New M.F.K Fisher novel foreshadows tragic loss of her true love
An overlooked manuscript for a rare novel by writer M.F.K. Fisher has been unearthed from the effects of her late agent Robert Lescher and finally brought to print, more than 70 years after she set it aside.
Fisher, who spent her later years in Sonoma Valley, is credited with elevating the art of food writing from cookery to a respected literary genre, using lush and painterly descriptions of place and time, love and relationships, travel and memorable meals where food and hunger frequently served as a central metaphor. In an often-repeated quote, the great poet W.H. Auden said of Fisher, “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.”
She was most comfortable and in command writing from her own experience in essays and memoirs. Of the 27 books and six collected works published during her life and posthumously, only two were fiction. And of those, only one, “Not Now But Now,” was published under the name M.F.K. Fisher, a shortening of her given name Mary Frances Kennedy. The second was a forgotten romance written in 1939 under a pseudonym.
For fans and followers of the writer, who died at 84 in the Glen Ellen cottage built for her by friend and patron David Bouverie, the publication of “The Theoretical Foot” is a notable literary event.
“It’s significant because it speaks to the enduring legacy of M.F.K. Fisher,” said Anne Zimmerman, author of the biography, “An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher.”
“Not only is it a fine piece of writing and a wonderful example of early M.F.K. Fisher, but it has a real freshness that Fisher was capable of. It also is a fictionalized version of the love affair of her life, and that’s why it is so important to see it into print,” said Jack Shoemaker, the editorial director of Counterpoint. The Berkeley publishing house will release the book Tuesday.
The publication will be marked quietly with a by-invitation-only party at Bouverie Audubon Preserve, where Fisher spent the last 22 years of her life entertaining the likes of James Beard, Maya Angelou and Julia Child. Her small home is much as she left it, now occupied by Bouverie’s land steward John. K. Martin. It is not open to the public.
After Lescher died in 2012, the novel, completed in the early 1940s, was found packed neatly away in one of the signature red boxes where he kept manuscripts. Shoemaker, who has published Fisher since 1980, found it while going through Lescher’s papers.
“I realized that many years ago he had sent it to me, and we had talked about what to do with the book,” Shoemaker said. When (North Point Press) folded, he took a position with Knopf Publishing Group and brought Fisher and other writers with him. In 1994 he founded Counterpoint, which has published Fisher since then.
Shoemaker said he and Fisher talked about possible posthumous publications, but most of it centered around her journals.
And yet the rare piece of fiction, really thinly disguised autobiography, was not a secret to scholars and those closest to Fisher. Zimmerman said she ran across a carbon copy among Fisher’s personal papers housed at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University. But it remained well off the radar.
The story unfolds at an alpine farm in Switzerland, where a collection of bright and beautiful young travelers - based on Fisher, her lover and soon to be second husband Dillwyn Parrish, and other friends and family members - have gathered within a short bubble of bliss for one warm end-of-summer day of eating, writing, reading, love-making and ruminating. But dark forces are forming just beyond, in their personal lives and in a Europe on the brink of war.
There is a poignancy to the pre-Valentine’s publication of the book. The thrice-married Fisher regarded Parrish, an artist and a writer himself, as the love of her life. They met while still married to others, fell in love and for a time lived in Parrish’s cottage, “Le Paquis,” on Lake Geneva.
“I think of it as a love story,” said Zimmerman. “It’s tragic and romantic and maybe is not sweet in the way you think of Valentine’s Day as being sweet. But it certainly is perfect timing in the season when we’re thinking about passion and curling up with a good book that has got some real highs and lows.”
For Fisher, there was a palpable bond between love and food that grew in her relationship with Parrish, which included time spent in Switzerland in the late 1930s. It began with dreams of growing grapes and olive oil and ended in a nightmare when Parrish was stricken with Beurger’s disease, a circulatory disorder that causes blood clots leading to gangrene.