière is a visionary: he wants the service to expand and take over the world. He understands that being commercially viable means night flying as without that, the planes lose the advantage in speed they have over trains and ships:
“It is a matter of life and death for us; for the lead we gain by day on ships and railways is lost each night.”
But this is night flying in the early days of aviation, without suitable instruments, blindly, at the mercy of the elements…
Rivière drives his pilots, mechanics and administrators equally hard: even the slightest mistake on the ground goes unforgiven because it might lead to the loss of the flight in the air. He wears his harshness like a talisman that wards off the ever-present danger; for the delivery of the mail takes precedence over everything, including his pilots’ safety. Yet he’s not callous, just obsessed. Obsessed with the goal that only he can see: a world in which flight becomes a daily reality. Our world.
“Victory… defeat… these words are meaningless. Life lies deeper than these images, and is already at work, preparing new ones. A victory weakens one nation, defeat arouses another. The defeat Rivière had suffered was perhaps the commitment needed to spur on the decisive victory. For what mattered was the onward movement, the momentum.”
The story opens as the sun is about to set with three flights in the air, awaited in Buenos Aires by Rivière, who is following their progress and the weather conditions over radio and telephone. In between the descriptions of the landscape below the flights, the pilots’ thoughts and the routine work of the mechanics and clerks at the airfield, the tension creeps into the story almost imperceptibly, all the more so perhaps because nowadays we take night flying for granted and our senses are dulled to the impending danger. Slowly the tension builds, an undercurrent of taut words swirling below the placid surface, until it soaks through the very fabric of the novel. It never comes to the fore, it’s not released in grand, emotional scenes. It really is quite dramatic in its under-statement.
“A single radio post still heard him. The only link between him and the world was a wave of music, a minor modulation. Not a lament, no cry, yet purest of sounds that ever spoke despair.”