|November 11, 1999
Volume 30 Number 8
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Author Delights Chico Audience:
After a painful divorce, writer Francis Mayes needed a place where time would turn on its heel and re-sculpt her.
"I was seeking enormous change," recalled the poet, professor, and famous memoirist October 28 in Harlan Adams Theatre. "I was looking for what, out front, would be as large as my life had been behind me. I'd studied renaissance art and architecture in college, and I thought Italy would substitute nicely for just one man."
That's when, ten years ago, she did "a crazy thing." She bought a 200-year-old farmhouse in Tuscany and committed part of her life -- summers and Christmas -- to another country.
Italy, Mayes discovered, felt close to the bone -- the food, the characters, the soft slant of sun.
So seduced was she by this exotic land full of people "like us and yet not like us," she immediately began keeping a notebook.
Scrawling away while sipping cappuccino at a local coffee bar, she began with lists of wildflowers, bird calls, paintings, and planting times, creating an exuberant journal that later evolved into the narrative Under the Tuscan Sun, her best selling memoir that has crested 950,000 copies, spent sixty-two weeks on the N.Y. Times Best Seller List, and been printed in twelve languages.
And though the book centers on restoring the abandoned house named Bramasole, Mayes realized that immersing herself in this new place helped her rebuild her own lost past.
"Travel quests are internal journals that parallel the outer," she noted. "What was mine? The house, which became a metaphor for self."
Specifically, her longing to return to the southern roots that had eluded her as a poet and teacher of creative writing at San Francisco State. In Bramasole, she rediscovered a deep interest in place "at the DNA level.
"Place will have its way with you, you're formed by it, it's never neutral, so I discovered that again, and it helped reconnect me to the south where they know it's as important as character."
She brought this sense of place to life in her talk, sketching in a faint Georgian accent the tapestry of landscape, philosophy, writing technique and good food that enrich her memoir.
"Time here is double time," Mayes said about America. Not so in Tuscany, where they still live close to the land and seasons, and their houses are built between Etruscan tombs and Roman roads.
"They see World War II as just a blip away, like the war between the states is seen in Georgia," she added. In fact, it's as if Hannibal, who lived around 1217 BC, just passed through the valley.
Here there are six to eight hour feasts where four men are needed to carry in a tray of meat, and every stone wall you wash clean reveals an ancient fresco underneath.
Bramasole means "something that yearns for the sun," and that is certainly the sense you get of Mayes through her Tuscan experience. Not only was she eager open up the house by striking down walls, she was mad for the bounty of Italian food, Italian character, and the joy of replanting her vineyards and olive trees.
The very act of restoring Bramasole was for her, "a way into community." The workers she hired became her friends, and she was soon involved in their lives.
"They invited us to their son's first communions, they brought us their wine and olive oil, and taught us great swear words, which are all inventive ways to use Madonna."
The Italians, she added, "enjoy life, and the food is amazingly simple but wonderful, and their deepest pleasure is the ritual around the olive."
The olive, she noted, is a metaphor for how Italians live, how their ancient roots connect to the root of life.
"The food connection is a very direct way to who the Italians are. Like in Georgia, there's an enormous generosity around the table, and guests are welcome, almost sacred."
Exploring this cultural link, Mayes wrote extensively about Italian food in her memoir, right down to recipes she discovered.
"It's really Italy itself I wanted to put in the book," she explained. "I wanted olive oil and sprigs of sage between the pages."
Yet what occurs is more than simple nourishment. Between the lines of her memoir as well as woven into her talk, was the sense that in Tuscany, she cultivated not only a new life, but a new love with her current husband, whom she referred to only as "Ed."
Perhaps her experience is best explained metaphorically, by quoting her poetic Italian gardener, who cautioned her to,
"Plant when the moon is hard, and tender." -- ZV
Frances Mayes has just published a second book, Bella Tuscany. She was brought to Chico by Chico Performances.