The Great Escape: Vol de Nuit and the Summer of Our Discontent

Our previously unthinkable Trumpian, pandemic-transformed moment is a good time to revisit Saint-Exupéry’s humanist epic.

Lisa Van Dusen

June 29, 2020

On many occasions during the first two decades of this Elmore Leonard-meets-Jeremy Bentham century, the thought has struck me that reality has spoiled me for fiction; that living in a world in which technology, corruption, industrialized, “post-truth” bollocks and the suspension of ethical boundaries have conspired to produce narratives, dialogue and plot twists so monstrously absurd that only Kafka and Hitchcock can compete has made me too tough a room for the consolations of a great novel.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de Nuit, the 1931 (the English translation, Night Flight, landed in 1933) fictionalization of the Le Petit Prince author’s life as an air mail pilot in South America, reminded me recently that it depends on the book. Vol de Nuit (I read the French version because it’s the one I fell for in high school) is an old-fashioned adventure story and idiosyncratic macho management manual (“Aimez ceux que vous commandez; mais sans leur dire” — love those you command; but without telling them), about brave, flawed men in leather jackets doing stuff with gyroscopes and maps and other things that helped human beings find their way before GPS and Siri. It is also about, as the protagonist, Rivière, reveals, “l’obscur sentiment d’un devoir, plus grand que celui d’aimer” — that rare sense of a duty greater than lovea timely theme embodied these days by everyone from front-line health care workers to Black Lives Matters protesters.

If books mean different things to us at different times, Vol de Nuit (the mail pilots flew at night to maintain their commercial edge over ships and trains) stands out now as a paean to outside — those poetic descriptions of earth and sky that make you suddenly understand the flight fetishists — and for its empathy; for the pilots who risked their lives to connect the world decades before the internet, for their clock-watching paramours and for the people in the towns and cities whose lights chaperoned them like earthbound stars.

The combination of nerve and skill it took for the members of  “le culte du courrier” to test themselves and technology against the Andes every night makes Vol de Nuit the rightful prequel to Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, published nearly half a century later, in which Saint-Exupéry is described as “A saint in short, true to his name, flying up here at the right hand of God.”

Through the 1930s, as the question of whether and how to fight Hitler torqued every conversation, Vol de Nuit became popular as a parable on the value of sacrifice. The fact that Saint-Exupéry himself died 1944 when his plane went down during a reconnaissance mission over occupied France suffuses the book with retrospective poignancy. It seems odd to describe a story that weighs in at fewer than 200 pages as epic, but saying that Vol de Nuit is a novel about aviation is like saying Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues is a movie about trumpet playing. It’s not about the instruments.

Here in 2020, our lives are unfolding, as the Little Prince might say, on two different planets — the corporeal one where we live when we’re not looking down at the one on our screens, and the virtual one where life is a conveyer belt of inputs and the latest contrived lunacy from Donald Trump flies by at the same weight as the avoidable deaths of thousands of people by his mismanagement.

Sometimes it’s good to re-orient ourselves in history, and in the authentic reality of fiction, to be reminded of what — both beautiful and horrifying — has come before.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.