John Steinbeck has been a (if not the) favourite for about seven years now. After getting through almost half his fiction output in a short time I slowed down, wary that there would too soon come a time where I would have no more of his novels left to read. As it is, that can only be a year or two away now, even if I pace myself as I have been. His novels are ones I turn to in the summer. If it’s hard to be transported to northern California from a train in south Essex during summer, then I can only imagine how much harder it would be whilst wearing a coat and scarf. I haven’t read East of Eden yet. I’m leaving that one to last.
The Short Reign of Pippin IV was a product of the rather maligned New York period in Steinbeck’s life, which spanned from his writing of East of Eden until his death in 1968. Though this period saw him win the Nobel Prize, it wasn’t just those who had been a critic of his work from the beginning who saw it as an acknowledgement that his career was in its twilight days, with his best novels behind him. Transplanted from his native California he wrote novels that were often more experimental, but less rooted in everyday experience. When he wrote about his home state from the opposite seaboard (in Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row) it was a far rosier, more romantic view than he’d ever conjured up before. He would go on to end his career well out of favour with the literary establishment for his hawkish and somewhat naïve views on Vietnam. Perhaps had he been at the height of his career, those views would have gone unforgiven. That his best books were written decades before has meant the reputation that survived was that of the younger Steinbeck, whilst the older Steinbeck has generally been forgotten as much as his later books have been. As it is, though I have a hard copy of this one that has been on the shelf for years, it’s now out of print, and only available as an ebook.
Pippin IV begins this short satirical novel as plain Pippin Herestal, a middle aged middle class Parisian most likely to be found on the roof of the apartment building where he and his wife live, watching the stars through his telescope. Meanwhile 1950s France is in turmoil, the government collapses, and none of the parties can attract enough support to form a replacement. What France needs, her politicians decide, is another revolution. But to have another revolution, and one in which they will come out the other side of with power rather than death sentences, they first need someone to revolt against.
Cue the restoration of the monarchy. Every party in the French parliament gets behind the idea. The communists think a monarch will only accelerate the rise of a communist France. The socialists think a monarch will get rid of the communists. The Protestants think a monarch will get rid of the Catholics. And the aristocracy think a monarch will restore them to their rightful place. For once, the government of France is united. Their patsy king is quickly found – the last in the line of the Herestals. Unfortunately for them, the naïve Pippin believes he has real power, and he wants to use it to change France for the better. He’s got to go immediately, everyone decides, lest he do just that.
The novel’s not really about France, of course. Pippin’s ear is bent throughout by his prospective son in law, the scion of America’s most successful chicken farmer. Whilst he’s learning about what monarchy entails, Pippin also learns about American corporations, and how little difference there seems to be between the two. Steinbeck reserves some of his most barbed attacks for the wilfully impotent French radicals who have cynically realised that if they deliver what they promise then nobody would have a reason to vote for them anymore. He wrote the novel during the Democrat Party’s post-war malaise, when the party floundered without direction in the vacuum left behind by FDR’s death, and was yet to rediscover a new radicalism under JFK.
It’s an often clever, frequently funny novel, and as short as it is, doesn’t outstay its welcome. Everything Steinbeck has to say about corporatism and phoney liberalism is as relevant today as it was then, and will probably remain so for generations. But it’s not a novel I’d give someone to show them why I like Steinbeck so much. It’s a novel I’d tell them to leave until they’ve only got a few others left to read, just like me (alas).