Night Flight (novel)
The book is based on Saint-Exupéry's experiences as an airmail pilot and as a director of the Aeroposta Argentina airline, based in Argentina. The characters were also loosely based on people Saint-Exupéry knew in South America. Notably, the character of Rivière was inspired by Didier Daurat, operations director of the Aéropostale. More details can be found in Saint-Exupéry's 1939 memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars.
Fabien is an airmail pilot of the Patagonia Mail. He has to deliver mail in Argentina during a cyclone. Even though the storm is dangerous, Rivière, Fabien's boss, tells him to fly that night, thereby endangering him. Rivière feels responsible for having sent Fabien on this risky flight, and keeps in radio contact with him. Fabien's wife is waiting, too. The situation becomes more and more dangerous, as Fabien is bound to die. Then the radio messages cease, and Rivière can't do anything but try to calculate when Fabien's aircraft will crash. This flight disconcerts Rivière—who, up to that point, had believed that no flights should be delayed, in order to make flying more profitable. The plot ends there, but it is almost certain that Fabien has died.
Note: the plot in the French original is different. In the original, Riviere is not aware of the incoming storm when Fabien decides to go ahead with the flight after stopping at San Julian; it is the radio operator who warns Fabien about the possibility of a storm, but Fabien decides to continue the flight. Riviere becomes aware of the danger represented by the storm later, when Fabien contacts Buenos Aires asking for help in finding an airport not affected by bad weather.
A major theme of the novel is whether doing what is necessary to meet a long-term goal is more important than an individual's life. Rivière wants to show that airmail is more efficient than steamers or trains and deliberately puts his pilots at risk every day to prove this. He believes that only through risking many individual lives will airmail ultimately catch on commercially. The planes of this era did not have the flight instruments needed to fly safely at night, and many pilots who went on night flights ended up owing their lives to sheer luck.
Rivière believes that it is critical that Fabien take off on time so as not to endanger the punctuality of the following flight. When he realizes that he is largely responsible for Fabien's death, he observes: "We don't ask to be eternal. What we ask is not to see acts and objects abruptly lose their meaning. The void surrounding us then suddenly yawns on every side." Fabien, for his part, does not fully understand or agree with Rivière's position, but he does not turn against him either. Although certain that he is going to die on the flight, he keeps his suffering to himself and takes off anyway.
Vol de Nuit was translated into English by Stuart Gilbert as Night Flight (Desmond Harmsworth, London, 1932). This has appeared in many editions and is still in print. Vol de Nuit has also been translated into several other languages.
American composer Gardner Read was inspired by the novel to compose a 7-minute work for orchestra, "Night Flight, tone poem for orchestra, Opus 44" in 1936-1937.
The novel was also recreated in a 1940 Italian opera, Volo di notte (Night Flight) composed by Luigi Dallapiccola to an Italian libretto. It was first performed at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence on May 18, 1940. The opera emphasizes individual suffering and was written as a response to the rise of fascism.
Vol de Nuit won the 1931 Prix Femina, one of the main French literary prizes (awarded by a female jury). Saint-Exupéry was little known prior to this outside of the literary sphere (though André Gide supported him and wrote the foreword to the first edition), but as a result of the prize received widespread recognition.
Although Vol de Nuit won the Prix Femina in 1931, many fellow pilots criticized Saint-Exupéry because of Fabien, who was according to some, too tragic and heroic. Daurat's part was also criticized.
- Saint Exupéry: A Biography, Stacy Schiff, pg.210
- Sellors, Grove online
- Official website
- Vol de Nuit at netlabs.net (accessed 24 August 2007)
- Vol de Nuit at french.about.com (accessed 24 August 2007)