The Theoretical Foot

The-Theoretical-Foot_JACKET“Daniel shivered – what was he, a ghost? … Were all of them ghosts?”

Although it’s a controversial book, one of my favourite Hemingway novels is the posthumously published – and mysterious and sensuous –  The Garden of Eden.

It’s controversial partly because of criticism of the editing on release – a manuscript of 200, 000 words had been grated down to around 70, 000. Part of the debate at the time must have been the age old dialogue about what a writer would want to see published after their death, and not. In the case of The Garden of Eden, I have to say that I love the book, despite it all. They have their problems, but there is something very exciting about new “discovered” works – especially if you’re extremely fond of the writer.

And so to The Theoretical Foot. I’ve been developing a bit of an M.F.K. Fisher obsession of late, so when I heard a novel by this great food writer was going to be released I was completely delighted. The Hemingway discussion comes in because of course it is also a “lost” novel; Fisher finished it in 1940, shared it with friends & relatives, tried to get it published, and then abandoned it.

In her superb afterword ‘Too Terrible to Bear’ Jane Vandeburgh makes it clear how personal tragedy and the strong autobiographical content combined over the following years to make a difficult path to publication. I was reminded a bit of the last minute interventions by Bob Dylan’s brother around Blood on the Tracks – allegedly telling Dylan the first version was too blunt, too personal. Although she did later try for publication, it’s clear Fisher was stung by similar response when she shared the manuscript.

In her excellent biography An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher Anne Zimmerman is clear that some of the ‘real’ protagonists of the events in The Theoretical Foot felt a kind of deep personal treason about it – one close relative in particular. “Mary Frances had hoped to publish the novel,” writes Zimmerman, “but retreated.”

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And The Theoretical Foot really is highly autobiographical. Set in Switzerland in the late 1930s, it describes the fortunes of a group of expatriates decamped to a lakeside idyll, La Prairie. We have Sue Harper & Joe Kelly, travelling Europe, the famous novelist Ann Garton Temple and her travelling companion Lucy,  and the statuesque brother and sister impossible beauties, Dan & Honor Tennant. All of them are staying  at La Prairie with Sara and her lover Tim Garton. Sara is like a magnet to them all, in some senses a kind of Hannah figure from Hannah & Her Sisters. She is the sun around which they all rotate. There are direct equivalents in Fisher’s real life for every single one of these characters and their family relationships. This is very ably discussed again by Vandeburgh, so I won’t go into it in any detail, but it lends a sort of quiet dynamite to the storytelling.

In fact, I think the very best way to read this novel might actually be be to come at it with no knowledge at all of Fisher’s life, no sense of how her characters represented real people in her life. I sort of wish that had been the case for me; the story needs room to breathe. While there is sly comedy and some measure of fun with the characters, where the novel begins to most terribly reflect Fisher’s life, it is dark and unforgiving. Dreamlike – nightmarish – sequences interlink the chapters which shift between the viewpoints of the houseguests, and these interludes are deeply disturbing.  In fact, they are not unlike the imaginative space of the bewildered sickroom sequences in Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. When you later research the circumstances of Fisher’s life at this time, these intervals are even more heartbreaking and it’s clear she is dealing with her own life with stark and unflinching intent.

Of course another reason why this book might not have been published is its giddy sensuality. I suspect the publishing houses of the day just weren’t ready for such headiness, such a matter of fact description of physicality and desire that it sweats and pops from the pages. I think this may well have been an issue for Hemingway’s Garden of Eden too. The opening chapters of The Theoretical Foot in particular are quite dazzling.  Here is Fisher’s character Sue, padding around her sweltering hotel room in her undies:

How beautiful! she thought, to be so brown! Even the midsummer fog and mizzle of these last ten days in Germany had not faded her and she was glad. She felt again, as she looked down at herself , the steady exhausting heat of those forty days with Joe on the beach near Cros-de-Tallas-Cagnes and the cool, voluptuous water that slipped up over her body like milk …

Later, Sue bumps into Daniel Tennant for the first time – the “darlingest boy she had ever seen”:

