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Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes

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I was quite excited when I first learned that Frances Mayes, the Bard of Tuscany, was releasing a memoir titled Under Magnolia, for Frances and I seem to be living parallel lives. We both began our literary careers as poets, poets who longed for the grandeur and beauty of Italy, and so subsequently spent extended time abroad there. Frances gravitated to the pastoral ecstasies of Tuscany, while I reveled in the energy, history and passion of The Eternal City, Rome. We both then penned works of literature inspired from our Italian sojourn: she with her many books on Tuscany, and me with The Italian Pleasures of Gabriele Paterkallos.

It now seems that both of us have elected to settle in North Carolina. Frances has set out about restoring Chatwood, a Romantic old farm, just outside the town of Hillsborough, while I am in the process of developing Bramabella in Wilkes County into a vineyard estate. We both seem enthralled with the world of wine, no doubt from our exposure to a thriving wine culture in Italy: Frances has launched her own brand of wine titled appropriately Tuscan Sun Wines, while I spend countless hours a day tending to my baby vines with high hopes that they will one day produce fine wine. Sometimes I even read the poetry of Homer and Horace to them like some eccentric madman, so as to beautify their developing Souls.

I must also confess that my adoration of a figure like Mayes partly stems from my distaste for the trends and sensibilities unfolding in American Literature where minimalism, cynicism and realism reign supreme. To me, to choose to live in bucolic bliss in Cortona, Italy or in Hillsborough, North Carolina as opposed to say PoMo/Hipster Brooklyn, the epicenter of contemporary American Literature, is a bold declaration of aesthetics. Perhaps Frances does not see herself in this rebellious, iconoclastic way, and is simply just pursuing τò καλόν on her own terms. Though in her work Bringing Tuscany Home she did comment upon her colleagues in The Academy drifting towards arcane literary theory and the like, which she responded to by simply closing her office door so as to read highly individualistic writers.

Besides being attracted to her italophilic sentiments, I have always adored the aesthetic quality of her prose, a prose that is at once descriptive, lyrical and poetic. It is as if she made the conscious decision when she transitioned from poetry to prose to ensure that her prose would be as lovely as a dream of Roses, as gorgeous as a lingering Tuscan sunset, and as lush as a flush of passion. One might even say that she is the closest modern approximation to the great female aesthete and student of Walter Pater, Vernon Lee.

She continues in this aesthetic vein in her newest memoir, Under Magnolia. I found myself immediately drawn to similes like, "I swam in his green eyes, like reflections of pines in the stream." (Under Magnolia, 169) and such diamantine passages as, "as if my words could re-create a single glimpse of a panel of sunlight on the grass, the flash of a fish, antique gold in the murky pond, the first scent of wet lilacs, and then the underscent of ashes and rain. The blank leather book Rena gave me is where I will begin. I fill my pen with lavender ink." (Under Magnolia, 247) I just excerpted these two particular vignettes, but the entire work gleams and glimmers with such verbal gems.

One of the surprises of Under Magnolia was encountering the dysfunction that Mayes endured growing up. I had assumed from her other books that she was descended from a genteel, one might even say aristocratic southern family, yet this is far from the case. She details excessive drinking, domestic violence, rabid racism, poverty and even suicide amongst her family and social circle in the tiny town of Fitzgerald, Georgia. Perhaps her interest in Literature, which affords one the ability to disappear into the world of the imagination, served as a viable escape from this reality.

Towards the end of the tome she notes the transformation of the South, a place that she left for San Francisco and then Tuscany, but has decided to return to in this phase of her life.

I returned to a South where racism, while not erased, is no longer publicly virulent, and this makes it an entirely different South from the one I knew. You still can see the Stars and Bars flying over a trailer in the woods on Martin Luther King Day, still hear an occasional slur from someone who doesn't have the sense to see that you don't agree. But mostly the good inheritance of southern manners in both races prevails. (Under Magnolia, 271)

Friends of mine who have visited from Florida have also noticed this phenomenon, as I think secretly some of them harbored illusions that it would be insular, backward and redneck. I could almost hear them saying in their minds when I announced that I was purchasing land in North Carolina, 'And exactly why would you leave Palm Beach County for North Carolina?!?!' Yet, when they visited they too were enamored with the southern hospitality, the slower pace of life, and the wild, untamed beauty of the area that they are now considering relocating here as well. In closing, I thoroughly enjoyed my reading of Under Magnolia and would recommend it highly, but most especially to dreamers and Romantics.

-Pietros Maneos