May 22, 2022

John Steinbeck, an American in Paris

It’s an under-the-radar book by John Steinbeck. “An American in New York and Paris”, published in 1956 by Julliard, has never been republished in French – or in English. It is not part of the “Library of America” edition (the equivalent of La Pléiade) in four volumes. This yellowed volume, the pages of which peel on reading, embellished with mediocre caricatures, which was worth 390 francs at the time, and which one sometimes finds in the boxes of booksellers, is a rarity. This is a collection of articles commissioned by newspapers, haphazardly from the wanderings of the author of the “Grapes of Wrath”, now famous for his loudmouth character and herald of the forgotten. He did reports during the war, traveled to Indochina, worked with Elia Kazan on the screenplay for “Viva Zapata! “, visited the USSR, and has just published “East of Eden”. He prepares for his inevitable heart attack. It will occur in 1959.

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The sequel after the ad

Meanwhile, with his wife Elaine Anderson, the ex of Zachary Scott (the actor of “Born to be bad”), he travels. Steinbeck is a celebrity in Europe. When he lands in Spain, he takes a Jaguar in Gibraltar, and follows roads which, in his mind, are those of Don Quixote. He read Cervantes again in Seville, had himself insured on the way (but he had a tiny heart, and the insurer refused him), passed through Blois and, when he arrived in Paris, was offered a contract by the “Literary Figaro” in exchange for one post per week. For a moment, he strikes the pose of a modern Tocqueville, then assures his readers, from the outset, that the company « of an American who would write about Paris » is crazy.

However, this « first dialogue with the city » amuses him: he wants to describe « the movement of men and things in the markets, the merry-go-round of children in public gardens, the stroll of the passer-by on Friday eveningu ». Having learned a few words of French, he triggers bursts of laughter, quickly extinguished by sad news: « My friend Robert Capa died in North Vietnam, crushed by a mine ». Then, from his hotel room, he resumes his walks, near « this stone symphonys » What is Notre Dame? He crunches the barges, the laundry, the boatmen, the soup simmering in the galleys of the boats. And, looking at the anglers on the Seine, it is pronounced as « one of the world’s foremost experts in the art of observing others fishing ». Diagnosis: in France, « there is a courteous agreement by which fishermen and fish leave each other alone ».

Unpublished: when John Steinbeck was Parisian… and funny

“The Great Cathedral of the Stomach”

Steinbeck, who loves good food and good wine, recommends a caboulot called “Les Puces sympathetics”, one of whose waitresses, pretty, served as a model for being the heroine of a poem entitled “Tracteur au beurre” . Then, after having tasted the dishes of “La Rotonde” and “Deux Magots”, he prefers “La Souris cripple”, which no one has ever heard of. In Les Halles, in front « gothic piles of carrots and artichokes », It front of « marvelous bloody apron butchers », he sings « the great cathedral of the stomach », before becoming disillusioned during a detour to London:

« The English feature that has most perplexed other peoples, and particularly the French, is the British treatment of food. In this regard, two schools of thought have emerged: the first maintains that it is a question of a masochistic manifestation, of a kind of self-punishment. The other school affirms that a fundamental savagery finds its release through this outlet ».

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The proof by the Brussels sprouts. Properly cooked, it is delicious. Corn « what do the English do? All that’s left is a grayish mess that looks like dirty laundry ».

The sequel after the ad

Comfortably installed on avenue de Marigny, opposite the Elysée, with a cook and a housekeeper available, Steinbeck was received for dinner by the Académie Française, interviewed by dozens of journalists, and learned with satisfaction that James Dean, in ” East of Eden,” is awesome. Sacred, praised, blessed, nobelized, harassed by the FBI, John Steinbeck will still write “Tender Thursday” and “The Winter of Our Discontent”, before dying in 1968. Elaine Anderson, she will fly away definitively in 2003. Alas , no one will look into a question that torments us. What the fuck “Butter Tractor” ?

“The Grapes of Wrath”, Ford sublimeAn American in New York and Paris, by John Steinbeck, translated by Jean-François Rozan, Julliard, 158 p., 1956.