Literary quarterly The Strand Magazine just published a recently unearthed John Steinbeck short story that is so charming it’ll have you asking yourself “Did John Steinbeck definitely write this?”
He definitely did. The 1500-word piece, titled “The Amiable Fleas,” was part of a 17-story series he penned for the French newspaper Le Figaro in the mid-1950s, but it’s never been released in English until now. In it, Mr. Amité, an anxiety-ridden chef at the fictional restaurant The Amiable Fleas, seeks his second Michelin star with the help of his taste-testing cat, Apollo. The kitchen is fraught with small calamities on the day of the Michelin inspector’s meal, which culminates in a fight between Mr. Amité and Apollo, after which Apollo leaves. Without the cat’s culinary instincts to guide him, the meal is dreadful. According to The New York Times, “then comes a plot twist, a second chance, and a revelation about a secret ingredient.”
The Strand Magazine’s managing editor, Andrew F. Gulli, hired a researcher who uncovered the story among the rare books and manuscripts at the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center. “From the perspective of a short story editor, this one really interested me,” he told The New York Times. “There was something universal about it with the gourmet, the cat, the family conflict, and the tension.”
The story also includes a witty depiction of the intellectuals who frequented The Amiable Fleas, which The New York Times posits may be based on the real-life Parisian café Les Deux Magots, where artists and authors used to congregate in the early 1900s. There’s a painter who paints with invisible ink, an architect who hates flying buttresses, and a poet who writes such obscure poetry that he himself doesn’t understand it.
Though such a whimsical tone may seem out of character for an author acclaimed for heavy works like The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, one Steinbeck scholar thinks otherwise. Susan Shillinglaw, a San Jose State University English professor and former director of its Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, told The New York Times that Steinbeck “liked to spin up funny stories and he had a great sense of humor ... What’s important about this is his range—that he could write something silly as well as be profound. I think that sort of effortless charm is characteristic Steinbeck.”
[h/t The New York Times]