M.F.K. Fisher is, more than anything else, a literary seductress. Her writing, always sensual but never decadent, draws the reader near her. Whether she is at the dinner table, on a transatlantic cruise, on a country walk in Dijon, or somewhere else more private, one wishes to join her in her pleasures. Onetime New Yorker book editor Clifton Fadiman, who reviewed several of Fisher's books and wrote the introduction to the first edition of her Art of Eating (1954), summed up the allure of her writing simply: "M.F.K. Fisher writes about food as others do about love, only better." For Fisher, the relationship between food, intimacy, and sex is instinctual.
As early as her first published book, Serve It Forth (1937), she aligned the three in vivid suspension. Writing of her time in Strasbourg with her first husband, Fisher had already found the tone that was to become her enduring charm. "It was then," she wrote, "that I discovered how to eat little dried sections of tangerine. My pleasure in them is subtle and voluptuous and quite inexplicable. . . . In the morning, in the soft sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, as you watch soldiers pour past and past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate each plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for Al." Naturally, one wants nothing more than to be Al, in that "soft sultry chamber."
But like any skillful seductress, Fisher reveals herself only selectively, leaving much to the imagination. There is the feeling, in many of her pieces, that even as we are being enchanted by the prose, significant portions of Fisher's life lie beyond the page. In one line she seems to be baring her soul; in the next, sliding from view. She meticulously cultivated a literary persona, creating a myth for her readers. For this reason, a full-length biography of Fisher is a welcome addition to her already published memoirs and letters. Joan Reardon's Poet of the Appetites, written with the consent and aid of Fisher and her intimates, goes a long way toward filling out the reader's picture of a life that has been as yet revealed only in part.
Fisher, who died in 1992, did most of her best work in the mid-twentieth century before settling in as the doyenne of American culinary writing. However, she was always writing about something more than food. Cooking and eating were the context for stories like any othersˇabout love, death, desire, and loss. The delicacy and warmth of her prose are such that her literary reputation goes well beyond the kitchen shelfˇshe has become one of those strange creatures known as a writer's writer. In the introduction to a 1963 edition of The Art of Eating, W.H. Auden wrote of Fisher, "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose." Nonetheless, Fisher's books are now difficult to come by. Fortunately, to coincide with the biography, North Point press has just reissued five of her best works. An Alphabet for Gourmets, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, Serve It Forth, and, Fisher's loveliest book, The Gastronomical Me, have all recently become available in paperback (though one is still probably better off with the single-volume collection The Art of Eating, which contains them all).
Poet of the Appetites reveals many important details of Fisher's life about which the writer herself was either oblique or mum in her own work. A considerable number of pages are dedicated to the penumbra of sometimes debilitating depression that hung over Fisher for much of her lifeˇas well as to the drink and psychoanalysis she used to cope with it. We learn more about Fisher's relationships, with various men and at least one woman; about the suicides of her younger brother and second husband; and about her lengthy estrangement from her two daughters, the elder of whom struggled with drug addiction. And, as is requisite for any biography of a writer, there is plenty about the machinations of Fisher's finances and her publishing history.
Perhaps most interesting, though, we get a clearer picture of the fate of Fisher's beloved second husband, Dillwyn Parrish, whom she referred to as Chexbres, after the small French village where the two owned a cottage. In The Gastronomical Me, Fisher's most intimate book, she writes, "The world seeped in. We were not two ghosts, safe in our own immunity from the pain of living. Chexbres was a man with one leg gone, the other and the two arms soon to go . . . a small wracked man with snowy hair and eyes large with suffering. And I was a woman condemned, plucked at by demons, watching her true love die too slowly." Reardon's account of Parrish's death in Poet of the Appetites is rather more plainly put: "On August 6, while Mary Frances slept, Dillwyn left the cabin at dawn with his revolver . . . A single shot reverberated down the canyon and awakened her. Seeing the bed next to hers empty, she knew what had happened and phoned the police."
The difference between these accounts points up the main shortcoming of Reardon's book. Reading Fisher's version, we are left wondering what happened to Chexbres, while Reardon's leaves us in the dark about what the event meant to Fisher. This may not be entirely Reardon's fault. It would be foolish to try to cover the same dense emotional ground as Fisher. It is, however, at least partially her fault. She could for instance delve into why Fisher merely mentions a meal with Parrish, rather than his desperate suicide.
In her preface, Reardon quotes Fisher's nephew, Sean Kelly, as telling her, "I think you have a real obligation to point out her capacity for dealing in fantasy . . . She told stories, sometimes rather well . . . Trouble is, she embroiders the facts to the point where what she ends up with is virtually fiction." Trouble is, in Poet of the Appetites, all Reardon does is point out that capacityˇhardly unique to Fisher, as a writer who uses her own life as subject matterˇrather than discuss its genesis or meaning. In the end, what promises to be a book that examines Fisher's penchant for fictionalizing her life for literary effect only notes, repeatedly, that she had such a penchant.
This observation is hardly profound. There was already little doubt that M.F.K. Fisher the protagonist differed significantly from M.F.K. Fisher the person. It would be hard for any reader of Fisher to believe that she was at once as naive and as worldly as she comes across in her writing. Moreover, such conceits are part of autobiography, and in fact, the writer herself acknowledged this. In a letter to her psychiatrist in 1950, she wondered, "Do I marry M.F.K. Fisher and retire with him-her-it to an ivory tower and turn out yearly masterpieces of unimportant prose?" So while belaboring the fact that there are two Fishers, what Poet of the Appetites does not do well is explore the meaning of the relationship between them. The reader is left largely on her own to discern the discrepancies between the life of Mary Frances and the "gastronomical she," and entirely on her own to discern their significance. Despite Reardon's apparently extensive access to her subject and to those who knew her well, she has little to show for it. In fact, Poet of the Appetites deals rather scantily with the relationship between Fisher and her writing, except to quote Fisher's journals and letters on the subject. (As it happens, the published collection of Fisher's letters does contain a note to Reardon, dating from the time when she was working on her book M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters: Celebrating the Pleasures of the Table. In it, Fisher thanks Reardon for her "instinctive need to walk in a gingerly way." She continues: "Please understand that I trust your taste always." One must wonder if it was this discretion, along with her obvious admiration of Fisher, that kept Reardon from doing more close work on her subject.)
This is not to say that Poet of the Appetites fails as biography. It is just somewhat slight and should not be read without having first digested Fisher's own work. The book elucidates many events in Fisher's life that most of her readers would not be familiar with. It is informative and, usually, interesting. But it is not as interesting to read Reardon writing about Fisher as it is to read Fisher writing about herselfˇmythological as that self may be. After finishing Poet of the Appetites, one is left knowing more about the seductive M.F.K. Fisher, but not really knowing her any better.
Brian Thomas Gallagher has written for Vanity Fair, The Nation, and Vice. He is currently senior editor of Topic.