Unseen Le Petit Prince pages land for auction
The Guardian, 04/05/2012
Experts have discovered two unpublished pages from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince which cast new light on the children's classic...
The pages were part of a collection of Saint-Exupéry's writing passed to French auction house Artcurial by a private collector earlier this year. Reading through the material, experts were astonished to discover that it included two unpublished pages from The Little Prince, one of which features entirely original material and could give a political perspective to the story of the prince from a tiny planet who journeys through the universe before arriving on Earth.
"His writing is terrible, but we managed to interpret it and realised that two of the pages, among all these pages, were unpublished material from The Little Prince," said Benoît Puttemans from Artcurial's books department. "It was a big shock." The Little Prince has sold millions of copies around the world. Saint-Exupéry died in action in 1944, the year after it was published.
The first page reveals an early version of the moment when the hero arrives on Earth, the seventh planet he visits. In the unpublished version, Saint-Exupéry wrote: "If we gathered together all the inhabitants of this planet, all next to each other, tightly, as they do for some big public assembly, the whites, the yellows, the blacks, the children, the old people, the women, and the men without forgetting a single one, all of humanity would fit on Long Island." This compares to the final text, which reads: "If the two billion inhabitants who people its surface were all to stand upright and somewhat crowded together, as they do for some big public assembly, they could easily be put into one public square 20 miles long and 20 miles wide".
"These are interesting variants," said Puttemans. "In this draft, Saint-Exupéry is much more precise. He talked of Long Island, which would be a detail for American readers, not others. In the definitive text, he changed this and made things much more universal – but it's interesting to see what was in his head as he was writing."
The second page introduces an entirely new character to the storyline – a crossword enthusiast, the first human the Little Prince meets when he arrives on Earth. "'Where are the men?' said the little prince to himself as he was travelling," writes Saint-Exupéry in the draft. "He met the first of them on a road. 'Ah!' he said to himself, 'I am going to find out what they think about life on this planet,' he said. 'That may be an ambassador of the human spirit …'"
The man tells the Little Prince he is very busy."'Of course he is very busy,' said the little prince to himself, 'he takes care of such a large planet. There is so much to do.' And he scarcely dared disturb him. 'Perhaps I can help you,' he nevertheless said aloud: The little prince enjoyed being helpful. 'Perhaps,' said the man […]. 'I have been working for three days without success. I am looking for a six-letter word that starts with G that means 'gargling'."
The page then ends. "We don't know the solution, it's not on the page, and that's part of the beauty of it – it makes many readings possible because we don't know what Saint-Exupéry was thinking," said Puttemans. "But he wrote it in 1941, in New York, when he was very engaged with the war. So I think one meaning for the six letter word could be 'guerre' [war]. Which changes our interpretation of the text a little bit."
Usually, Puttemans said, The Little Prince is seen as a universal text, but if the solution to the crossword clue is "guerre", then the book could be seen as having an anti-war perspective.
"In French, 'to gargle something' can also mean 'to be proud of oneself, or of something'. This pride can be compared to a nationalism which, in 1939-1940, unleashed the conflicts in Europe which we know of," he said. "Obviously this is only a guess: the text does not give us an answer, and maybe it's better that way."