As It Happens

Newly unearthed John Steinbeck story is a 'lighthearted' tale about a chef and his cat

A recently unearthed short story by American author John Steinbeck tells a "dramatic but poignant tale of friendship, food and felines."

The Amiable Fleas, discovered in University of Texas archives, is being published in The Strand magazine

A new short story by U.S. novelist John Steinbeck has been unearthed. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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A recently unearthed short story by American author John Steinbeck tells a "dramatic but poignant tale of friendship, food and felines," says the magazine editor who found it. 

"It's about a gourmet chef named Monsieur Amité and his delightful, majestic cat named Apollo," Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, told As It Happens guest host Rosemary Barton. 

"For those who are addicted to the morose, dark, grim works of Steinbeck — they will be surprised when they read this." 

The story, originally titled Les Puces sympathiques, was first published on July 31, 1954, as part of a weekly column Steinbeck wrote for the French daily Le Figaro while he was living in Paris.

It's now being resurrected in the latest edition of The Strand Magazine under the title The Amiable Fleas.

A lucky discovery 

Gulli says he discovered the story while scouring through a collection of Steinbeck's papers at the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Centre archives.

"When I read it, I was like, 'Oh my God, this has to have been collected in a ... short story collection.' And to my surprise, it wasn't," he said.

"It was like one of those great moments where, you know, you're looking and you're like, I've stumbled upon something which should be read by a wider audience."

In the story, Monsieur Amité is a chef who runs a one-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, and his biggest goal in life is to get a second star.

An illustration in The Strand Magazine, to accompany a newly published John Steinbeck story of a French chef and his cat. (Jeffrey McKeever/The Strand )

But when the so-called "Michelin investigators" show up one day, everything goes wrong and a flustered Monsieur Amité takes out his frustrations on Apollo the cat.

"So from there on, we need to find out how Monsieur Amité can get another star and how he can find a way to become friends again with his loyal confidante Apollo," Gulli said.

A change of tone 

The story and its whimsical tone are a dramatic departure from the author's best known works, realist novels like The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, which deal with labour, class and poverty.

But Gulli says The Amiable Fleas isn't totally out of left field.

"Steinbeck has a theme, which is common — many times, it's woven into his work — and that's one of friendship," he said. "This story has a theme, but in a more lighthearted tone of the gourmet chef and his loyal cat."

He suspects it has something to do with Steinbeck's life and emotional state at the time. 

"He was happily married to his third wife Elaine, and he was staying in Paris for a couple of months. Both of his sons were there. The French really, really had a lot of respect for him and were lauding him as a literary luminary, so I'm sure he felt great about that. He had a wonderful flat near the Champs-Élysées," he said.

"He felt at home in France and in Paris. And when you look at his writings at that time, you can see that this was a man who was quite happy with everything."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Richard Raycraft.