Reviewed by Victoria
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is far better known in the States than in the UK, and better known as a food writer than a novelist. She is the equivalent of Elizabeth David, though in a slightly earlier period (Fisher’s first book was published in 1937, David’s in 1950), bringing to the subject of food a rich and glorious prose style, and a hybrid text shot through with threads of travel and memoir. She published some 27 books in her lifetime, though only one that was fiction (written with her then husband and published under a pseudonym) and later in life, Fisher acted as if she had never written any fiction at all. An afterword to The Theoretical Foot tells the fascinating story of its genesis as a roman à clef, and its even more intriguing consignment to Fisher’s drawer. Apparently, the novel contained too many easily recognisable portraits of Fisher’s relatives (some of whom protested in hurt fashion having read the draft) and too much explicit focus on women’s sexuality to escape the moral censor of the day. Now, those concerns are obsolete, and what we have instead is a lyrically written novel with modernist hints, dream-like in places, rich in character portraits, and a strange but beguiling blend of beauty and horror.
It is 1938 and an ill-assorted collection of travellers meet at La Prairie, an idyllic haven on the shores of Lake Geneva, where the enigmatic Sara Porter holds sway as a too-perfect hostess, alongside her lover, affable and charming Tim Garton. Their unmarried status would be scandalous beyond the Continent and even amongst their guests it causes some ripples of concern.
Not, however, to Susan Harper and Joe Kelly, young students hitch-hiking through Europe and deeply in love themselves. Joe is on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, whilst Susan needs to return to the States to find herself some work, but this is a passionate interim for them, a state of being they both know cannot last even though they want, illogically and against reason and morals, to prolong it. Joe is a long-standing friend of Sara and has spent summers at La Prairie before. Perhaps they can catch their breath here, long enough to make some serious decisions about their future.
Already in situ are Sara’s younger brother and sister, Honor and Dan. They, too, have been bewitched by La Prairie’s magic but their dilemma is different: both feel they are too attached to Sara, too dependent on her love and approval – which from the cool, dispassionate Sara is in short supply. Can they find the emotional strength to break away? Meanwhile, Tim’s famous writer sister, Ann Garton Temple, has no desire to leave at all. La Prairie is acting like a catalyst on her feelings, bringing her close to an epiphany she anticipates with excitement. This is, however, a matter of deep displeasure to the companion she has brought with her, Lucy Comberton. Lucy is the fly in the voluptuous ointment of the lakeside retreat. Lucy represents the strict morality of her time, and she is horrified by the louche and unsavoury behaviour at La Prairie, where people eat and drink without moderation, and display the sort of loose morals that she fears have a contagious effect. Lucy is the spirit of animosity, and she brings the book alive.
Taking place over the course of one single day, the narrative hops around between heads, each chapter taking the viewpoint of two of the characters in the close third person. So stories overlap and events are sometimes repeated from multiple perspectives. The writing is lyrical without being too overblown and displays that profound awareness of space and atmosphere that characterised many novels of the late 30s:
Honor now hurried down the first curve of the stairs. The house felt tight and strangely expectant as a house always will when people are in their own rooms shaving, dressing, deciding on colours and scents to wear as they come together again at the supper table. Honor liked this time as the shadows were not quite frozen into their night shapes and there was a quiet feeling of delight and hurry everywhere throughout the house.
The story, such as it is, is preoccupied with the attachments of love in their various forms, between siblings, between friends, between lovers. Fisher zeroes in on the internal conflicts that arise always where there is love, between the need for self-determination and the lure of the beloved. A strange erotic tension simmers throughout the narrative in a way that makes looking at a gorgeous view or eating something delicious an act of sensual avarice. Even the uptight Lucy gives in at one point, after a dinner of careful abstention, to the irresistible pull of breadsticks dipped in mayonnaise.
But there is another, more puzzling strand to the story. In italics at the start of each chapter, the descent into pain and madness is recounted of a man who suffers an intolerable pain in his foot. The foot, and then the leg must be amputated, but even so, the pain remains. It’s only at the very end of the novel that this strand is incorporated into the whole, in a way that makes a shiver run down the reader’s spine. You also need to read the Afterword to understand how this part of the story fits into Fisher’s life as well. It’s hypnotic stuff.
This isn’t a lost masterpiece; it’s a little too diffuse for that, the writing at times too sentimental. But it is a very engaging novel that exerts a subtle grip. With the benefit of hindsight, we know what’s coming to this happy if indulgent house party, what history has in store for its guests. If you like writers like Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamund Lehman, this is definitely worth your time.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
M.F.K. Fisher, The Theoretical Foot (Bloomsbury, 2016) 978-1408880852, 256 pp., hardback.
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