The man who fell to earth

 

In the 56 years since his death, the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery has become a legend. Statues, boulevards, schools and fan clubs, postage stamps and a French banknote pay homage to him. The Little Prince is the second best-selling book in the world after the Bible. The child's parable about a blond boy homesick for his asteroid has sold 8.6 million copies in France alone, and has been translated into 118 languages.

French intellectuals sneered at Saint-Ex's odes to friendship, courage, communion and faith in mankind, but his mix of philosophy and adventure earned three of his books - Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars as well as The Little Prince - places among the 10 most popular French books of the 20th century. He is believed to have been shot down by German aircraft over the Mediterranean on July 31st, 1944, but the fact that neither his plane nor body was found fed Saint-Ex idolatry. Didn't the Little Prince say he would "appear to be dead but it will not be true"?

But now, in this centenary of his birth, the Saint-Ex myth has received a severe jolt. To the consternation of Saint-Exupery's aristocratic grand nieces and nephews in the d'Agay family - his only blood heirs - the writer's Salvadorean widow, Consuelo Suncin, who died in 1979, has struck a blow from the grave, laying open their tortured marriage.

The publishers of Memoirs of the Rose claim the book makes Saint-Ex more human, but it is hard to read it without concluding he was an inveterate womaniser and a cad.

Most of Saint-Exupery's family never accepted Consuelo, whom they still refer to as "eccentric" and "hare-brained". She was in fact an artist and writer in her own right, whose friends included the painters Salvador Dali and Joan Miro. Although Consuelo inspired Night Flight and The Little Prince, she had to wage a legal battle to obtain 25 per cent of Saint-Ex's literary estate after his disappearance - a share she left to Jose Martinez, the Spaniard who took care of her when she was old. Saint-Ex's French publisher, Gallimard, retains 50 per cent of the rights, and the nieces and nephews the other quarter.

Martinez found Consuelo's 1940s memoirs in the bottom of a trunk, and decided to publish them this year. The book sold extremely well, though the d'Agay family initially claimed it was a fraud written by one of Consuelo's lovers, the Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont.

When I was writing a thesis about her husband at the Sorbonne in 1976, I spent hours with Consuelo de Saint-Exupery. Even in old age, she remained the woman who had enchanted Saint-Ex; exotic and vain, energetic and self-obsessed. She told me she had kept her memoirs, and for me there is no doubt the book is real. The British journalist Paul Webster, who has published biographies of both Antoine and Consuelo, believes her tale of their innumerable break-ups and reunions is authentic.

The couple met at a cocktail party in 1930 in Buenos Aires, where Antoine ran the Aeropostale mail company's South American routes. Within minutes, he insisted on taking Consuelo flying, "to show (her) the clouds over the Rio de la Plata". While her friends were throwing up in the back of the plane, Saint-Ex courted Consuelo in the cockpit.

Today, his behaviour would be sexist. He addressed Consuelo as "little girl" and demanded a kiss. She refused on the grounds that she had just been widowed by the Guatemalan writer Gomez Carillo. Saint-Ex put the plane into a dive, threatening to drown its passengers. "You won't kiss me because I'm too ugly," he said. "I saw tear drops fall from his eyes onto his tie and my heart melted with tenderness," Consuelo recalled. "I love you because you are a child and you are frightened," Saint-Ex told her. A few minutes later, after a passionate embrace while the plane zig-zagged through the sky, he proposed.

They married in 1931, the year that Antoine won the Prix Femina for Night Flight. His success made the clumsy, ill-dressed aristocrat more attractive to women, and he maintained a frenetic social life in Paris - without Consuelo. "I was silly. I thought that I, too, deserved admiration for his work," she wrote.

"I thought it was both of ours. What an error! Nothing is more personal to an artist than his creation: even if you give him your youth, your money, your love, your courage, nothing belongs to you . . . Every woman in the audience, after an hour of his lectures, dreamed of becoming his girlfriend."

About four years after their marriage, Saint-Ex began a long affair with Nelly de Vogue, whose husband - like Saint-Ex, a count - had been at school with him. The writer had other affairs, but his relationship with de Vogue, whom Consuelo calls "the beautiful E" in her memoirs, hurt most. Consuelo came to regard love for her husband as "a serious disease, a disease from which you never completely recover". De Vogue wrote a biography of Saint-Ex under the pseudonym Pierre Chevrier, in which she dismisses his marriage to Consuelo in two lines.

When Consuelo discovers a packet of Saint-Ex's mistress's perfumed love letters, they "sob together like children". His behaviour towards his wife grows steadily more cruel. After she is hospitalised for depression, Saint-Ex takes Consuelo on a Mediterranean tour, only to abandon her in Casablanca with the promise he will meet her two weeks later in Athens. At the beginning of the Second World War she receives no news of him for months. Saint-Ex finally asks her to meet him at a hotel in Pau, south-western France, then tells her to go away because he has a train to catch and wants to sleep.

Out of spite, Consuelo took lovers - at least four appear in her book. With the exception of the period when Saint-Ex was writing The Little Prince in upstate New York in 1942, the couple lived apart for the last six years of his life, often in separate apartments in the same building.

Yet Antoine wrote to Consuelo daily when he returned to his old reconnaissance unit in North Africa in 1943. Paul Webster calls the mostly unpublished letters "the most profuse and beautiful correspondence from a well-known figure to his wife in the 20th century". Jose Martinez was forced to sell a few of the letters to pay Consuelo's death duties, but hopes to publish the others soon.

Before doing so, Martinez needs the approval of Frederic d'Agay, the grand-nephew who represents the writer's blood heirs. Mr d'Agay is a fierce defender of Saint-Exupery's work and name, dispatching registered letters to children who perform The Little Prince without his permission. A museum in Japan and Lyon airport - to mark the centenary of Saint-Ex's birth - were allowed to call themselves "Saint-Exupery" only after donating undisclosed sums to the foundation which Mr d'Agay is establishing.

While Saint-Ex was alive, most of his relatives thought him a failure. He was so financially inept that he could not pay telephone, gas and electricity bills and the utilities were cut. Bailiffs twice seized his and Consuelo's belongings.

Now Saint-Ex is a gold mine; the copyright on his books brings in an estimated Ffr 10 million annually - not counting the revenue from the Little Prince dolls, cologne, porcelain and shampoo that Mr d'Agay markets.

When a Marseille fisherman found a charm bracelet in the sea inscribed with Saint-Ex's and Consuelo's names two years ago, Mr d'Agay claimed it for the heirs. Less than a mile away, a diver recently discovered what could be Saint-Ex's P38 Lightning plane.

Mr d'Agay immediately wrote to the French president and prime minister, demanding that private parties be banned from exploring the wreck.

Everyone involved in the disputes surrounding Saint-Exupery's legacy accuses the other parties of greed - ironic when you remember how the Little Prince mocks the perpetually counting businessman. Consuelo's book is a monument to the pain the couple caused one another. But when the copyright finally expires around 2050, when his plane has been hauled off to a museum and the present protagonists have perished, they will still be teaching Saint-Exupery in French schools; his exquisite prose will remain.

The childhood homes of Antoine de Saint-Exupery in Saint-Maurice-de-Remens and Lyon are the subject of the Literary Landmarks series this Saturday on the book pages.