I love MFK Fisher’s elegant essays on food and travel, collected in books with unforgettable titles like How to Cook a Wolf and The Gastronomical Me.
But it is her posthumous novel, The Theoretical Foot, just published by Counterpoint, that has taken my breath away.
Written in 1939, this gracefully-written autobiographical novel was not published in her lifetime due to family objections. The typescript was found in a box after Fisher’s agent Robert Lescher died in 2012.
It closely mirrors the events of the pre-war summer of 1938, when Fisher and her second husband, the illustrator Dillwyn Parrish, entertained friends and relatives, including Dillwyn’s sister Anne Parrish, a best-selling writer, and her friend Mary, on a farm in Switzerland. In September, Dillwyn suffered excruciating pains in his leg and was diagnosed with Buerger’s disease, culminating in the amputation of his leg two weeks later. In Switzerland they were able to procure a pain killer, but back in California, they could not afford it, even with Anne’s financial help.
Though scenes of shattering illness are interwoven with the narrative, The Theoretical Foot is for the most part a house party novel. Set in Switzerland on a farm called Le Prairie in 1938, it revolves around Sara Porter, the beautiful, charming American hostess, always cooking delectable food. Sara and her lover, Tim Garton, who are separated from their spouses and unable to marry yet, have a kind of magical attraction for their guests. Only one of the guests, Lucy, an artist with a closeted lesbian crush on Tim’s sister, Nan, strongly disapproves of the unmarried couple living together. But their shimmering love has nothing to do with marriage, in the eyes of the others.
Although Sara is at the center, we see her only through others’ observations. The novel alternates the points of view of the other characters. Joe, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, is half in love with Sara, but hopes she will help him break up with his American girlfriend, Susan, with whom he has been hitchhiking in Europe. Tiny, pretty Susan, a student at an American university, is afraid of Sara.
She was wondering as she went along how this woman managed to scare her so thoroughly. The several times she’d seen Sara before, in America, she’d been quiet and kind and–in her own detached way–seemed honestly interested in what Susan was doing and what and where she was studying. Sue and Joe had gone to her house twice for dinner and had eaten and drunk and talked well into the night; rather, Joe had. Sue still remembered the agonies of her own shyness that had almost conquered her before each visit and the awkwardness that conspired to make her clumsily drop glasses and trip over rugs and stutter as she never had since grammar school.
Very soon, Susan, too, wants to confide about her worries about Joe.
Sara’s siblings, Honor, who is in love with a Jewish man who is probably incarcerated in a concentration camp in Germany, and Daniel, a student madly in love with the much older Nan , are drawn to Sara and want her approval, but her perfect confidence, beauty, and seductiveness annoy them. They are inhibited by her.
Fisher’s novel is interspersed with sections in italics that tell a different story. They describe a man in a hospital suffering from pain in his leg, and then phantom pain after the amputation in his “theoretical foot.” They also describe the suffering of his wife.
Fisher’s sister-in-law, the writer Anne Parrish, objected to the book’s publication, because characters and situation were barely disguised. I think it is a great pity this was not published at the time, but it certainly is not a flattering portrait of Anne Parrish’s friend Mary. Anne wrote in a letter that if Fisher ever decided to publish it, it should be under a pseudonym. “Not for my sake, not even for Mary’s…but to spare you and Dillwyn embarrassment.”
in 1941 Dillwyn committed suicide. After that, Fisher seems to have forgotten about the novel.
What a magnificent book! There are occasional awkward bits at the beginning, but it is a small classic.
This will be one of my favorite books of 2016.