Not Now But Now by M.F.K. Fisher ~ 1947. This edition: North Point Press, 1982. Softcover. ISBN: 0-86547-072-3. 256 pages.
My rating: 5/10
I’ve been thinking hard all day how best to go about writing a description of this very unusual novel by Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, otherwise best known for her creative autobiographical writings on food, travel, places and people.
Do any of these ring a bell?
- Serve It Forth (1937)
- Consider the Oyster (1941)
- How to Cook a Wolf (1942)
- The Art of Eating (1954)
Yes, that M.F.K. Fisher. Already very familar with and an enthusiastic reader of Fisher’s food and travel memoirs, I was quite thrilled to come across this “only novel” (as the front fly leaf informed me) of hers. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I knew it should be good; Fisher’s words dance off the page with sheer exuberance and joy for the good things in life, as well as wry humour for the darker days.
Well this was a departure! Here is the Kirkus review, from August, 1947:
The tale of the wandering wanton, whose character contains no glimmer of human decency, whose driving force through successive incarnations is the lure of sex, whether used as bait to wreck the lives of a Swiss household, or to disrupt a happy below stairs kingdom, or to inject suspicion of lesbianism into a normal girl’s adolescence, or to out-tart the tarts of the Gold Coast- Jennie sweeps her callous way. An odd tale, told on four levels of time, 1928, 1847, 1927, 1882, – England and Europe and America – virtually four novellas woven together by the insidious Jennie, harlot supreme, whose spirit continues to attempt to escape and find freedom. M.F.K. Fisher has a unique gift, if one that is sybaritic, ultra-sophisticated, and for that market.
No denying that this novel is well-written and creative, and definitely “sophisticated”, as the review points us. But I have almost put this novel in the giveaway box several times, which fate is generally reserved for only the most dire of my used bookstore gleanings; most find a home on the double-deep shelves; very few books leave the ever-expanding collection. I think that the fact that I’ve already read it twice argues for its remaining here, but I still view it with mixed feelings.
I found the format initially quite confusing. Expecting a traditional narrative flow, the reapparance of the main character, Jennie, in the second of the four narrative sections, had me completely confused, as we jumped from 1928 to 1847 in time, while Jennie herself stays more or less the same. I had one of those surreal disconnect moments where I leafed back through the first section trying to see what clues I’d missed as to what the heck was going on.
Of course, if I’d read M.F.K. Fisher’s 1982 afterword first, it would have made much more sense. She says:
To my mind it is really not a novel at all… (I)t is a string of short stories, tied together more or less artfully by a time-trick. The female Jennie appears everywhere, often with heedless cruelty or deliberate destruction to her docile associates, and then slips away in her little snakeskin shoes…
I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this book. It is strange and more than a little confusing, and Jennie is a most unpleasant protagonist. I appreciate that Fisher was experimenting with a different literary style here, and I found this departure somewhat intriguing, but I much prefer her more prosaic works to this more than slightly twisted flight of fancy.
But – hey! – maybe others will embrace the Not Now But Now experience more enthusiastically than I did. Though the novel was not at all a commercial success, the reviewers of 1947 praised its literary creativity and style. Perhaps I’m just not ultra-sophisticated enough to completely “get it”?
Side note – I love the use of the Turner painting, Rain, Steam and Speed, for the slipcover of the 1982 reprint. Initially I found the disparity between the cover and the subject matter a bit odd, but once I’d time-slipped with Jennie a few times it suddenly felt most appropriate!