Translator’s Preface: Following on from Villard’s debut novel about the famous art collector Peggy Guggenheim, this new work focuses on another inspiring female figure: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wife and muse Consuelo, to whom we owe the story The Little Prince.
When the recently widowed young painter Consuelo meets Antoine de Saint-Exupéry at a party during a visit to Buenos Aires, it’s love at first sight. The spirited Central American, who has made her home in Paris, becomes the muse of the enigmatic pilot, who would, in fact, much rather write and draw. The result of his undying love for her is The Little Prince, in which Consuelo is the beloved rose, whom the prince would like to protect with a glass globe and who is constantly on his mind on whichever alien planet he travels to. The book makes Antoine world renowned, but the reality of being at his side is far from easy. Consuelo has to contend with his infidelity and, as an artist, she struggles to step out of the shadow of her famous husband – until Antoine leaves on a fateful reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean in 1944 …
Chapter 2 describes their first meeting, which took place shortly after Consuelo arrived in Buenos Aires to sort out her financial affairs.
Buenos Aires, two days later
The car had picked her up on time and was now pulling in on the wide boulevard in front of the sandstone building that housed the oldest luxury hotel in the city. This was where the reception was being held in honor of the French delegation Benjamin belonged to. It was really like a piece of Paris in the center of Argentina, Consuelo thought, looking up at the hotel whose Haussmann façade would not have been out of place in the Champs-Élysées. In fact, Buenos Aries with its noble department stores, expensive cars and ladies and gentlemen rushing along the sidewalks in the latest fashion, in hats, capes and skirt suits, seemed just like Paris. Only the gigantic palms, which provided greenery in the parks and squares, betrayed the fact that Place de la Concorde lay far from here. As did the tango music streaming from the passing convertibles and the open windows of apartments and restaurants.
You could surely lead an exciting bohemian life in the small cafes here, Consuelo thought, and in the countless theaters for which the city was so renowned, and, of course, in the tango bars. Although that was considered disreputable, and, as a socialite, one naturally wouldn’t dance, but would at best look on. What a shame.
But this evening, and in the mood she was in at the moment, she didn’t feel like dancing. Yesterday she had honored her appointments in the city. President Don El Peludo had even received her to express his condolences on the death of her husband, to personally facilitate the settlement of her pension, and to ensure the best possible provision for the so-much-younger widow who had been left behind. Consuelo had once again been astonished at how popular Enrique had been here in Argentina – almost something of a national hero, it seemed, although he had in fact been born in Guatemala and only assumed Argentinian nationality later in life. His books had been extremely popular here for decades. He was regarded as someone who had moved to Europe and made it.
His funeral in Paris had already been unusual enough. After the ceremony in the Église de la Madeleine, Consuelo had walked behind the adorned carriage containing the coffin alongside Enrique’s friend, the poet and Nobel Prize-winning writer, Maurice Maeterlinck, to Père-Lachaise cemetery – followed by more than a thousand friends, companions, politicians and cultural functionaries from all over Europe, every one of them dressed in black. She shook her head as she recalled the scene, which she had walked through as though asleep, as if in some absurd dream. Enrique had quite simply been her Enrique, nothing more. The fact that his departure had called forth such a furor was still incomprehensible to her.
The meeting with the Argentinian president yesterday had also taken a peculiar turn .when an attaché came up to him and whispered news of the impending student rebellion in his ear. This had already been rumored on board the Massilia, and Consuelo could hear everything the attaché said, because the president didn’t hear very well and the attaché had consequently had to whisper very loudly. The uprising was scheduled to take place the following Wednesday, she had heard, and she wondered how that could be pinpointed so precisely. She had sipped her glass of good Argentinian red wine while the president was whispering to the attaché, and reflected on the fact that she was intending to leave in two days’ time in any event, to visit her family in El Salvador, and that the possible unrest would consequently not affect her.
