on May 13, 2000
Often called a poet in prose, Saint-Exupery is also credited with having described flight better than anyone before (or since). When I first read this beautiful book, I could physically feel the sensations of flying as he described them. His lyrical descriptions of an open cockpit bi-plane in contact with the elements showed me new perspectives not only of flight, but of the human condition I could never have imagined. His writing is both vivid and sensitive. The depth and beauty of his insights into humanity is balanced by the well paced action of the plot. One of the best crafted short novels I have ever read. Prabably the most beautifully written book I have read to date.
on March 7, 2001
As a near to retiring professional pilot who has logged close to 17,000 flight hours worldwide, including Argentina (where this story is set), all I can say is: Those mail pioneers (for this story was based on fact when Saint Ex went to Argentina about 70 years ago to open up the mail routes) were indeed very brave men. The author portays another place and another time, but for all aviators (from private thru airline) there are always moments when you come face to face with your own fear - be it weather, mechanical failure, fire, or whatever - and hopefully survive. Saint Ex's protaganist and his radio operator are not as fortunate as those of us who walked away, but then we modern pilots do have a lot more going for us in the cockpit than the pioneers did. In France, Saint Ex has always been considered the poet storyteller - the best of the best. In the USA Ernie Gann and Richard Bach, in the UK John Templeton Smith. It seems to me that the finest works with an aviation theme can only come from those who have been there. St Ex, Gann, Bach, Templeton Smith were always first and foremost pilots - that their writing skills happened to be superlative would doubtless have been dismissed by these modest men. Four men in the near hundred year history of aviation with such writing genius is not many. Read them all - imagine if you like that these four flyers are together in a flight (two elements) painting contrails across a blue sky. For me the leader Saint Ex. I leave you to decide who is his wingman.
on March 14, 2002
This is an epic narrative of a single evening in the Argentine night mail service. The chief character is the air manager, with peripheral characters being pilots, pilots' wives, and other personnel. Without spoiling the plot, an unexpected crisis occurs in the way of a trans-Andean storm, and the pace quickens to unforgettable climax.
But read the book. It's short, and not so much as a phrase is excess weight. A spine-tingling thriller about men in crisis, and the women who wait alone. You may grimace at the manager's resolve, but you will never forget him or the pilot coming from far southern Argentina. A masterful insight into the days when character was a desirable thing and profit wasn't the only motive for excellence.
on May 22, 2000
Sitting in the co-pilot's seat of a King Aire over western New Mexico a few years ago, I was eager to see the 11,301 foot high Mt. Taylor where a TWA flight had crashed in the 1930's, killing everyone on board.
It's hard to understand how anyone can run into a lone mountain rising a mile above the otherwise flat Colorado Plateau. Surely one could go around, or over, or do anything but hit it. Yet, "flying blind" was a deadly hazard of early aviation.
This book is really about the decisions of men who send others to face danger. It doesn't have a happy ending. One pilot, his radio operator, and plane simply vanish. Others are on schedule, and the system operates without pause. It's a reflection on the nature of imposed duty, a contrast to today's voluntary acceptance of risk.
Saint Exupery wrote a few years after Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Aviation progress then rested very much on the courage of pilots, which is why Lindbergh was such a hero. He typified the American spirit, "the lone eagle" accepting great personal risk to be first. `Night Flight' is the opposite side of the coin, it deals with the willingness of men to order others to endure great risk for a new venture.
Weather's bad? In Saint Exupery's words, "if you only punish men enough, the weather will improve." Pilot's afraid? For the supervisor, "a man was a mere lump of wax to be kneaded into shape." Everyone is trapped within an impersonal system that leaves the supervisor without one confidant, and pilots facing instant death in the pitch black tumbling winds of a storm.
In the 1930's, aviation was the cutting edge of high tech. Today, it's electronics. Sure, in our dot com society, people risk their health, sanity, careers and families to the relentless demands of the system. However, risk takers are now volunteers. If they win, they share mightily in the profits. If they lose, with their career scattered like little bits of broken aircraft metal across a harsh landscape, they're invited to try again "because of what you've learned from your last failure."
Progress always involves risk. Saint Exupery examines the need to risk others for the benefit of society. He treats it with sympathy, understanding, compassion and a view that is touching and yet as impersonal and relentless as a storm. It's "fate," as people have said for thousands of years.
Over New Mexico, the King Aire automatic pilot clicked off the tenths of a mile, accurate to within a few feet because of Global Positioning Satellites. Radar scanned the sky for any hazard; on the proper setting, it even shows rain in nearby clouds. Finally I asked, "Where's Mount Taylor?"
"Down there," the pilot answered. It was 10,000 feet, about two miles below. It's hard to comprehend an airliner of the 1930's flying blindly into a mountain, when positions are now known to within a few feet. Saint Exupery paints a brilliant portrait of that earlier era, framed in a discussion of the duties of bosses who order employees to do extraordinary work.
