“There’s no backstitching in stories. Nothing can be locked in place.”
So says a character in Studio Saint-Ex, but readers of Ania Szado’s second novel might disagree; she seems to have no trouble locking a good story in place.
She began where all good stories begin, with a fascination.
In her Acknowledgments, she writes:
“To conclude where Studio Saint-Ex began: When I was eleven, I was given a copy of The Little Prince. I will forever be aware – and grateful – that the gift of a book can change the course of a child’s life.”
Obviously Ania Szado is not alone in her love of The Little Prince, but she has extended that gift, and the curiosity it inspired, to examine the life of its writer.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has been the subject of many biographies, with conflicting assessments as Ania Szado explains in her notes.
She consulted many sources (including the biography written by his wife Consuelo, who also appears as a character in Studio Saint-Ex) as well as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s own writing and references them so that other curious readers can explore further too.
Like Mig, who is at the heart of Studio Saint-Ex, Ania Szado first looked for the man in his stories. Mig describes it like this:
“I had sought Antoine in his novels. I had recalled them as adventure tales. But what I found in rereading them was his testament that the noble man was condemned to wander unprotected and alone, his duties denying him a peaceful existence with a loving wife and the joys of settling in a community for longer than the span between missions or mail drops.”
When Mig makes this observation, it is many years after she has known Antoine; she is preparing to contribute to Expo 67 in Montreal, which was named for one of his books, Terre des hommes, and revisits his writing with certain expectations.
Mig wants to find the man in his fiction, but Ania Szado takes it one step further and seeks to create the man in her fiction.
It is a work requiring both delicacy and deliberation in equal measures, and these, too, are qualities which Mig possesses.
Twenty-two-year-old Mig is an aspiring fashion designer in New York City, in the 1940’s, at a time when the work of French designers is no longer readily available to wealthy women living in America.
She is fuelled by passion, but does not rely solely upon that or her ambition in pursuit of her goal; many of the novel’s most memorable scenes are of Mig labouring in the studio, hours and hours spent crafting a garment. (And, speaking of design, not only is the dust jacket of this novel beautiful but there is a surprise beneath: lovely.)
Much is uncertain for Mig at this time, but her desire to be a designer is consistent. Politically the world is in turmoil and Mig only has her brother and uncle to support her, but the Alliance Française, a haven for French expats in the city, offers a degree of security for her personally, even when other factors threaten to overwhelm.
She meets Antoine de Saint-Exupéry when she is asked to assist him with his language skills, a service she has offered there unhesitatingly to those seeking assistance with either French or English, but their relationship quickly grows complicated.
“I had spent my entire life on a single path in a single city. My travels had never taken me to another time zone, never mind another continent. And I was supposed to teach him?”
Whether it is her admiration or his which swells most intensely, readers are unsure.
“His mind, like his character, was complex, accomplished, infuriating: it was that of a dedicated storyteller and a natural mathematician, of a highly religious man who didn’t quite believe in God, of an inventor of magical worlds and of patented mechanical gizmos, a war pilot who would never take up arms, that of a man whose greatest pleasure was friendship and whose greatest needs demanded solitude. He was a bear who would sooner charm than roar.”
And when his wife takes shape in the narrative, readers’ uncertainty surges once more.
“Consuelo had ambitions, too. It was always the women who ached with hunger. Especially the wives.”
What remains consistent throughout the novel, however, is Ania Szado’s authorial voice, her determination to construct a narrative order to contain the inherently chaotic passions embodied in and surrounding Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
As methodically as Mig creates and employs scraps of fabric, Studio Saint-Ex takes shape.
“Soon, or later – here was no point in marking the time – the sleeves, the bodice, each section of the dress was detached and smoothed, and rested like a blue island on the brown sea of the table. I gathered the pieces without labeling them – I could read their shapes as easily as one reads words – and unspooled a roll of paper.”
Mig views the world as a series of stitches; letter-by-letter, Ania Szado hems the story.
Ania Szado’s prose is diligently and beautifully constructed. Sentence lengths vary and rhythm alters to reflect the content of specific scenes, and although much of the language is straightforward, sometimes lyricism takes hold.
(“Madame’s face gathered like a drawstring handbag”: is that not simply perfect, even setting aside the matter that a simile rooted in fashion is wholly appropriate.)
There are more questions than answers, which suits this contradictory and intriguing man, and the novel presents possibilities rather than prescriptions. The complicated relationships which ensue are simply allowed to remain so, not unexplored but undeclared. Readers are afforded the opportunity to temporarily inhabit more than one character’s perspective.
The idea of interpretation is central to Studio Saint-Ex; it might be true that once a piece of fabric is cut, it cannot be made truly whole again, but nor is there the sense that only one garment could be envisioned therein.
Even with a work as ostensibly simple as The Little Prince, readers can understand it very differently. (Just as a piece of fabric can be remade into other shapes, which is demonstrated literally and figuratively in this novel.)
Mig’s brother sets another reader’s interpretation on end by declaring: “It isn’t a love story, it’s a war story. The prince goes back to his rose at the end. That’s his country.”
Certainly, this is a valid interpretation, for although he faced great censure during wartime, many agree that patriotism and love-of-country was a driving force for Saint-Exupéry.
But others would argue that it is not that simple, that love cannot be confined in such rigid terms. There is nothing simple about the love stories in Studio Saint-Ex.
She will participate tonight in the “University of British Columbia Anniversary Celebration” with several other writers (including some discussed here previously: Théodora Armstrong, Joseph Boyden, Wayne Grady and Annabel Lyon), Tuesday October 29, 2013 at 8pm.
She will also be participating in IFOA Thunder Bay on Sunday November 3 at 7pm.
This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration.