- 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.
In one of the prefaces Munthe says that ‘The Story of San Michele was the result of an unforeseen accident while groping my way in the dusk among the hammers and wheels of my newly acquired Corona, hard at work learning to typewrite.’ The tone throughout is studiedly off-the-cuff, an effect achieved partly by such rhetorical gambits as ‘Perhaps the less said the better about the journey I made to Sweden in the summer of that year’; partly by frequent use of the comma splice (using a comma where a full-stop or semicolon would be more usual, as in ‘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’); and partly by the way in which his focus shifts from place to place. That the book is written in English, Munthe’s fourth language (after Swedish, French and Italian), makes its casual self-assurance all the more impressive.
Stories often give way to – or give rise to – opinionated disquisitions on one or another of Munthe’s pet subjects. He was fascinated by death and dying, and was such a fervent believer in euthanasia – when a doctor could do nothing else for his patients, he could at least give them a good death – that he sometimes loses sight of the idea that the choice ought ultimately to be the patient’s. A dedicated lover of animals, especially of dogs and birds (he bought an entire mountain on Capri to prevent the locals using it to net migrating songbirds), he was also a proponent of vivisection as a scientific necessity. Here too his enthusiasm gets the better of him: at one point he suggests that convicted criminals should be able to shorten their sentences by volunteering to be experimented on. He was under no illusions about the limits of 19th-century medicine, and had no doubt that the patient’s state of mind played a significant part in many illnesses, and in any cure. His own powers of suggestion seem to have been formidable, though he knew hypnotism could work only within limits. ‘All talk about an unwilling and unaware person being hypnotised at a distance is sheer nonsense,’ he says, before adding, as a magnificently imperious afterthought: ‘So also is Psycho-Analysis.’
The willingness of all kinds of different people to place their trust in him never ceases to amaze him; he mentions it often, with charmingly transparent false modesty. In ‘The Corpse-Conductor’, for example, one of the best stories in the book and quite possibly one of the best short stories of the 20th century, Munthe is asked by a colleague, ‘the leading physician of Sweden in those days’, to take an 18-year-old boy ‘in an advanced state of consumption’ home to Stockholm from San Remo. In Basel the boy’s mother has a near-fatal heart attack; they continue their journey without her. In Heidelberg, the boy finally succumbs to a haemorrhage. An undertaker tells Munthe that it will cost 2000 marks to embalm the body. The family isn’t rich, so he has a go at doing it himself. He then considers going back to Paris, but in the end decides to go with the body to Sweden.
At the railway station he is mistaken by the stationmaster for der Leichenbegleiter. ‘Don’t you know that it is “verboten” in Germany for a corpse to travel without his Leichenbegleiter and that they must be locked up together?’ While they are arguing, a genuine corpse-conductor arrives with another coffin, which contains the body of a Russian general. Munthe bribes the hunch-backed functionary to take responsibility for his coffin too, and persuades the stationmaster to overlook the irregularity. On the train in his second-class compartment, a fat woman with a cat objects to his dog, a stray puppy he acquired in Heidelberg, so he decamps to the corpse-conductor’s van, where they have a rare old time drinking beer, smoking their pipes and sharing the corpse-conductor’s dinner of sausage, cheese and sauerkraut. At the port of Lübeck, Munthe manages to convince the ship’s captain to overlook anti-rabies restrictions and allow him to bring his dog on board. Arriving at last in Sweden, he opens the coffin to check that the boy’s corpse is in decent enough condition to be seen by his mother before the funeral. Prising off the lid, Munthe discovers that the situation is far worse than he had feared.
One of the lessons of this darkly hilarious story is that the man telling it is impulsive, persuasive and not terribly reliable. Here is someone who would never let the facts stand in the way of a good story. He doesn’t pretend otherwise: ‘I do not ask for better than not to be believed,’ he writes in one of his prefaces. But it is one of the duties of a biographer not to let a good story stand in the way of the facts, and Bengt Jangfeldt’s new life of Munthe is nothing if not dutiful. He does a thorough and in its way fascinating job of sorting out the chronology, filling in the holes and tempering the exaggerations of Munthe’s account. ‘As a source-book, The Story of San Michele is a quagmire,’ he observes. One of the exaggerations is exposed without your having to read a word, or even open the book: ‘I have never submitted to be photographed since I was 16 years old,’ Munthe claims, ‘except for the unavoidable snapshots for my passport when I served in the Red Cross during the war.’ But there he is on the cover of Jangfeldt’s book, in a three-quarter pose, gazing intently past the camera into the middle distance through his pebble glasses; and there are several more photos of him inside, which seem to have been taken neither without his knowledge nor under duress.
