“The Amiable Fleas” and John Steinbeck in Paris, 1954
In 1954, living in Paris with his third wife Elaine, John Steinbeck was a comfortable man. He had recently completed difficult work: the film treatment for Viva Zapata! (1952); his third play/novelette, Burning Bright (1950, where characters struggle with notions of fatherhood—as did the man himself); and the epic novel East of Eden (1952), the “big book” about the Salinas Valley that he had planned to write since the early 1930s. In 1952, he and Elaine—two years married—took the first of their many trips abroad and, as would become his custom, he wrote travel articles, which helped pay for trips and allowed Steinbeck to record personal impressions, usually about “little things” that intrigued him. He was a journalist at heart, remarked a college friend, because Steinbeck loved to be on the scene, a curious observer of the human carnival.
Steinbeck felt at home watching the extravagant carnival that is Paris, “always wonderful—both recognized and new everytime.” On his and Elaine’s second sojourn in the city, in 1954, he suggested to the weekly magazine Le Figaro Littéraire that he write short articles about city life, observations that were “unmistakably American.” Was it a presumptuous undertaking for an American in Paris? he asked readers in the first of what turned out to be a seventeen-part series. No, he concluded. After all, a Frenchman, J. Hector St. John de Crèvcoeur, wrote the most incisive account we have of 18th century America. Traveler Steinbeck set out to observe Paris in the same spirit, looking at city life with an “eye of delight.”
“The Amiable Fleas” is the tenth piece in the series, published heretofore only in French. While others in the series are nonfiction (fishing in Paris; his love for the Isle de la Cité—“I love the music in stone which is Notre Dame”; the kindness of Parisians), this charming story is fiction. Or perhaps a fable would be closer to the mark. It’s a humorous tale of how we strive to make the mark, willing to make any compromises to get there.
This narrative is characteristic Steinbeck, not striking the somber organ chords of The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, certainly, but rather the grace notes of an author who claimed that his prose structures were based on the mathematics of music. “The Amiable Fleas” is a soufflé. Steinbeck is enjoying himself, writing a frothy narrative about the “growing fame of The Amiable Fleas,” a restaurant in Paris that is awarded a Michelin star—and craves another. A cat named Apollo is the chef’s taster and “confidant,” and when he disappears, insulted by the chef when under the stress of a critic’s visit, the meals are a disaster. The chef sets out to “win back” the cat’s friendship.
Steinbeck’s humor was a deep vein in his writing: consider Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row (1945), Sweet Thursday (1954), and another novel set in France, a farce about French politics, The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957). And of course Travels with Charley (1962), where the wry, engaging Steinbeck observes the American scene. Charley, the French poodle who accompanies Steinbeck on his loop around America, was purchased in France and flown back to the U.S. on a TWA flight. He only spoke dog-French, Steinbeck quipped.