Friday Night Book Club: Read an exclusive excerpt from The Prince of the Skies – a novel about the man behind the classic tale The Little Prince
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Treat yourself to a glass of wine this evening and this exclusive excerpt from The Prince of the Skies by Antonio Iturbe, the bestselling author of The Librarian of Auschwitz.
The Prince of the Skies is a captivating historical novel based on a true story – the extraordinary life and mysterious death of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince.
About the book
Writer. Romantic. Pilot. Hero.
All Antoine de Saint Exupéry wants to do is be a pilot. But flying is a dangerous dream and one that sets him at odds with his aristocratic background and the woman he loves. Despite attempts to keep him grounded, Antoine is determined to venture forwards into the unknown. Together with his friends, Jean and Henri, he will pioneer new mail routes across the globe and help change the future of aviation. In the midst of his adventures, Antoine also begins to weave a children’s story that is destined to touch the lives of millions of readers around the world. A story called The Little Prince . . . Fame and fortune may have finally found Antoine, but as the shadow of the Second World War begins to threaten Europe, he’s left to wonder whether his greatest adventure is yet to come ….
Translated by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites, The Prince of the Skies is a moving tale of love and friendship, war and heroism, and the power of the written word.
Read the excerpt:
Le Bourget Aerodrome (Paris), 1922
ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY
He pulls the joystick back toward his chest and the biplane lifts in search of a bank of clouds over Paris. The Caudron C.59 shudders, the Hispano-Suiza motor snorts. He soars through the white clouds, then pulls on the metal cable and forces the plane to climb an air mountain until it’s doing a handstand in the sky. The vibration of the fuselage carries through to his hands and from there, to his entire body.
Sublieutenant Saint-Exupéry shivers, intoxicated with vertigo, and smiles with the infinite satisfaction of the mad, of children absorbed in their games: no notion of risk or time, immersed in a world that belongs solely to them, because they have made it to their own measure.
While on the ground, the Caudron C.59 plane is nothing more than a cumbersome 700-kilo lump of wood, full of screws, rivets, and solder. It looks pathetically fragile as it rolls along on its little bicycle wheels, dragging its heavy frame – an overgrown child, chest puffed out, rattling precariously on its wire feet as it starts to trundle down the runway. The smallest stone in its path could knock it off balance, causing it to overturn spectacularly. But then the miracle happens: The heavy rolling hulk takes off from the ground, lifts itself toward the horizon, ascends and then suddenly banks slightly, agilely, gracefully even. It’s made a mockery of its destiny as a whale stranded in its hangar.
Antoine matches the plane itself. On the ground, both his big body, which forces him to move awkwardly, even clumsily, and his head filled with daydreams, totally ill-equipped to handle the most mundane aspects of daily living, convert him into a confused, tottering penguin futilely flapping its wings and unable to reach the sea. But up in the sky, he’s a totally different person.
He becomes weightless.
He moves the rudder to the left and the nose of the plane abruptly rolls in that direction. He smiles. He’s fulfilled every child’s dream: to make toys real and reality a game.
He traces a braid in the air. He loves feeling that giddy tingle which elevates him beyond mediocrity; realising that he’s left all the vulgarity of the barracks on the ground, together with those officers who yell until the veins stick out in their necks.
Antoine only raises his voice on those happy nights when he’s had too much burgundy or pastis and he launches into songs which start out cheerful and end up melancholy. When he gets angry, he falls silent.
How sterile it is to say
What silence already knows …
The plane sways in the air and Antoine sways too. He is a great admirer of the poet Mallarmé, and to show his support, he himself occasionally writes verse.
He has already performed a thousand pirouettes in the air, but that’s not enough. It’s never enough. For him, life always feels like a suit that’s too tight. He adjusts the throttle and the machine loses momentum until it comes to a standstill. A plane hanging motionless in the sky becomes a lump of metal definitively attracted by a violent gravitational force. The plane stalls and goes into a spin. A small group of spectators on the ground follows the spine-tingling nosedive with an accompanying ‘Ohhh!’ which wants to be cheerful but sounds nervous. An eternal few seconds later, Antoine abruptly pulls on the joystick and levels the plane into a glide which shaves a field of poppies.