Susan looked at the tiled floor, soft and green and light gray, and then at the green wooden door and then let her eyes ride up the interminable lenghth of legs of the one who stood there, legs hung with mussed thin cotton pajams. They did not move. The hips were small and properly tied about with crumpled cloth and the thin lank torso was brown and wide-shouldered and as naked as it was born …

Mind you, readers of Fisher’s food writing will not be surprised. This style of writing is everywhere in her other work  – in her ‘stories’ as I like to call them. I think of a piece like ‘I Was Really Very Hungry’ for example – with its enigmatic undertow between Fisher and waitress – and I just think that all her writing has this deep, deep charge of the senses one way or another.

In return, the experiences of The Theoretical Foot appear in her food writing as well – here is autobiography and novel sidling up to each other in the dawn, cooking eggs after a long night partying, from ‘How Not to Cook an Egg’ in How to Cook a Wolf (1942):

One of the many variations of this recipe that we used to make, never earlier than 2.00 and never later than 4.00 in the morning, was in a strange, modernistic electric kitchen on the wine-terraces bewteen Lausanne and Montreux. We put cream and Worcestershire sauce into little casseroles, and heated them into a bubble. Then we broke eggs into them, turned off the current and waited until they were done, while we stood around drinking Champagne with circles under our eyes, and Viennese music in our heads. We ate the eggs with spoons and went to bed …

Of course you’d expect a novel by M.F.K. Fisher to be filled with food and drink. It is, and it isn’t. There’s a joyous bit of cold beer drinking early on, and an almost constant reference to breakfasting – but all is quietly working towards the set piece party at the end. Sara is a cook of some fame in her circle, and the final feast is used cleverly to represent the way different characters feel about her, about La Prairie. One in particular – I couldn’t help thinking of as a sly reference to Fisher’s quite food-puritanical grandmother – has to forego some of the gourmet goodies on offer – pigeon, fruit in kirsch, wine and so on – and then secretly gorge later on toast sticks and mayonnaise in the cupboard.

There is a sense of indulgence, a kind of hyper self-awareness and narcissism about all the characters  – about how they look at themselves and other people, whether or not they are appreciated, or if they want a new direction in life. There is envy and jealousy and at many points a kind of laser-pointed self-absorption that is totally and completely deliberate, and I think incredibly well characterised. We come to admire some of the characters, find them interesting, attractive – while still having a sense of a collective that could do with a touch of the real world to wake them all up. They are a kind of elite, as if The Theoretical Foot is a version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – a side-show for some of the party goers in Gastsby, or Hemingway’s Fiesta – a catch up with bon viveurs someplace else, another time maybe. Like the lost characters in Gatsby, it’s hard not to see Fisher’s set as equally emotionally marooned.

And of course, while Sue is wandering around in her hotel room glad to be away from Germany and all she found tiring there, Fisher is really showing up how completely unaware she is of all that she was seeing there. Sue has incoherently observed the rise of Nazism, that war is on its way, and come away with nothing. In the exile of Switzerland, and within – the neutrality of their own selfishness – the characters are largely oblivious to the looming catastrophe. Fisher is holding something of a searchlight on the last days of the age of Gatsby nonchalance. Nothing is ever like to be the same again. In this it is like a metaphor for all our glory days, all our self-contained self-obsessed great days, in cocoon from the real world – far too short and then forever longed for …

For Fisher, of course, this wake-up was too real, terrible and sudden in her own life and her novel is right in the shocking centre of it. The gorgeous Daniel also ponders absent-mindedly whether they are all ghosts – and this is deeply, deeply sad when studied against Fisher’s own life. You can’t help thinking that perhaps in the end, The Theoretical Foot was just too painful a piece of writing for Mary Frances herself.

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The Theoretical Foot has a wonderful voice; it is the work of a deeply sensitive & passionate storyteller. In many ways, it is a novel ahead of its time. Hemingway didn’t start Garden of Eden until ’46. We have to assume that Fisher was happy for it to see the light of day sometime, and so here it is in all its sun-burnished, wine-drenched brilliance: the last great party before the terrible hangover.