Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

16.9.06

What I've been reading

The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck. 151 pages, 1957, Bantam Books.
I must admit something to you, good readers. I majored in English at a prestigious Eastern university. I was, until the little darlings came into my life and robbed me of my will to live, quite a voracious reader. And yet, through all that, I have never read a John Steinbeck book. Not The Grapes of Wrath. Not Of Mice and Men. Not East of Eden. Oh, the shame!

Then my friend Barbara, who was in graduate school the same time I was and shares my love of medieval history (my focus was on Merovingian France, while hers was on Angevin England, but still), sent me this book as a present. Oh, it's beaten up. It's probably a first edition from the late 1950s. It still bears, proudly, the advertising slogan "Look for the Bantam rooster - your assurance of quality!" It will never be mistaken for a classic. But, good readers, at least I can say I have read a Steinbeck book. As long as no one asks which one, I should be fine.

This is actually a fun, breezy satire. It's certainly not a great book, but it is fun, and shows a humorous side of Steinbeck that, if I understand correctly, we don't get in stories about dustbowls and oil tycoons. The French government, paralyzed by scandal and instability, decides to restore the monarchy. So that no group will have a bigger sway over the monarch than any other, they choose a lineal descendant of Charlemagne, who happens to live in Paris and is a quiet, retiring, amateur astronomer who earns a pension off a small tract of land in the Loire valley. His wife is typically domineering, while his daughter, 20, is a world-famous novelist/Communist/budding film star. Pippin Arnulf Héristal (the names are important in a historical sense, but one doesn't need to know why) just wants to live his life looking at the stars, but once the various factions in the government get into their head that they need a king, they force the crown upon him. He reluctantly agrees.

They want a figurehead, and for a while, Pippin goes along. He tries to sneak out into the streets in disguise, but he soon realizes all he needs to do is wander off dressed as a commoner and nobody recognizes him. He talks to his "subjects" and tries to learn about France. Meanwhile, his daughter takes up with Tod Johnson, an American whose father is the Egg King of Petaluma, California. Johnson attempts to convince the king that he needs to run the country like his father runs a business, but Pippin is a woefully bad student. Meanwhile, his wife, who has no one to talk to, brings into Versailles an old friend, Sister Hyacinthe, who was once a dancer in the Folies but is now a nun, and complains to her that the king refuses to even name an official mistress. Eventually, Pippin himself goes to Sister Hyacinthe for advice, as she is far more worldly than most of the people surrounding him. When Pippin does finally make a stand and realizes that to give up being king he has to act like one, the government factions unite against him and depose him. He decides not to flee, but instead simply returns to his life as an astronomer, with no one the wiser.

It's a gentle tale when it comes to how Steinbeck treats Pippin and Marie, his wife, who could have easily become targets of wrath. Marie, particularly, could have been ridiculed far more, but Steinbeck doesn't want to focus his anger on her. Instead, he wants to satirize government, and he does, pretty savagely. He makes the point (pages 22-23) that the French Communists supported the restoration of the monarchy because their party's natural function was revolution, and as French politics was in a state of anarchy, it is difficult to revolt against that. So the Communists could take advantage of the restoration of the monarchy, because then they could rebel against it. He gives similarly funny and cynical reasons for the wide array of political parties (including the Christian Atheists) to support the king. The best passage in the book comes on pages 89-91, when Tod Johnson discusses American politics with the king:

"I never understood America," said the king.

"Neither do we, sir. You might say we have two governments, kind of overlapping. First we have the elected government. It's Democratic or Republican, doesn't make much difference, and then there's corporation government."

"They get along together, these governments?"

"Sometimes," said Tod. "I don't understand it myself. You see, the elected government pretends to be democratic, and actually it is autocratic. The corporation governments pretend to be autocratic and they're all the time accusing others of socialism. They hate socialism."

"So I have heard," said Pippin.

"Well, here's the funny thing, sir. You take a big corporation in America, say like General Motors or Du Pont or US Steel. The thing they're most afraid of is socialism, and at the same time they themselves are socialist states."


Tod goes on to explain health care and pensions in business, and how if the U.S. government tried to do even a little of what GM does, the businesses would revolt. It's a very concise summation of our system, something that is true even today.

This is a quick, fun read that will make you smile and offers some nice insight into human nature, but it's nothing that is going to change your life. If you see it at a used book sale for a few dollars, it's certainly worth checking out. Who knew Steinbeck had a sense of humor?

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Chance said...

That's terrific. I need to read that. Very perceptive stuff about corporations, and all so sadly true.

17/9/06 10:36 AM  
Anonymous Babs said...

Hey Greg, I forgot all about sending that to you. No wonder I couldn't find it! Steinbeck wrote all sorts of stuff; you really need to get out more. Thesis is coming soon - it'll be good winter reading.

Barbara

19/9/06 4:34 AM  

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