A whimsical short story by John Steinbeck, in which the usually less cheery author tells the story of a temperamental French chef’s love for his cat, is being published in English for the first time this week.
The author of Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden lived in Paris in the mid-1950s, where he wrote a weekly column for the French daily Le Figaro called One American in Paris. One of his pieces took the form of a short story, Les Puces sympathiques. Published in French on 31 July 1954, it was found by Andrew Gulli in Steinbeck’s papers at the Ransom Centre at the University of Texas at Austin. Gulli is the editor of the Strand magazine, which is publishing it in English this week as The Amiable Fleas.
“Don’t expect to read something dramatic in the vein of Grapes of Wrath,” Gulli warned.
Steinbeck’s chef, Monsieur Amité, is desperate for a second Michelin star – so desperate that when things go wrong in the kitchen on the day of the inspector’s visit, he ends up kicking his bosom companion and muse, “a great and dignified cat named Apollo”. Determined to win back Apollo’s friendship, he makes a dish to tempt the cat back.
“When he tasted, he knew he had succeeded, that any cat who could withstand this dish was a cat far gone in insanity. And last, he added one ingredient, almost a magic, to win back his friend,” writes Steinbeck. “The dish went to the oven, came out faintly brown and smelling like the breath of goddesses. M. Amité carefully filled Apollo’s plate, and without a coat went out in the rain to look for his darling.”
A far cry from the wide canvases and depths of human misery he plumbs in his novels, the story includes small interludes in Steinbeck’s voice as he admits that he might be “a novelist whose work is so despondent that the whole world flocks to him”. However, he also shares a glimpse of his optimistic side:
“As a species, we have been in trouble since we came down from trees and took up habitation in caves, but also, as a species, we have survived,” he writes. “We have not survived on great things, but on little ones, like a little story I have heard – probably an old, old, story. But this is the way I heard it.”
Steinbeck took up writing for Le Figaro after becoming frustrated with the skills of the journalists who visited him in his home near the Champs-Elysées.
“Here in France I get interviewed all the time. I spend hours with journalists helping them to make some kind of a story and then when it comes out it is garbled and slanted and lousy. I wondered why I did not write my own interviews and charge for those hours of time and have it come out my way,” he wrote to his agent Elizabeth Otis. “In other words, why should I not write 800 words a week for one French paper, simply called something like an American in Paris – observations, essay, questions, but unmistakably American.”