The Theoretical Foot
So when an unpublished book by your favourite writer ever is discovered and published, you’re kind of excited, right? When I finally got my hands on a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Theoretical Foot, I was almost shaking with anticipation. And then…
There’s a reason why Fisher’s novel was never published in her lifetime, A few in fact. First was that she based all the characters on real people (it’s quite close to being autobiographical), and people featured in the book found it to be mean-spirited and harsh. Second was that, sadly, it’s just not very good.
The book is full of the gorgeous descriptive prose Fisher is known for, although she talks mostly about people and less so about food. But the premise — house guests and party-goers spending a day at a gorgeous home in Switzerland in 1939 the day before Hitler attacks Poland, and their often complicated relationships with each other — is too intense, too near-incestuous, and completely without context to make any kind of point.
It is only from knowing the story of Fisher’s personal life (the main characters are meant to be her and her lover Dillwyn Parrish — while they eventually married, both were married to others at the time), and from knowing her other writing and the events that came after the time of the book that the reader gets any grasp of the full meaning of the work.
The main story is interspersed with brief chapters about a man losing his foot to gangrene. In real life, weeks after the date of the story, Parrish lost his leg to gangrene caused by Buerger’s disease (a scary illness for which the cause is still unknown but which is almost always associated with nicotine use). Fisher is clearly painting the day of the dinner party as not only the last day before the war, which changed their lives forever, but as the last halcyon days of her relationship with Parrish — while they did later marry, he eventually committed suicide, and she struggled financially.
Additionally, Fisher’s characters, while well-developed, are just horrible, self-obsessed people, and the character of Lucy, based on the real-life house guest Mary, a friend of Parrish’s sister Anne, was terrible enough for Anne to ask Fisher not to publish the work, which she agreed to.
Had the work been published when Fisher was still alive, the editing process might have made her themes and plot much more clear, but The Theoretical Foot was a harsh disappointment for this M.F. F. Fisher fan.