Books NOW-AND-THEN READING

The mystery of Marseille, the clarity of Doris Lessing.

If you’re like me, August is the month when you want books to read in spurts – on the hot sand before a cool plunge, in the car before it’s your turn to drive, at Six Flags while everybody else is on the roller coaster. Here are a couple of new offerings which can be read best in such intense but brief spells, though you may not want to put them down for your turn at the wheel.



A Considerable Town, by M. F. K. Fisher (Knopf, $8.95). M. F. K. Fisher – how much more impressive the initials are than the “Mary Frances Kennedy” they stand for – has always received passionate praise from her admirers, who are often distinguished writers themselves. W. H. Auden’s tribute, “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose,” is representative.

Her best books are on food. Craig Claiborne, the gastronomical savant at The New York Times, envies her this sentence: “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk.” In Shana Alexander’s phrase, for Fisher “food is a metaphor,” or, as Clifton Fadiman puts it, food “is the release-catch that sets her mind working … the mirror in which she may reflect the show of existence.”

True enough. In the food books, five of which were compiled in 1976 in a bargain paperback, The Art of Eating, Fisher apparently operates on a premise taken from Brillat-Savarin, whose The Physiology of Taste she translated into English in 1946: “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”

My own favorite of these earlier books is The Gastronomical Me, in which Fisher brilliantly chronicles three decades of her life through the food she ate, from “the grayish-pink fuzz . . . skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam” at age four, the first taste she remembers, to dark beer and enchiladas in Guadalajara in her early thirties. Parents, friends, husbands and lovers are all recollected and described through food shared. Food indeed comes to represent a communion of more than bodies.

We sense, for example, that her marriage to a university professor is doomed when Mary Frances sees her future with him as a faculty wife’s weary diet of marshmallow salads at committee luncheons. We are convinced that her second husband will last when she tells us that the two of them picked, shelled, and cooked fresh green peas in a field in Switzerland and ate them “with little cold pullets cooked for us in Vevey, and good bread and the thin white wine of the coast that lay about us.”

Also the author of novels and autobiography, Fisher has now served forth a book on Marseille, a town she has savored sensually for 50 years, from her first visit in 1929 at the age of 21. She lived there with her two small daughters in 1931 and 1932, and she and her sister returned for a while in 1973. She loves Marseille, which she describes as having “a unique strength that plainly scares less virile breeds.” She tries to sum up this force or strength in the French word insolite and offers, as approaches to definition, “apart,” “unique,” “mysterious,” “unknowable.” In short, indefinable, like Marseille.

M. F. K. Fisher too is insolite. She boasts that she feels at ease in Marseille and shows herself to be, at 70, as tough, resilient, sensual, and proud as the old city. Thus Marseille, like food in the earlier books, becomes a metaphor for something more touching and personal.

We learn of Fisher’s compulsion in her late sixties for sampling “the unpre-dictably raffish behavior of cabdrivers,” her seeking them out because “I think they have something to tell me, something nobody else could.” As a young mother living alone with her two little girls in an old Marseille hotel, she is tender and resourceful at Christmas, converting a hat rack to a Christmas tree; to make the day more special, she sends the children out alone into the teeming streets to buy Christmas candy, bravely initiating them into her own kind of courage and trust. Describing Marseille, its streets, shops, churches, food, and people, she acquaints us with the allegiances of her life. For many years she has rambled day and night, alone and in company, through the byways of “a considerable town,” and now in this book she cooks up Marseille’s most renowned dish, a bouillabaisse of the best tidbits the market had to offer her. Like all of her fare, it is hearty and nourishing.



Stories, by Doris Lessing (Knopf, $15).

The other night, I was talking to some friends about Doris Lessing’s new collection of short fiction when my social thermostat quit working. Before I caught on to the malfunction, I had whipped through the plots of two of the stories and wound up with a third, “To Room Nineteen,” in which a woman in a perfectly happy, fruitful, successful, “intelligent” marriage can suddenly find no reason to go on living. I swept with Lessing to the inevitable conclusion. Then I stopped talking.

In the sudden quiet, my treacherous thermostat switched back on, and I looked around guiltily at the dazed faces stupefied by so much news of Doris Lessing. At last my host, a writer and a man who knows good writing, spoke. “But after all, it’s propaganda, isn’t it?” he said. “Or a lot of it?”

Reluctantly I conceded the point. It was, I felt, the least I could do.

But now I want to argue.

Doris Lessing has been devoted at times to socialism and Marxism, and always to the moral independence of women. As a result she has become categorized as a Marxist, feminist writer. This stereotyping has led to thoughtless sanctification of her in some circles, irrational criticism of her in others. Stories demands rethinking by both camps. She is, unmistakably and gloriously in this collection, a superb short story writer, perhaps the best we have been granted since Tolstoy. I think of Tolstoy because “To Room Nineteen” has the inexorable movement of “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and it is informed by a feminist view, just as that greatest of all short stories is informed by a Christian view. Neither the feminism nor the Christianity makes the artistry, however. That is something else, and these stories radiate it. They also share a theme, the spiritual insufficiency of bourgeois life.

The whole of Stories is dominated by the sensibility of a writer who, story by story, knows exactly what she’s doing and how to do it. Never does she achieve her effects by showy language or obscurity under the guise of experiment. Her prose maintains a breathtaking clarity; so transparent that it rarely calls attention to itself, it simply holds up a clean glass to life as Doris Lessing sees it.

For example, look at this description of a German family in “The Eye of God in Paradise”:

Mother, father, and son were laughing over some joke, while the girl turned a very long tapering glass of beer between thumb and forefinger of a thin, tanned hand . . .She was staring out of the family group, momentarily lost to it, a fair, dreaming tendril of a girl with an irregular wedge of a little face . . .Her pale, pretty eyes absorbed what she wanted of the British couple … The woman, finding in this girl a poetic quality totally lacking from the stolid burghers who filled this room, indicated her to the man by saying: “She’s charming.” Again he grimaced, as if to say: Every young girl is poetic. And: She’ll be her mother in ten years.

The British couple, who suffered personal losses in World War II, has come to Germany in 1951 for a skiing holiday, which is spoiled by “the memory of the sound of marching feet, of the heavy, black-booted marching feet.” There is much more to the tale than this German family, but the basic tension is contained here: How can one reconcile the Germany of Goethe and Beethoven – the “poetic” young girl – with the Germany of Hitler? Lessing doesn’t try to. The two exist, unreconciled, in her conception of the world, as the happy marriage in “To Room Nineteen” leads to tragedy and is itself a kind of tragedy.

The best of these stories is “One off the Short List.” In it the author tells of a seduction – a more accurate word would be rape – from the point of view of the seducer and rapist. In Lessing’s account, he is justified, motivated, and explained – even generously – while his victim is presented only from a distance, through his eyes. Yet so skillful is the control, so deft the hand of the artist, that we never doubt the justice of the tired distaste that she feels for him, that we feel for him, that he even feels for himself.

But read the book and you’ll seewhat I mean. Don’t wait for thepaperback, either.

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