John Steinbeck is remembered as a giant of 20th-century American literature, a brutal critic of the exploitation of rural laborers, chronicler of dashed hopes and thwarted dreams. But not all of his works carried the heft of East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath. Take, for instance, “The Amiable Fleas,” a lighthearted short story about a chef and his cat that has now been published in English for the first time.
According to Jacey Fortin of the New York Times, Steinbeck wrote the tale in 1954, while he was living in Paris. The author penned a series called “One American in Paris” for the French newspaper Le Figaro; he would write his pieces in English, and they would subsequently be translated into French. Most of Steinbeck’s submissions were non-fiction, but among them was also “Les Puces Sympathiques,” or “The Amiable Fleas.” The English version of the story appears this week in the Strand Magazine, a literary publication based in Michigan.
The work came to the magazine’s attention after managing editor Andrew F. Gulli hired a researcher to look through the Steinbeck collection at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center. When he read the long-forgotten story for the first time, Gulli was taken aback by its jovial tone.
“I was thinking, ‘Is this John Steinbeck?’” he tells NPR’s David Greene. “I mean, nobody’s dead.”
“The Amiable Fleas” is set in a Parisian restaurant of the same name, helmed by the chef, M. Amité, and his right-hand cat, Apollo, who serves not only as M. Amité’s companion, but also as his food critic. “Tasting a sauce,” Steinbeck writes, “the master dipped first and second finger, tasted his forefinger and held the second finger to be licked by Apollo. Thus the chef knew the cat’s taste and moreover had great respect for its judgment.”
M. Amité has earned one Michelin star—and he very much wants another one. When things go awry on the day of the Michelin inspector’s visit, M. Amité takes his frustration out on Apollo, who dashes off in a huff. Thus the chef must win his feline friend back. There is a special dish, a fortuitous event and a plot twist.
Steinbeck first came to Paris in 1946, when he was in his 40s, and returned often over the remaining decades of his career. He loved the city—the author once quipped that he viewed it with “an eye of delight”—but “The Amiable Fleas” is dotted with humorous jabs at the Parisian cultural elite. Among the restaurant’s patrons are a painter who works with “invisible ink,” an architect known for his aversion to flying buttresses and a poet “whose work was so gloriously obscure that even he did not understand it.”
Though the story may seem like an anomaly for the often somber Steinbeck, Susan Shillinglaw, a Steinbeck scholar and a professor of English at San Jose State University, tells Hillel Italie of the Associated Press that the author “loved to write, and it didn't always have to be serious.”
“Some of his writing is funny, deft, wry, engaging,” Shillinglaw adds. Steinbeck’s earliest literary hit was, in fact, 1935’s Tortilla Flat, a collection of humorous stories that follow the escapades of a group of friends in the ramshackle hills above Monterey, California.
In an email to Smithsonian.com, Gulli notes that, like other Steinbeck works, “The Amiable Fleas” is rooted in friendship—“one of [the author’s] favorite themes”—and also “reflects his love for animals.” Indeed, 1962’s Travels with Charley in Search of America chronicles Steinbeck’s journey through nearly 40 states, which he undertook in the company of his French poodle.
The story of the French chef and his cat may be “little,” as Steinbeck himself notes wryly in “The Amiable Fleas.” But, he opines, there are virtues in lingering upon life’s “soft verities.”
“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,” the author 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.”