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New M.F.K Fisher novel foreshadows tragic loss of her true love

“The Theoretical Foot” book event

WHAT: Kennedy Golden, M.F.K. Fisher's daughter, in conversation with writer Jane Vandenburgh, about Fisher's newly published novel.

WHEN; 7 p.m. March 12.

WHERE: Copperfield's Books, Healdsburg

ADDRESS: 106 Matheson St.

INFORMATION and RSVP: 433-9270. RSVP at copperfieldsbooks.com.

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.

BOUVERIE PARTY

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.

“The Theoretical Foot” book event

WHAT: Kennedy Golden, M.F.K. Fisher's daughter, in conversation with writer Jane Vandenburgh, about Fisher's newly published novel.

WHEN; 7 p.m. March 12.

WHERE: Copperfield's Books, Healdsburg

ADDRESS: 106 Matheson St.

INFORMATION and RSVP: 433-9270. RSVP at copperfieldsbooks.com.

CONTINUED PAIN

Even after Parrish’s leg was amputated, the pain endured, including a phantom pain from the missing limb the couple called “the theoretical foot.” The disease was degenerative, incurable and excruciating. With war fomenting, they came back to the U.S., married and settled on 90 rocky acres they called Bareacres near Hemet in Riverside County.

The only drug that relieved Parrish’s agony was available only in Europe, forcing them to make a difficult return voyage. Unable to bear the relentless pain and the prospect of further amputations, Parrish took his own life in 1941.

While in Europe, Fisher began writing “The Theoretical Foot,” setting it in the summer of 1938, when her sister Norah, her brother David, Parrish’s sister Anne and a friend of Anne’s, came to visit them in Switzerland. In the novel they become identifiable characters. The otherwise languorous unfolding of time is jarred with hallucinogenic vignettes of the fictional character Tim - Parrish’s real life nickname - suffering torturous pain and then losing his foot.

Fisher’s first book, “Serve it Forth,” had been published to good reviews in 1937, and she intended to publish the novel. But Anne Parrish, a well-known writer in her own right, objected to the transparency and felt she was portrayed as a cold and domineering older sister.

The criticism prompted Fisher to hold back on the book, but a year after Parrish’s death, in need of money, she submitted the manuscript to her publisher, which rejected it.

“It was rejected for reasons unknown but may well have had to do with the full-frontal attitude toward women’s sexuality,” wrote novelist and memoirist Jane Vandenburgh in an afterward to the book.

Kennedy Golden, Fisher’s youngest daughter and overseer of her literary trust, said the book was “challenging at the time,” featuring unmarried couples traveling and cohabiting. The book opens with a scene of one couple in a hotel room right after a romp.

“It was seen as just not something that would be appreciated at that particular time,” she said, “and then it went on the shelf.”

EXCERPTING CHAPTER

How the book will be received now is still unknown. United Airlines is excerpting the first chapter this month in its in-flight magazine, Shoemaker said.

Kirkus, in an early review, wrote, “A period piece and an interesting novelty, Fisher’s novel has exquisite moments, but it’s easy to see why she didn’t consider herself a novelist.”

Golden said her mother didn’t enjoy writing novels but speculated that “The Theoretical Foot” was “sort of a sanity piece as she was going through Dillwyn’s illness.”

New works by beloved authors published posthumously usually cause a stir of excitement as well as speculation about whether the piece was up to the writer’s expected standards or whether the author would even want it published.

Golden said when the possibility of publishing “The Theoretical Foot” was broached to her, she approached it cautiously. But early concerns about the characters being identifiable are moot. All have passed away, including Fisher’s sister Norah Barr, who died two years ago in Santa Rosa at 96.

There were two versions of the manuscript with slight variations, with handwritten notes by Fisher.

“I think in 2016 were she here, she probably would rewrite and edit it because that is what she did,” Golden said. “And there are things that she might have changed as she matured as an author.”

But Golden, who personally loves the book, said she believes “The Theoretical Foot” importantly adds further depth to M.F.K. Fisher’s story.

“I hope she would be pleased,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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