German Reading Project: Der Kleine Prinz, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, translated by Grete and Josef Leitgeb

A whole book this time, and not just chapters! Der Kleine Prinz is both short enough and simply written enough that I managed it without too much heartache.

My general German skills update: I’m improving in some ways and stalling in others. I can almost contribute to iai conversations (depending on what they’re about). I’ve stopped freaking out so much about not being able to express things, and will try (in friendly situations…). My writing is abysmal. My listening is not horrendous. My speaking (on a good day) can get away with a lot. My reading is trundling along, but I should read more. I’ve come up to the point where I basically just have to sit and learn grammar points. It’s the first plateau and the easiest one to overcome, but urghhhh articles are stupid and cases are stupid and why is everything.

What can I even say about this that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? I’d never read The Little Prince in any language before this, so the ending caught me a cropper.

Sometimes I was sure it was a book for children and I was too old to be reading it for the first time, especially with all the talk of “die große Leute” and some of the more absurd caricatures, but then at other times I was sure it wasn’t a book for children at all. I guess this is what people mean when they call a book timeless. I suppose it was written for both, or neither, or Saint-Exupéry himself.

As usual, I can’t comment much on the style as it was not only in German, which I’m not that great at, but it’s a translation from the original French (which, ironically, I would have been better placed to read). I mean, the book is so beloved I think I can take a wild guess and say the translation is pretty good.

HOWEVER! One point about the Leitgeb translation, mostly for people like me who need to look up a lot of the words. One of the words I looked up seemed to have a very… “do not use” meaning? It very much doesn’t seem to be in common use today, and is one of those words that seems to be changed in modern editions of beloved children’s books Of A Certain Age. Its Wikipedia article pointed out that it appeared in a Pippi Longstocking book and has been changed in the German to a more acceptable term. I wondered why that wasn’t the case here, but the Leitgeb translation seems to be the oldest version of Der Kleine Prinz in German, which might explain it? There are other translations now, in which it might have been changed. But I don’t know.

I know beloved old children’s classics are often very much of their time and what was written was written, but in the world we live in today it seems a shame to actively alienate children by continuing to use words like this in books which are otherwise very much for everyone.

Back to the book. I think the standout Word I Learned from this book has to be “schwermütig”, melancholy.

Some of the little points Saint-Exupéry makes are still very valid and cut quite deeply today – the chapter on the Turkish astronomer’s discovery stood out to me in this regard. Only taken seriously when he dressed in Western clothes… ouch.

I (as one of the große Leute, of course) found some of the points had aged a little tritely (the businessman and the stars he owns and the people rushing about in trains) but I did find some of them hit me a bit close to home… The drunkard who drinks to forget how ashamed he is at his drinking (I’m guilty of this sort of short-term two-wrongs behaviour, absolutely) and the lamplighter who seems to enjoy complaining a little too much… But neither Saint-Exupéry nor the Little Prince judge even the reader who sees themselves reflected in pieces in these caricatures.

I liked how he dealt with the snake, neither good nor bad and speaking in riddles. Nothing else would have worked. It needed to be neutral and slightly removed, ungraspable.

I found the King and the Geographer to be interesting chapters. I didn’t think they came out of it looking terribly badly, perhaps because both of them were happy with their lives. The King adapts his sovereignty to reality – I got a “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” vibe from him. I mean, he’d be a terrible state leader, but as a man on a tiny planet where there’s only him, I think he made the best of things. He also didn’t try to change the Little Prince, absorbing the Little Prince’s own nature and goals into his worldview like he did everything else, and widening the scope of his world a little bit. If you’re going to live alone on a planet of nothingness, then why not pretend the whole universe is laid out to please only you? Making lemonade out of lemons, or music out of a maddening sound.

The Geographer is sort of similar. His work is meaningless and devoid of substance, but it makes him happy. And he gives the Little Prince a goal and destination, sort of!

My favourite? Everyone’s favourite, of course: the fox. If I could explain to you why I love the fox scene so much without just retelling the story, then we would all understand more, and Saint-Exupéry wouldn’t have had to write this book in the first place.

Yesterday morning a woman I never met and only saw as a bridesmaid in my parents’ wedding photos died. I didn’t know her, but I’ve seen a lot of love for her today. Today seems like as good a day as any to remember the lesson of the Little Prince, that even when we lose something precious, it leaves something behind that we never had before and couldn’t have gained in any other way.

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