She forced herself to focus instead on this evening as the driver of the car opened the rear door and she stepped out onto the wide sidewalk in front of the hotel. She thanked him, the limousine drove off, and her initial impulse was simply to walk past the entrance and take a long evening stroll through the lit-up city rather than torture herself with the reception. From a side street, she could hear snatches of salsa music. The air was balmy and filled with the smells from restaurants and bodegas. But she remembered that she was doing Benjamin a favor by turning up; only for his sake would she make it through this evening with composure and grace.
From the corner with wood paneling, red and gold baroque wallpaper and ceiling-high mirror a string quartet had been boring her for half an hour now with their good old pieces by dead European composers. Why hadn’t they at least invited a tango band to play? Consuelo held her champagne flute tightly and let the story of the man opposite rush past her. He was a French academic who was living here in order to analyze the drastic increase in traffic in the Argentinian capital in recent years. Benjamin had greeted her briefly when she arrived, and had then been swallowed up by the crowd, since he was one of the guests of honor, after all, and had to chat with all of the country’s dignitaries. Consuelo noticed that some of the guests were looking at them and whispering – “So, that’s Carrillo’s widow? She’s very young!” – but she tried to ignore them. Her glass was almost empty. She would stay another few minutes out of decency and then return to her hotel to have another final farewell drink with a few acquaintances she had gotten to know and come to treasure during the crossing. For those thrown together on the steamship would now naturally be scattered to the four winds. She herself needed to recover from the exertions of recent days in the city – all the appointments and the frenzied buzz of Spanish all around her, to which she was no longer accustomed – and prepare for her onward journey. For when she visited her family, she would have to appear strong and confident. She was returning from Europe, after all, and people in her hometown would want to receive her as a heroine, not a lost daughter with no idea of what she was going to do with the rest of her life.
She drained her champagne and looked over at Benjamin, who was still deep in conversation. If need be, she would leave without saying goodbye to him.
She had just wished the academic good luck with his study and collected her coat from the cloakroom when a very tall man – two heads taller than her – with thick eyebrows, slicked-back hair, an unshaven face, and expansive gestures, stormed into the hotel lobby. He was wearing a lightweight suit and a scarf was billowing around his neck, but he had no coat. He pulled to a halt upon seeing Consuelo. “I didn’t know there’d be beautiful women here!” he boomed across the lobby, so everyone could hear.
Consuelo stood still for a moment, taken aback by the fervor and spontaneous frankness with which he had spoken – and at the incredible energy he exuded. But then she changed her mind, raised her eyebrows and continued putting on her coat. She didn’t have a lot of time for boorish folks. Although this one here with his exuberance and almost childlike directness had an extremely mysterious charisma, she had to admit. “You must forgive me, I’m just about to leave,” she said somewhat awkwardly before attempting to get around him, since he had placed himself directly in her way.
“Oh, no. Absolutely not.” He reached for her coat, twirled her elegantly out of it again, and threw it on the cloakroom counter. “You can’t abandon me before I’ve gotten to know you. That’s totally out of the question!” He offered her his arm. “Please, be so kind as to join me for a drink.” His eyes beseeched her.
Consuelo didn’t take his arm. “How can I? When you haven’t even introduced yourself.”
“I’m very sorry.” He bowed. “I am …”
“That’s Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,” Benjamin interrupted. He had just hurried into the lobby from the main room in order to greet his friend. “The writer-pilot I told you about.”
Saint-Exupéry smiled. “So, I’m a writer-pilot, am I?” He embraced his friend. “If that’s the case, I’d much rather be designated pilot-writer. But a nice introduction, my good man. Indeed, I’ve just returned from a weeklong mission that took me all the way to the end of Patagonia, where I saw multicolored birds and little monkeys as small as your hand.” He took Consuelo’s right hand. “As delightfully small as this doll’s hand of yours.” He looked into her eyes. “May this writing pilot now take you over to that group of armchairs at the front there for a drink?” He pointed at the leather club chairs with the smokers’ tables in the corner of the lobby, and gave her a charming smile.
