I’m sorry that I returned Antoine de Saint-Exupery’sThe Wisdom of the Sands to the library without having read much of it. I found it difficult to get into, I don’t know whether because of something in the book itself or because of defects in the translation.
Chiefly though, it isn’t really a book to take out of the library, read through and return after three weeks. I would like to have had it around for a few months and dip into it from time to time when feeling thoughtful, not race through it on the bus to and from work where I do most of my reading, which is fine for unwinding with a thriller after a long day’s hard concentration, but an injustice to a book full of ideas like this one.
I took the book out in the first place because Matthew Thomas pointed me towards it on IRC as the source of something I have been misquoting for years:
La perfection est atteinte non quand il ne reste rien à ajouter, mais quand il ne reste rien à enlever. [No translation will be provided this time, chiefly because every translation I’ve seen is lame. If you care, find out!]
The trouble with the book is that it has no particular structure. It is full of fascinating gems like that, which you could remove from the frame story and turn into an excellent common-place book, but the frame story itself never seems to get going nor to lead anywhere. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a totally superficial judgement on my part based on a very sketchy reading, but I (arrogantly) blame the book itself for not drawing me in to a less sketchy reading.
The parts that made the most impression on me were those where he talks about giving and receiving. Not so much the frequently-quoted “when you give yourself, you receive more than you give,” as the concept that in order for you to give, there must be someone to receive. This is not so frequently quoted &mdash I can’t find any page on the internet with the exact text, and the point is a subtle one.
There is a difference between giving and meeting demands. The worst thing that one partner can do in a relationship is to cross that thin line between receiving a gift and demanding a service. Saint Exupery compares this kind of relationship to prostitution — you can’t give a prostitute anything, you can only supply her with the payment that she has earned.
If there is a doublet of this post below, it’s because I haven’t worked out how to cancel a blogger post with errors in it. Grrr.