He’s taken advantage of the absence of most of the officers of the 34th Regiment this Sunday afternoon to mount his own little air show. His favourite childhood game at his family’s Saint-Maurice-de-Rémens mansion, full of nooks and crannies, was, in fact, devising plays he staged for his siblings. He was both the playwright who wrote the scripts and the over-the-top actor who performed them. His family could never tell whether he was a serious child or a clown. They were incapable of confirming which was the real Antoine: the one who would stand mesmerised in front of the window on rainy afternoons watching the drops racing across the glass, or the one who turned the attic upside down and then suddenly appeared disguised as a buccaneer or an explorer shouting ridiculous phrases in order to amuse his sisters and cousins.
He asks himself that very question. Who am I? The court jester who shakes his bells when he’s with others, or the silent introvert I am when I’m on my own?
A vibration in a wing pulls him out of his daydream. He shouldn’t become distracted when he’s flying, but his thoughts soar when he’s in the air. He turns his head for a few seconds in a reckless attempt to catch a glimpse of his friends who are watching his aerobatics, but they are mere pins stuck into the ground.
There they are – Charles Sallès, Bertrand de Saussine, and Olivier de Vilmorin … But when he performs his most outlandish spins, he’s performing for only one person, the girl who never leaves his thoughts.
He recalls the first time his cousin took him to visit the lavish house on Rue de la Chaise where Madame de Vilmorin was already then hosting one of the most intellectual salons in Paris.
A waxen-faced butler had shown them to a room with quilted sofas and walnut bookshelves to wait for the two Vilmorin brothers to finish getting ready to accompany them to an ice cream parlour on the Champs-Élysées. And then he’d heard the music. It was a violin being played with a mournful slowness, the bow moving ever so slowly across the strings without the note ever disappearing entirely. The notes had been so frayed that they hung in the air as if snagged and, rather than a melody, they had seemed more like its echo.
The music had pulled him upstairs and he’d reached the third floor in a trance. The second door off the hallway had been ajar, so he had poked his head in.
A young girl in purple pyjamas had been playing, reclining against cushions of various colours on top of a bed covered with a blue satin quilt. Her chin had rested so softly on the chinrest that the violin had almost become a pillow. A governess with a white cap had been sitting on a chair by her side and had fixed her gaze on the intruder. But instead of throwing him out, she had gestured for him to wait and put a finger to her lips to tell him to be quiet.
Hypnotised, he had contemplated the girl’s red hair, her green eyes, her pale hands. She had been playing with a mixture of indifference and concentration, which had forced her to focus on the far end of the fingerboard, where her own fingers were playing at jumping rope.
He remembers fervently begging the god of all things beautiful never to let that melody end as long as he lived.
When it had finished, the governess, Madame Petermann, had begun to clap with scant enthusiasm, and had arched her brow as a sign that he should do the same. And he had, of course, loudly and enthusiastically. After carefully laying her violin inside the case on top of the quilt, the girl had given him a smile. That smile could stop time. At least it had stopped his, and all the chronometers in his life had been reset to zero.
‘I don’t think we’ve been introduced …,’ she had said, and Antoine had blushed as if the girl’s red hair had been reflected in his face, and he’d started stuttering.
‘I beg you to forgive me bursting in, mademoiselle. It was the music that made me lose my discretion …’
‘And you are …?’
‘Oh, of course, forgive my lack of manners! I’m Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. You must be Olivier’s sister. I’m a friend of his; we study together at the Académie Bossuet.’
‘I’m Louise de Vilmorin.’
‘My apologies for appearing in your room uninvited. I’ll leave now.’
‘Oh, don’t fuss. A hateful condition of my hip bones forces me to keep to my bed, and my bedroom serves as the salon where I receive my visitors. I adore visits!’
