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Wednesday’s WIP: An Evening with The Little Prince (and Adam Gopnik)

Calling all writers who are fans of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince”! If at all possible, you must get yourselves to the lovely Morgan Library here in New York before April 27, when an exhibit titled “The Little Prince: A New York Story” will close.

“It may come as a surprise,” the Morgan’s website tells us, “that this French tale of an interstellar traveler who comes to Earth in search of friendship and understanding was written and first published in New York City, during the two years the author spent here at the height of the Second World War.” The exhibit focuses on this period, exploring “the creative decisions Saint-Exupéry made as he crafted his beloved story that reminds us that what matters most can only be seen with the heart.”

Perhaps my favorite exhibit discovery was a set of sentences that Saint-Exupéry considered before he settled on the very famous line, “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (“What is essential is invisible to the eyes,” or less literally, “What is most important cannot be seen with one’s eyes”–part of a key lesson that the fox imparts to the Little Prince when he tells him that “what matters most can only be seen with the heart.”)

Excuse me for sticking with the original French as presented at the exhibit:

  • Mais ce qui compte est invisible
  • Ce qui compte est toujours invisible
  • Mais l’essentiel est toujours invisible
  • Ce qui est important est toujours invisible
  • Le plus important demeure invisible
  • Le plus important est invisible
  • Ce qui est important, ça ne se voit pas
  • Ce qui compte ne se voit pas
  • Ce qui est important ne se voit pas
  • Ce qui est tellement joli n’est pas pour les yeux
  • Ce qui se voit, ça ne se voit pas
  • Ce qui se voit, ça ne compte pas
  • L’important est toujours ailleurs
  • Ce qui est le plus important c’est ce qui ne se voit pas
  • I was drawn to this little piece of the exhibit for a lot of reasons. Mainly, I think, because it happens to come from one of my very favorite moments in the book. But I was also fascinated by the way it shows how Saint-Exupéry struggled the way all of us writers do–seeking the very best way to express something difficult to articulate. (Never mind the added layer of complexity-imagination-magic that’s introduced with translation.)

    The evening also included a wonderful presentation by one of my favorite writers: Adam Gopnik. Having had the opportunity to hear Gopnik speak at a conference of French historians a long time ago, I was confident that he’d do a great job here. And he did. I wish I could do more than show you his title slide. All I can say is that if you ever have the chance to hear him speak, carpe diem!


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    4 Responses »

    1. Always something interesting from you, Erika. Thank you very much for this. My only regret is that I cannot see the exhibit myself – unless by some chance it comes to Tokyo.

      I was late in encountering ” The Little Prince”, only being introduced to it as an undergraduate student. It had not formed part of my own childhood reading. When I met the Japanese lady who was to become my wife a love of Saint-Exupéry’s work was one of the things we were surprised to find we had in common. (She had a recording of Gérard Philipe reading the story.) There are now some fourteen translations of the book available in Japanese!

      The book or work related to it continued to pop up in friendships. I met and became friends with the American stage lighting designer Rick Fisher some twenty years ago. He did the lighting design for the opera based on the book. The step-mother of another friend choreographed the opera.

      I also share your admiration for the work of Adam Gopnik. I thought his recent New Yorker essay “Bread and Women” splendid.

      • Thank you so much for your comment(s), Clive. In fact, the popularity of the book worldwide (including in Asia) was a topic touched on in Gopnik’s presentation/the Q&A. (I, too, loved “Bread & Women,” by the way.)

    2. PS This is the link to reading by Gérard Philipe:



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