The publication of a freshly translated edition of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" (Harcourt, 96 pages, $18) has turned the blinding spotlight of major-media hype on a classic tale that has retained its cult status for 57 years without benefit of big-bucks PR. It's been translated into 95 languages, meaning that those who read only Luxembourgian or Malagasy needn't feel left out.
Harcourt, having produced this new edition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Saint-Exupery's birth, claims the book is "rated just below the Bible as one of the most widely read books in the world." Don't be fooled by the fact that it's shelved in the "children's classics" section of your neighborhood bookstore: "The Little Prince" may be a fairy tale, but it was written for adults, and it is one of the most influential books of the past century.
My guess is that the book's don't-grow-up undercurrent is likely to leave your average 10-year-old feeling more than a little bit clueless. Children can't and shouldn't appreciate being children: They're too eager toseem grown-up. Adults, on the other hand, are even more likely to find such a theme appealing now than they were in 1943.
Although there have always been grown-up admirers (James Dean was an outspoken one), Saint-Exupery's prince has lately become the poster boy of the inner-child movement. If you think there aren't a lot of anxious adults obsessed with the care and feeding of their inner children, you might sample the 100-plus titles that Amazon.com carries on the subject, including Eugen Drewermann's "Discovering the Royal Child Within: A Spiritual Psychology of 'The Little Prince'" -- just the thing for inner children with illusions of grandeur. "The Little Prince," it seems, is the thin end of the wedge that has lead to such grand notions as rebirthing.
Needless to say, Saint-Exupery didn't have any of this in mind. What he intended -- and what the book enchantingly supplies -- is a thoughtful adult perspective on the art of being a child, presented with a genuinely poetic ambiguity. But this very nebulousness inevitably flings wide open the door to simple-minded, anachronistic interpretations that bend "The Little Prince" out of shape.
What is it about this slender book that has captured, for better or worse, the collective imagination of hugely diverse societies? To some extent, it's the story of the author himself. "Charlotte's Web" might be a contender for the best book ever written, but would you really want to see "E. B. White: The True Story" plastered five stories high at your local theatre?
Saint-Exupery, by contrast, had the strong-but-sensitive-guy mixture down in a way that should have George Clooney taking notes. A pilot-turned-writer with a daredevil's taste for high speeds, he recounted his life in the air in "Wind, Sand and Stars," a 1939 memoir that Sony Pictures used as the basis for its first foray into IMAX fiction, "Wings of Courage."
Saint-Exupery clearly had more than his share of the Right Stuff -- and no reticence about sharing it with the fans of his books. In 1935, he crashed in the North African desert and spent five days battling thirst, mirages and overwhelming guilt about his wife, Consuelo, before being rescued by Bedouins; this experience became the backdrop of "The Little Prince." If real men are allowed to write fairy tales, such is the stuff of which they are made.
"Draw me a sheep" is the curious request made by the "extraordinary little fellow" whom Saint-Exupery's pilot-narrator meets after crashing in the Sahara. After having passed this test (and thus proving that he is a grown-up in age only), the pilot is regaled with tales of the useless adults the little prince has met on his planetary travels -- an overbearing king, an egotist, a drunkard and a businessman among them. But after an encounter with a wise fox on Earth (a planet with altogether too many adults) puts his priorities in order, the prince allows himself to be bitten by a snake so that he can return to his planet and make his own amends.
Even by the accepted standards of a genre full of wicked stepmothers and homewrecking wolves, "The Little Prince" is joltingly dark. Suicide -- even if it's your only means of returning home -- isn't a big theme in kid lit.
That certainly hasn't stopped children from reading "The Little Prince," or loving it. I did, even if I secretly preferred the saccharine charms of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Little Princess." But the great payback for having read it as a child is the sweet and specific pleasure of re-encountering it as an adult and understanding less obvious layers of meaning. Whether it's Rocky and Bullwinkle's puns or "Puff, the Magic Dragon," we bask in the glow of remembered symbols that once eluded us.
Harcourt, eager to jump into the warm bath of nostalgia, has pulled out all the stops for the beautiful new edition of the old favorite. Retranslations, and the hoopla that inevitably surrounds them, are usually reserved for the ultra-serious likes of "Remembrance of Things Past" or Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus." But "The Little Prince" has been one of Harcourt's cash cows, consistently selling a couple of hundred thousand copies a year. The company even has a personal stake in its success: Saint-Exupery wrote the book at the urging of his editor, Curtice Hitchcock, who was charmed by the doodles of a small boy his author called "the child of my heart."
Thus Saint-Exupery's original pen and watercolor illustrations, executed with considerably more charm than technique, flavor the book as strongly as the prose. The originals have been digitally restored for this new edition, and the results will be a revelation for anyone who knows them through recent editions, as every "improvement" made in subsequent printings caused them to look more professional -- but at the expense of their essential naivete.
Similarly, Pulitzer-winning poet Richard Howard's new translation is a marked improvement over Katherine Woods' 1943 original. Elegant and more concise, this version no longer reads like a translation. Howard writes of the "radical outrage" of Saint-Exupery's original language, and he has been unstinting in his efforts to recreate it: the cumbersome "When one wishes to play the wit, he sometimes wanders a little from the truth," for instance, now becomes the nicely jaunty "Trying to be witty leads to lying, more or less."
Ultimately, the most "outrageous" aspect of the book is the obscene way life imitated it. Just as the little prince left behind no earthly remains, so did Saint-Exupery vanish without a trace in July 1944. Last seen flying over the Mediterranean on a solo reconnaissance mission, he left behind a note. "I do not care if I die in the war. But if I come back alive from this ungrateful but necessary 'job,' there will be only one question for me: What can one say to mankind? What does one have to say to mankind?" Little did he know that through the child of his heart, the world was forever listening -- or how his words would be interpreted.
"One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes." The fox's famous pronouncement, with its implication that the heart is, without exception, more trustworthy than the head, is a perfect embodiment of the sugar-sweet underbelly of contemporary sensibilities. Saint-Exupery may have been railing against "accountant mentality" before it had become a cliche, but he would hardly have approved of Inner Child Inc.
Elizabeth Teachout is a New York opera coach who is on the faculty of Mannes College. She currently has singers appearing at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera.