Mediterranean Travel Writing: From Etruscan Places to under the Tuscan Sun

Article excerpt

To compare Francis Mayes with D. H Lawrence seems pretty unfair, and I would not inflict the comparison except that I think it reveals something about the way in which western culture has changed for the worse since Lawrence's time, for Mayes's writing is rooted in exactly the sort of "poisonous" materialism that Lawrence detested and that he knew was taking over Europe and America. Published in 1996, Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy was praised in a wide range of reviews. USA Today called it a "beautifully written memoir about taking chances, living in Italy, loving a house and, always, the pleasures of food." Booklist described it as "armchair travel at its most enticing." The Houston Chronicle called it "a model for the open, curious mind and the questing soul," while the Boston Globe, considerably more circumspect, referred to it as "a report from our dream Italy." As these reviews suggest, Mayes's books have gained a large popular audience, and they will certainly gain an even larger audience following the late 2003 release of the Disney/Touchstone film loosely based on Under the Tuscan Sun.

What makes Mayes different from those of us who have only dreamed of moving to Italy or another land of our dreams is that she did actually purchase a country estate in Tuscany and, at least during breaks from teaching in San Francisco, supervise the remodeling of her villa. The true subject, however, of Under the Tuscan Sun and her less competent sequel, Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy, is not remodeling, and certainly not "taking chances" or approaching the subject with "an open, curious mind," as Mayes's publishers and critics would have it. Rather, it is the way in which these books so accurately reflect the bourgeois dream of self-fulfillment, in this case the fantasy of escaping to a dream-world of charming expatriate experience--dinners on the veranda, shopping for local crafts, encounters with warm-hearted locals. Mayes's dream of Italy, like those of so many Roman Holiday admirers, evokes a contemporary myth of privilege, of "all the places MasterCard will take you," as the advertisement has it. It is about finding a place to live so far away that we don't have to face the monster of daily life. The sentimental treatment of the peasantry, hand-crafts, and ancient ruins masks the unresolved discontent of a consumer culture that nonetheless does not intend to forego its material advantages. At its heart, the relationship of Mayes's narrator to her subject is inauthentic because the speaker always has one eye cocked toward her potential audience, always with the suggestion that hers is the most enviable of possible experiences. In this sense, expatriation itself is a consumable intended for conspicuous display. How different it is with D. H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, and Lawrence Durrell--all of whom took on the Mediterranean for real, risking something of themselves in the course of doing so.

The acquisition and renovation of an Italian villa is the framework on which Mayes's flimsy tale is assembled, but the egoistic compulsion to acquire forms its compelling motive. Unlike Lawrence, whose gaze is outwardly directed toward the living culture of Italy, and unlike Durrell, whose interest is both scholarly and social, Mayes's persona is on a sort of raiding expedition--the countryside is the site of forays in search of gourmet foods, wines, crafts, and decorative items to buttress her sense of personal gratification. This complacent dream is all the more insidious because of its pretense of a valorizing, nonjudgemental acceptance of cultural "others," all the while ruthlessly exploiting its own economic advantages.

Interspersing recipes in the narrative confirms the extent to which consumption underlies Mayes's writing. Food is a fixation here, as it is in bourgeois culture in general, because it is an easily manipulated projection of narcissistic ego. It is the one thing in Mayes's world that can be controlled. …