Other discrepancies are less trivial, and more interesting: the circumstances under which Munthe left Paris, for example. According to The Story of San Michele, he found himself in disgrace after a dramatic falling-out with Charcot. One of the hysterical patients at the Salpêtrière was a young woman from Normandy who had come to Paris to work in the hospital kitchen. Her parents, thinking she was still working in the kitchen, came one Sunday to take her home as they needed her help on the family smallholding. In Munthe’s view, Geneviève ‘had entered the hospital as a strong and healthy peasant girl and would leave it as a lunatic if she remained there much longer’. But ‘she would never consent to leave the Salpêtrière and return to her humble old home of her own free will,’ because she was ‘the prima donna of the Tuesday stage performances’ – Charcot’s weekly public demonstrations of hypnotic suggestion – ‘spoiled and petted by everybody, very pleased with herself and her surroundings’. The only way to get her out was for Munthe to hypnotise her. But one of the nuns intercepted her on her way to his apartment, where she was to meet the nurse who would escort her home on the train. Charcot, enraged, accused Munthe of trying to seduce Geneviève, and banished him from the Salpêtrière. The rest of his medical practice dried up soon afterwards.
According to the more reliable Jangfeldt, however, Charcot had nothing to do with it. In 1931, Charcot’s son wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review: ‘Without contesting the literary and imaginative qualities of Dr Munthe I can certify that Dr Munthe never was trained by my father … I was, myself, a student at the Salpêtrière then, and can certify that he was not one of his students and that my father never knew him.’ This evidence is not impartial, obviously, but it is supported by the fact that ‘Charcot is not mentioned in a single letter of Axel’s out of the hundreds that have been preserved from his Paris years.’ The real reason Munthe left Paris at the end of 1887, Jangfeldt says, was his divorce. This may come as a surprise to readers of The Story of San Michele, who aren’t given any reason to suppose he was ever married.
Ultima Hornberg, like Munthe the child of a Swedish chemist, was a 19-year-old art student when she met Munthe in Paris in the summer of 1880; they were married in November. (He was arrested at his stag party on suspicion of being a German pickpocket; the adventure is recorded in The Story of San Michele, though there the groom-to-be isn’t Munthe but the Finnish sculptor Ville Vallgren.) The seven-year marriage wasn’t a happy one. According to Jangfeldt, ‘Axel had married Ultima in the hope that he could thereby forget his feelings’ for Sigrid von Mecklenburg, a married woman five years older than him whom he had first met at his niece’s christening in June 1876. The French countess he nearly has an affair with in The Story of San Michele is presumably based on her. As his marriage was falling apart, Munthe explained in a letter to the Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson – they became friends after Bjørnson admired an article Munthe wrote for the Swedish paper Aftonbladet describing his near-death experience on Mont Blanc – that it was ‘because he was helplessly in love with a married woman with several children (outside Stockholm) and therefore could never love another’.
It may be true, as Jangfeldt says, that ‘his wife is as absent from his book as Charcot is from his correspondence,’ but Munthe’s vicious description of his vampiric servant Mamsell Agata must be a veiled portrait of his life with Ultima. Mamsell Agata is an old family retainer, inherited by Munthe’s brother, Arnold, who offloaded her onto Axel when he got married.
The old grandfather clock in the hall struck half-past seven as I entered avenue de Villiers silently as a ghost. It was the hour when punctually to the minute Mamsell Agata started to rub the patina off my old refectory table in the dining-room, there was a fair chance to reach in safety my bedroom, my only harbour of refuge. The rest of the house was all in the hands of Mamsell Agata. Silent and restless as a mongoose she used to move about from room to room the whole day, a dust towel in her hand, in search of something to scrub.
She drives away the other servants, destroys the furniture, hates the dog and walks in her sleep. In a permanent rage, she is close to cheerful only when one of Munthe’s patients is about to die or a funeral procession is passing under the window. Various of Munthe’s acquaintances offer to get rid of her for him, but none of them succeeds: her smile is enough to send a man to his sickbed. One of them tells Munthe that the only way to dispel her is to get married. ‘I did not get married,’ he writes. What living with Munthe must have been like for Ultima we can only imagine. Jangfeldt doesn’t quote from any of her correspondence. She remarried in 1892 and died, ