“Studio Saint-Ex.” By Ania Szado. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013; $25.95.
In the New York of 1942, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is the last hero-aviator.
Yes, Charles A. Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, but Saint-Exupéry pioneered air mail routes across the Sahara and the Andes, flying them countless times. And while Lindbergh praised the Nazi Luftwaffe, Saint-Exupéry fought against it when Germany invaded France in May 1940. Most of all, his stories of sublime courage and stoic duty in “Wind, Sand and Stars” sold a quarter million copies in the United States — and revealed him as a philosopher, whom readers quickly christened “Saint-Ex.”
In Ania Szado’s novel, a young woman, Mignonne Lachapelle, newly graduated from the New York Fashion School, meets Saint-Exupéry when she tutors him in English at the Alliance Française. She is quickly pulled into the vortex of his marriage to the beautiful and difficult Consuelo Suncin. They each seek to seduce her — first as a lover, then as an ally.
For Antoine and Consuelo hold one other in ardent but dissonant thrall. She taunts him, “You still want me. ... You still love me”; he retorts, “Love is like a scar. It is impossible to excise.” He confesses to Mignonne, “I won’t abandon my wife. ... I cannot spend any length of time with her, but I worry for her; ... I cannot think when she’s near me, but neither can I leave her to struggle on her own.”
Saint-Exupéry is at work on his masterpiece, “The Little Prince.” A boy from asteroid B-612 loves the rose that grows there mysteriously but fears becoming its prisoner. After falling to earth, he learns vital lessons: “One sees clearly only with the heart,” and “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
Of course, Antoine is the prince, Consuelo the rose. They reunite just as he leaves for North Africa to fly for the Free French, despite his age and infirmities. Just twenty-five days before France is liberated, his plane is shot down, his body never found.
“Studio Saint-Ex” dares to define the moment of reconciliation, when both see clearly with their hearts. Mignonne becomes the medium through a gala show at the Alliance Française in November 1942: she designs the costumes, Consuelo is dressed as a rose, and Antoine narrates from the manuscript of his book.
Since its publication in 1943, more than 140 million copies have been sold of The Little Prince, a children’s book for adults. Only the broad outline of “Studio Saint-Ex” is true, the rest purely the imagination of Ania Szado. But her characters, a knight-errant of the sky, a passionate temptress, and a nymph transformed, make this rest almost believable.
Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at Louisiana State University. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War,” 2013.