- Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele by Bengt Jangfeldt, translated by Harry Watson
Tauris, 381 pp, £25.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 1 84511 720 7
The Casa Malaparte, where Jean-Luc Godard shot Le Mépris, was built by the formerly Fascist, soon-to-be Communist writer and journalist Curzio Malaparte in the late 1930s. It stands, or rather crouches, like a predator ready to pounce, on a promontory on the eastern side of Capri, overlooking the Gulf of Salerno. A bright red, long, low oblong, tapering at one end into a stairway up to the roof terrace and disappearing into foliage at the other, nothing but clean lines and unbroken surfaces, it’s a model of uncompromising Modernist architecture. Across the island is the Villa San Michele, in many ways the Casa Malaparte’s antithesis, a neo-classical riot of terraces, cloisters, galleries and pergolas, built around the turn of the 20th century, supposedly on the site – and from the ruins – of one of Tiberius’ 12 villas, by the Swedish doctor, writer, adventurer and pan-European celebrity Axel Munthe.
His extraordinary memoir, The Story of San Michele, was published by John Murray in 1929, when Munthe was 72. The first edition rapidly sold out; it went into its 20th impression in January 1931, and has been in print ever since.[*] The reasons for its wide and enduring appeal have to do partly with its subject-matter – Munthe led a remarkable life – and partly with the nonchalant, knowing and irresistible manner of his storytelling. His method is best summed up by Munthe himself, in one of the many prefaces he wrote to the book’s many early editions:
My chief difficulty in writing this book was to keep still where I was, I always seemed to be on the move from place to place. ‘My thoughts go to sleep unless they and I wander,’ wrote Montaigne … While I was flirting in the moonshine with the fair countess in her château in Touraine, I managed to mix up the two coffins in the train from Heidelberg and to kiss the nun in the convent of the Sepolte Vive in cholera-stricken Naples before I fell asleep in tumbledown Messina on the mattress of my bosom friend Signor Amedeo, who had murdered eight people and lent me five hundred lire. I had a restless night, for I was back in avenue de Villiers in my dream, trembling with fear of the terrible Mamsell Agata.
It’s not a method that lends itself to the inclusion of such fiddly details as dates, but the broad shape of Munthe’s life is discernible from the book, which despite its title isn’t so much the story of San Michele as the story of Axel Munthe.
Born and brought up in Sweden, he went to Paris to study medicine, qualifying in due course as ‘the youngest MD ever created in France’. Monsieur le Suédois was soon a popular society doctor, diagnosing wealthy hypochondriacs with ‘colitis’ and prescribing lapdogs for bored dowager marquises, as well as doing unpaid rounds among the Italian immigrants in the slums of Montparnasse. He went to Naples during a cholera outbreak and later settled in Rome, living and practising in the house beside the Spanish Steps in which Keats had died seventy years earlier. When he wasn’t working he would go climbing in the Alps, where he was nearly crushed in an avalanche on Mont Blanc, or trekking across Lapland, where he narrowly avoided being eaten by a bear. He continued with his disaster relief efforts, searching for survivors after the Messina earthquake of 1908 (he doesn’t give the date, but that’s when it was) and working for the Red Cross during the First World War. And he went regularly to Capri, where he was steadily building his sprawling dream house.
The Story of San Michele is made up of 30-odd more or less free-standing chapters, though these loosely connected scenes from Munthe’s life are framed by an account of discovering, buying and rebuilding the villa on Capri. The Capri passages appear to be set in a continuous mythic present. ‘I sprang from the Sorrento sailing-boat on to the little beach,’ the first chapter begins. Munthe was evidently a social chameleon, equally comfortable in the company of illiterate Italian gravediggers, American millionaires, European royalty, nomadic Sámi, nuns or artists. He adapts his style, too, without obvious effort, as he moves from place to place: his tales of Parisian intrigue, of flirting with countesses and fighting duels with vicomtes, could almost be taken from the pages of Bel-Ami (Maupassant, whom he knew slightly, was also an influence on him in his less realist modes); the encounters with bears and goblins in Lapland read like something out of a Scandinavian folk tale. Munthe built his house and his memoir in similar ways, accumulating material from disparate sources – he brought a red granite sphinx from Egypt to glare out over the Bay of Naples, and dredged up from the sea floor (or so he claimed) a marble head of Medusa to hang above his writing desk – and assembling it into an idiosyncratic whole.
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[*] The most recent edition came out in 2004 (John Murray, 358 pp., £8.99, 978 0 7195 6699 8).