“I was just about to …,” Consuelo began again faintly, hastily withdrawing her hand, and still thinking about the perplexing little monkeys and brightly colored birds. The sound of the ceaseless string quartet coming from the main room was completely at odds with such scenes.
However, she couldn’t dwell on these sensations for long, because it was now two against one. Benjamin linked arms with her and literally dragged her over to the armchairs. “You were just about to chat a little with both of us.” He bent down close to her ear, so his friend couldn’t hear. “Believe me, you won’t regret getting to know my friend Saint-Ex. It’s never boring in his company.”
Oh well, she could stay a few more minutes, she supposed. She would then spend a little less time with her acquaintances than planned, and catch up on her beauty sleep in the morning.
She let Benjamin lead her over to a club chair, sat down, and then this Antoine fellow immediately pressed a gin into her hand. “But now you must tell me what your doll’s hands do when they’re not holding a glass of gin or a cigarette.” He gave her a light and then lit his own cigarette. Benjamin sat beside them, grinning.
“They guide a paintbrush or work with a hammer and chisel,” Consuela retorted. Those who asked directly got direct answers. Doll’s hand. Pha!
“An artist! I sensed that the minute I saw you! Would you paint something for me sometime? Perhaps the clouds I fly through every day, or the summits of the Andes. I could take you to Patagonia, and you could immortalize the brightly colored birds. And the seals in Tierra del Fuego, too. There are lots of seals there, you know. I once brought one back in the hold. He’s in the zoo now, mind you. My bathtub wasn’t big enough for him.” He drew his hand over his cheeks. “Oh, please excuse my unshaven appearance.” He jumped up. “Just give me a couple of minutes. I’ll run over to the hotel barber.” With that, he scurried down the corridor, and disappeared into the hair salon.
“What in heaven’s name … what kind of a man is that, Benjamin?” Consuelo sat bolt upright in her armchair. She had never met anyone like him in all her life. “I don’t know what I …”
Benjamin laughed. “Say nothing, do nothing, just wait. It’ll be worth it. Quite definitely.” He winked at her as Antoine entered the lobby, freshly shaven and reeking of Eau de Cologne. He knelt down on the marble floor directly in front of Consuelo’s chair, while the people in the lobby looked on in amazement. “I would like to show you the stars. Will you come with me?”
“But …” Consuelo looked over at Benjamin, who just smiled.
“I’d like to show you the stars. I will fly you very close to them.” Good Lord, Dios mío!
“But I don’t fly. I’ve never flown. In fact, just running very fast is already too much for me.”
Saint-Exupéry laughed, took her hands in his, and turned her palms upward. “I can read your hands, d’you know that? I’m good at it.” He looked at the lines on her palm. “And here I can see quite clearly that any moment now, this very evening, in fact, you will board my plane with me and come very close to the moon.”
Benjamin sensed she was speechless, and came to her rescue. “That’s not possible, unfortunately, Antoine. She’s meeting up with good acquaintances of ours shortly. She has to go.”
Consuelo nodded lamely, and put her gin down on the little smokers’ table.
Antoine sprang to his feet. “But that’s not a problem. How many of you are there?”
“Eight,” said Benjamin. “And …”
“And you’re also coming along, my friend, aren’t you? Nine plus the two of us.” Antoine smiled at Consuelo. “We’ll all fit comfortably in my plane.” He slapped Benjamin on the back. “Come on, old friend!” He looked at him with puppy eyes.
Benjamin laughed and stood up. “Alright then. I’ll just say goodbye to my hosts.”
Antoine was already helping Consuelo into her coat. “Which star is your favorite? Venus? I bet it’s Venus. I’ll show you all of them. I will!” He lit another cigarette. “We’ll be at the airfield in half an hour – and then your journey with me into the sparkling firmament will begin.” He smiled at her, and she didn’t know if the strange feeling in her stomach came on simply because she was thinking of the airplane taking off.
Excerpted from Sophie Villard, Madame Exupéry und die Sterne im Himmel (Madame Exupéry and the Stars in Heaven), Penguin 2021.