Night Flight was a smash hit when it was released, but it has since been almost forgotten (at least in English literature), and rightly so. The story is of a group of men, some aviators, engineers, and a controller, whose job it is to deliver the mail along way-stations in South America. Simple enough, but the task is complicated by the fact that this is being done in the days before radar, before very precise instrumentation, and also, in this case, at night.
It needs to be remembered that Night Flight was written in 1931, a good twenty or thirty years before commercial flights became feasible to the general public. That explains most of the book’s early appeal — it was a way to experience something second-hand that would be completely impossible first-hand. For modern readers, we are able to gain an insight into what it was like for the first pioneers of the early aviation industry…
Kind of. Because this is where Night Flight really falls down. It is far too brief a book, and far too self-consciously written to give a real sense of what it’s like to fly. Descriptions are terse and abstract, so you never really get a full sense of what is being described. Characters are thinly developed and the thoughts that they have that the readers are made privy to are not really thoughts that people have. The writing tries to be philosophical, but fails; to wit:
“I tell you, Robineau, in life there are no solutions. There are only motive forces , and our task is to set them acting — and then the solutions follow.”
Well, are there solutions or aren’t there? It’s possible that a bad translator may be obfuscating the pure expression of the original, which would be a shame, but none of the elements really seem to connect emotionally. Everything seems to be being held at an arm’s distance. You feel that what the writer is trying to convey is that this heroism is an everyday heroism, one that isn’t trumpeted. But we want it to be trumpeted, and are disappointed when the author won’t. There is fear, love, hate, wonder, and joy to be found in the events of this story, but we aren’t allowed every to really feel them with the author who must have either been cynical about these qualities or, as I feel he was, too touched by all of them to feel safe in expressing them fully. Ultimately, even the fact that this is a fiction serves to distance the author even further from the subject. Since Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a pilot exactly of the type described in the book, Night Flight should have been a memoir or article; not a brief, impersonal story.