It's not a management book, nor a call for workers' rights; it's a fundamental discussion of the oldest problem in human relations -- How do I order someone to take risk? Today, much risk is voluntary. Societies with people ready, willing, capable and the guts to accept risk become economic leaders. It's why Amazon dot com exists; launched by a man with the guts to risk the money -- no longer the lives -- of others to create an entirely new way of doing business.
`Night Flight' is based on a simple premise, "No guts, no glory." The nature of risk has changed, but it's as applicable now as in 1932 when this book was first published. Anyone who thinks about the duty of management will find this book interesting.
on November 23, 1998
St.Exupery's later books, particularly non-fiction, give a fuller account of his early flying experiences. But this is not a technical book on flying, or an aviation history, but uses flying in a more metaphorical vein. Written in spare language, it explores what drives man to challenge his limits, the role of responsibility and perseverance in the face of impending defeat and ultimately tragedy. It is a story of modern heroism, not the John Wayne type, but that of a persons quietly doggedly carrying out their duties even when knowing the ultimate costs to their friends and themselves.
There is more to this brief novel than first meets the eye.
on November 11, 2007
Written and published when Saint-Exupery was 31 years old, this short novel holds the seed of what was to become Saint-Ex's posthumous masterpiece, Citadel. The theme is leadership in a life and death command situation.
Night Flight is the story of Mr. Rivière (pronounced ree-vee-AIR) who oversees a number of pilots carrying mail in South America. The postal service is a lucrative but competive business and keeping planes grounded at night loses the company any speed advantage flight has over trains or ships. So they fly at night.
This evening, Rivière must deal with a night flight surprised by a storm. There is no hope. When Rivière sends men into the night, they are in death's embrace. There is no margin for error. Because he loves his men, he must rise above all concerns for their feelings and think only about their welfare. He loves them but cannot, must not, show it. For one act of negligence, Riviere fires an experienced dearly loved and well respected mechanic. Because the company auditor befriended a pilot, he forces the auditor to officially reprimand the pilot. Like Riviere, the auditor must have no heart if he is to save the lives of the men he loves.
Vincent Poirier, Dublin
Antoine de St. Exupery is a very difficult author to classify. The closest I can come to boxing him off in words is to say he was a literary expression of the early-mid-20th century French soul, in much the same way George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, and Ernst Jünger were literary expressions of English, American and German souls. Certainly he tried to very hard to blend conventional storytelling with philosophy, and prose-writing with poetry; in other words, to attack the novel from a different direction than had been previously attempted. There is nothing typical in his writings, they are so stylistic as to be almost unique, but even in his uniqueness there are vague similarities of approach.
Like Jünger, "Saint X." wrote in a metaphysical vein, always looking for the deeper meanings behind thought, action and existence itself; and like Jünger, Hemingway and Orwell, he tapped deeply personal and often dangerous experiences, specifically his career as a pilot, to produce his best work.
NIGHT FLIGHT is an example of just such a work. The story itself is based on St. X's experiences in the 20s, flying air mail via South America; a thankless, exhausting and frequently dangerous job, akin to the 19th century Pony Express except one used airplanes instead of horses. This was a time when aviation was still in its infancy, and flying after dark took on an element of risk not altogether different than going into battle. Mechanical failure, physical weariness, freak weather conditions and a host of other factors made every flight a roll of the dice, and to deal with the strain a very special sort of man was required, one who was willing to push himself to the limit and risk his life, not for medals or glory or fame, but simply for the sacks of mail in the bays of his airplane. Simply for pride and the love of flying, the love of getting the job done.
NIGHT FLIGHT is the story of two such men. In the opening chapter, Fabien, the flyer, makes a fateful decision to press on with his mission rather than laying over for the night despite his fatigue and rumors of storms over the horizon. The reason for this soon becomes clear as the story shifts to Rivieré, his boss and the man charged with ensuring the mails are delivered on time. Rivieré, "a man strong enough not to shrink from being unjust", drives himself and others without mercy, using such axioms as "if you punish the men enough, the weather will improve!" to keep the system running smoothly. But Fabien is caught in the storm, and the in-and-out communications with his endangered plane send Rivieré into an agony of soul-searching. As Fabien meditates on the odd contrast between the beauty of the storm and its destructive power, and struggles to escape its wrath, Rivieré struggles with the realization that his shrewd and cold-blooded methods, while effective, have not only isolated him from human contact, but exhausted him physically and spiritually, and left him a used-up unloved old man with nothing to look forward to but a lonely retirement. And yet that is not the end of it, for Fabien is no more motivated by fear of his boss than Rivieré is by exercising power. Instead, as André Gide says in his introduction to the 1932 edition of this book, what both men share is the understanding that "happiness lies not in freedom but in man's acceptance of his duty"; duty demands sacrifice; and sometimes the sacrifice is ultimate.