‘Could I come and see you one day?’
‘You can ask for an appointment,” she had replied without enthusiasm. But at the sight of the young man’s look of desolation, she’d added coquettishly: “Or you can just sneak in during my music practise.’
A voice had called him from the depths of the house: ‘Saint-Ex! Where the devil are you?’
‘Your brother wants me; I have to leave. I’ll be back!’
He’d barely said it when his enthusiasm was replaced by concern. ‘But will you remember me when you see me again? My face is so ordinary!’
She had looked at him with an inscrutable smile which could have meant either complacency or disdain.
‘Who knows. I’m forgetful.’
‘It doesn’t matter!’ he’d replied quickly. ‘I’ll definitely remember you, Mademoiselle de Vilmorin. I’ll remember for both of us!’
In the cockpit, he laughs now at his own awkwardness. He presses down on the throttle pedal, opens the flow of fuel, and moves the joystick so the plane will perform a zigzag in the sky. Shortly after he had met her, he had to report for his obligatory military service and enlisted in the air force to make his long-held dream of flying a reality. After several transfers, he was posted to Casablanca, and during that period of training and discomfort, he was accompanied by the memory of Louise, a love that kept growing at a distance.
His return to Paris and a posting to the 34th Regiment quartered at Le Bourget filled him with delight at being back in a city full of theatres, bookstores, boulevards, and get-togethers with his friends … but in particular at the opportunity of revisiting the house on Rue de la Chaise. He needed to see her again.
He asked André de Vilmorin over and over again to be received by Louise, but André was tired of seeing all his friends stammering pathetically when confronted by his sister, even being prepared to line up in the small visitors’ room in the naïve hope of begging a few moments of attention from a girl who allowed herself to be idolised without losing that gesture of disdain with which she dismissed her suitors as soon as she tired of their presence.
One Thursday morning when he thought it would never happen, a private entered the office, where Antoine was scribbling lines of poetry in his spare time, and gave him a note which informed him that Mademoiselle de Vilmorin would receive him.
The next day, he barely ate, moving the noodles around on his plate, leaving them virtually untouched. He got dressed with the utmost care: He put on the only suit he owned, which he’d managed to get the barracks laundry to iron for him in exchange for a half pack of cigarettes, and carefully arranged his hair, combing it up high with brilliantine. He left early for the Vilmorin residence because he needed flowers, lots of flowers, the most beautiful flowers in France. He would have loved to be the Merovingian King Childebert, who built an entire rose garden for his queen in the centre of Paris. Louise de Vilmorin deserved nothing less.
He walked to a very high-class flower shop in Rue Charron, which had a display in its front window as enticing as a candy store, and asked for an enormous bouquet of colourful flowers. When the sales assistant told him the price, he went pale. That month his mother had made the payment on the coat he’d been buying on instalments since the previous winter, and he’d barely managed to eke out his military pay to the end of the month, leaving him with just a few coins. He couldn’t hide his embarrassment from the sales assistant as he told her he’d thought better of it. Back out on the street he sighed, defeated. He’d been the happiest man in the world for twenty-four hours and now he was back to being the most wretched.
As he reached the corner, it occurred to him that he wasn’t far from the flower market on Île de la Cité. It was a grand hothouse with a mossy smell and the feel of a train station in among the bustle of barrows from the food market and soldiers on leave buying flowers for apprentice seamstresses on the Right Bank of the Seine.
He emerged with a small bunch of lilacs and happy again.
The butler, dressed in a vest with golden fringes, opened the front door with professional indifference and pointed to the small reception room with a gloved hand. An unpleasant surprise was waiting for Antoine: two other young men were already sitting there. There was clearly a queue to court Louise de Vilmorin!
His rivals were impeccably dressed in pinstriped suits. One was carrying a gilded vase full of exotic flowers and the other was weighed down by an enormous box of cakes and assortments bearing the logo of Dalloyau, an exquisite pâtisserie on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré with the finest cream pastries in Paris.