translated from "Saint Exupéry polyglotte"
(in Icare 84, printemps 1978, p. 54)
by Stephen Trussel
original French

Saint-Exupéry: Polyglot

Ruth Belt

IT was during the latter half of 1941, when the news of Europe was getting worse and worse, that Dr. Jean-Louis Lapeyre had us meet his friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, to whom he had recommended my husband as physician. There was, at their first meeting, a serious problem between physician and patient: the language barrier. Once alone, the two men understood quickly that they could not go very far in conversation. My husband's knowledge of French was pretty much on the same level as Saint-Exupéry's English. And as for Spanish, they each possessed absolutely insufficient scraps of it to support a medical interview.

Suddenly, Saint-Ex dashed across Dr. Belt's office and seized the telephone. He rapidly dialed a number with his large, expressive hands. One minute of waiting and a French-speaking torrent was launched into the speaker. Saint-Ex stopped all of a sudden and offered the device to my husband with a large smile. A secretary, at the other end of the line, translated his questions. The physician then answered in English and passed the telephone back to Saint-Exupéry. And so forth, several times. Although the topic of conversation was serious, the two men could not stop themselves from ending with a good laugh.

During his stay in the hospital, Saint-Exupéry never took his eyes off the door of his room during visiting hours, and as soon as Dr Belt had cleared the doorway he had already picked up the phone on his bedside table and dialed the wanted number. When he had been relieved of what had worried him all night long, and understood the physician's answer, he never failed to conclude briefly, in either French, English, or Spanish.

During one of his visits to the doctor, after he had left the hospital, he was in a treatment room without a telephone. He was unable to understand my husband's meaning and appeared quite upset.

Suddenly his face brightened: "Sprechen Sie Deutsch, Herr Doktor?" "Ya wohl!" was the answer, although hesitantly, because Dr. Belt's six years of German were far enough in the past, and had been more concerned with text explanations than practical conversation. All the same, the result was passable, so that at the end of the consultation Saint-Exupéry could declare: "Well, we're still able to get by in the language of our common enemy!"

In October 1941, we had invited Dr Lapeyre and Saint-Exupéry to an evening at our home. We were about a dozen, half of whom spoke French. Among these latter was Lee Shippey, columnist with the Los Angeles Times, who had married a charming French woman during World War I. These two, along with Dr. Lapeyre and Dr. Harold Crowes, an orthopedic surgeon who had spent two years in Belgium, served as translators.

All the Americans who were there were sincerely touched by the situation of occupied Europe and counted themselves partisans of American intervention. One of them asked Saint-Exupéry what, in his opinion, the conduct of America should be.

He replied: "It is a question of industrial production and output. Currently your country dedicates 90% of its industrial potential to the production of the consumer goods demanded by Americans, let's say cars and chewing gum. And only 10% to stopping Hitler. It is only when these numbers will have been reversed — 10% for cars and gum and 90% for stopping Hitler — that we will have some hope."

It is necessary to confess that the articles he had chosen for his example, for which our fellow citizens had a well-marked weakness, had not failed to make a strong impression.

Some time later, my husband was designated to participate in a large international medical conference in New York. It was during this journey that we were pleased to discover that Saint-Exupéry had taken the same transcontinental train. Meeting in the bar car, we wondered how we could spend our three-hour layover in Chicago to advantage. We decided to pay a visit to a French physician, a cancer specialist whose name I've now forgotten, who worked with Dr. Max Cutler in an institute of the city. Saint-Ex was delighted by the idea and had later happily rushed into a passionate discussion with the French physician on various topics. But there was one thing which had troubled him.

At the station in Chicago, my husband and I had checked our numerous pieces of luggage. Saint-Exupéry, however, absolutely did not want to part with an enormous and heavy suitcase. My husband assured him that checking it in was absolutely safe, and that the city was less so. Saint-Ex was unconvinced. Other arguments were advanced: one might forget the suitcase in a taxicab, some passersby might seize it by force. Or even that some unfortunate students of the institute might imagine the bag filled with money. He still didn't agree. "You realize," he told us, "that in there are years of work... there are pages I've been working on for months and months... it is, so to speak, my child!"

It was the yet unpublished manuscript of "Flight to Arras". All the same, by dint of argument, he finally gave in, checked his suitcase, and we left for the city.

Toward the end of our stop, when there was over an hour left before the departure of his train for New York, he didn't stop looking at his watch, and made us leave the institute when we still had more than twice the necessary time to return to the station. Nearing the check-in counter, he started running to arrive first at the ticket window. He was already in possession of his precious suitcase before we had had time to present ourselves at the window. He held it, his treasure, felt it, caressed it, considered it with emotion and happiness... He raised eyes to the sky and exclaimed "Gracias a Dios! Mi nino esta salvado!" His train had to leave a little before ours and we told him goodbye after a last glass. He left, looking back from time to time to wave, and disappeared into the crowd of travelers.

Ruth BELT. (Extract from
"L'humanisme de Saint-Exupéry"
by Élisabeth Crâne, ...)