Despite its brevity - the work is really just a novella, even an extended short-story - it is not, at least by American standards, an "easy read." Like all hyperstylized writers, from Nelson Algren to Elmore Leonard, Saint X's style has a tendency to exhaust the reader, if only because of its unusual rhythms and poetical construction. And yet this exhaustion is a small price to pay for the sense of immediacy, of tragedy and nobility and insight into the human condition, that Exupery affords us. If NIGHT FLIGHT is "literary", and sometimes reads like a 200-page poem, it's still a helluva poem, one that not only offers wisdom but leaves us with passages like this:
"They think, these peasants, that their lamp shines only for that little table; but, from fifty miles away, someone has felt the summons of their light, as though it were a desperate signal from some lonely island, flashed by shipwrecked men toward the sea."
I have read Exupery's "The Little Prince." I am aware of his tragic 1944 death, just two years after writing this marvelous little book, while flying a solo reconoissance mission in support of the Allies, somewhere over the Mediterranean sea. The world lost a great literary and artistic talent, as well as a hero.
This is important context, because "Night Flight" serves to enhance St. Exupery's reputation, in my opinion, as one of the 20th century's great writers of the human condition. He covers several topics in this short book that are central to understanding the human experience:
- being alone in the dark.
- being alone and lost.
- being "alone" in a villiage, or alone even while surrounded by people, or when trying to talk to your husband or wife.
- the yoke of obligation and duty
- the benefit and sacrifices of the one vs. the many
- disfunctional leadership and command
- living every day with fear and doubts
I cannot judge the impact of the transation out of the French, vs. the peculiarities of St. Exupery's writing style. But whatever it is, it works. The economy of the text reminds me of Hemingway.
He explained it as only a gifted artist could explain it, who had been there many times before. I found myself in the plane with Fabien. I could feel the engine shake, the wind blow by, the dim lights of the instrument panel. I could see the star lights in the sky above, and, as St. Exupery explained it, the star lights in the villiages below. I could feel the onset of awareness and resignation, as the pilot gradually becomes aware that he is hopelessly lost above the vast emptyness of the jungle, mountains and the sea.
on May 29, 2008
There already exist a dozen or more excellent reviews on this early aviation piece. I humbly add my thoughts.
This novel, written 1930ish by the famous author/flyer Antoine De Saint-Exupery, in the pioneering days of aviation, encompasses two stories playing out simultaneously:
1. In the cockpit of a night mail plane, flying out of Patagonia, Chile, over the Andes and towards points north. A primitive aircraft, with primitive radio, only dead-reckoning navigation, and no radar. The plane has become enclosed in an overwhelming storm system and the pilot is flying blind in complete blackness. The situation develops and becomes summarized in the following sentence from the story, " . . . a phantom ship that, as things were, struggled no longer to win a punctuality-bonus, but only to evade a penalty . . . the penalty of death."
2. On the ground in Buenos Aries, the director of the S America air mail effort, Riviere. In his drive to establish and develop the program, he has championed the night mail flights. Now a plane and crew has become in mortal danger. Riviere weighs all factors including especially the worth of what they are doing versus the costs. His thoughts, from the story, " . . . even though human life may be the most precious thing on earth, we always behave as if there were something of higher value than human life . . . But what thing?"
A great novel. Serious introspection, and a fascinating glimpse at the nuts and bolts of early aviation. A nice prelude, by the way, to Saint-Ex's landmark work, "Wind, Sand, and Stars". A comprehensive autobiographical tale, and larger than fiction, along these same lines.
on November 18, 2014
This is one of Exupery's more obscure books on aviation based around the development of our international airmail system. Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a marvelously intuitive, and brilliant writer during a time when the world was in the turmoil of WWII. He consistently expressed the purposes and path of true freedom, fighting again tremendous odds in his beloved France as he watched the errosion of those freedoms both during France's fall to The Third Reich, and then again as DeGaulle cunningly directed the French away from democracy and toward Socialism. Although Exupery didn't survive the War, being shot down over the south of France while flying surveillance for the Allies from Africa, he knew his books were already banned by DeGaulle's emerging government, even as was flying to protect freedom before his death. He actually had to have his books smuggled into his base in Africa. He was, even then, unshaken in his effort to spread the cause of Democracy, to rescue France from the destructive path of Socialism, and its effects, which he clearly foresaw. He loved The United States of America with her Constitutional Republic and hoped to see France adopt the same kind of government.
He has long been recognized as the writer of The Little Prince but he should really be recognized as one of the foremost apologists for democracy and the rule of law, as well as his pure, unadulterated love of aviation, and the huge part he played in its modern utilitarian applications for us all.