I'm addressing this review to those who haven't (as I hadn't) yet read M.F.K. Fisher, whose also-by-the-author page has 17 entries. A list like this can be intimidating to would-be-readers. There's a feeling of not having followed her from the beginning--from "Serve It Forth," which was published in 1937, to last year's "As They Were." More than that, one feels the opprobrium of those who have been reading Fisher right along.
Example: I recently walked into a bookstore in Austin, Tex., where six copies of "Sister Age" were on display. I gestured at the stack and asked a man who had also been drawn there, "Is she very popular?" The man's eyebrows shot up and stayed up. "You've never read her?" he asked. I shook my head, no, and felt as if I were admitting that I'd never worn shoes or used a fork. The man turned away in disgust.
But this brings me to one of the main reasons I loved this book: Its author is expansive and accepting, clearly one of the lucky people whom she describes as "born merry or serene or very lively." In short, she is all that the man in the bookstore was not, and this informs every page of "Sister Age," in which Fisher writes "about aging and ending and living and whatever else the process of human being is about."
Those who have read the gastronomical writings for which she is best known contend that this is what she has always written about--that food has been a metaphor in her work. In this collection, indeed, she gives us "A Kitchen Allegory" wherein the protagonist's very peculiar diet is able to evolve because "she was alone and could not puzzle anyone but herself." In "The Oldest Man," Pepe, while preparing food, gives us a sense of the life in his Dijon village, his minglings with his fellow villagers, and his relationship with his son:
"He was shelling a basket of peas Georges had got in the village the night before, and mumbling and growling because they were indeed too young to be picked--barely a bowlful at the end of his two hours of fastidious labor. He promised the woman who had fobbed them off on Georges a rare talking-to (she was the widow of a distant cousin, of course), and meanwhile he scolded his son whenever that young fellow of seventy-four came into earshot."
In the same story, it is in the kitchen, with its paucity of equipment, that the narrator confesses to yearning after a way of life that she knows she can never lead: "I kept wishing with real regret that I were capable of living in such continued simplicity. But I am not. Sometimes I honestly want to live in a plain room with a narrow bed, a chair, a table. But then I would need a bookcase, I would see a poster I must put on the wall. I would pick up a shell here, a bowl or vase there, another poster, enough books for two bookcases, a soft rug someone might give me--and where would the first plainness be?"
But simple-heartedness is not the only source from which Fisher draws. Some of the stories veer daringly away--into the supernatural, for instance, or even, as in "Notes on a Necessary Past," the surreal: "She lay in death like a ripe peach, and over her gathered myriad tiny flies, the like of which had never before been seen in that country. They gave off a soft light, so that for her wake no candles were required."
In the kinds of stories that she writes, Fisher's range is wide (in fact, as the acknowledgments tell us, although most of the stories in "Sister Age" first appeared in The New Yorker, others were first published in Prose, Westways and even Ellery Queen!). It is no wonder, then, that she can bring together, in a single sentence, such disparate things: "When I tell of a stubbed toe or childbirth or how to serve peacock's tongues on toast it sounds made-up . . ."
And while her prose is always elegant, the subjects it addresses are often not. She writes, in "The Unswept Emptiness," of "the undusted floor and the unpolished nails and the unwashed heads of sweet babygirl hair." In "Notes on a Necessary Past," she describes the death of a lizard. And how's this--from "Answer in the Affirmative"--for an opening sentence: "Yesterday I thought about Mr. Ardamanian and the time I let him make love to me."
Yet, in her foreword, Fisher insists, "I have spent my life in a painstaking effort to tell about things as they are to me, so that they will not sound like autobiography but simply like notes, like factual reports." The artistry that goes into accomplishing this is nowhere clearer than when, in a dream, the narrator is shot with a pistol. "I did not hear it fire, but as I dropped lazily onto the table the hole at the base of my skull formed itself to welcome the bullet, much as lips will form themselves for a good kiss."
Nearing the last story in the book, followers of M.F K. Fisher and those new to her work will feel the way the narrator in "The Oldest Man" felt, leaving Pepe behind: "Down in the big white kitchen, the bowls of hot cafe au lait and the last wooden crust of the loaf of bread were too good to finish. We did not want to say goodbye."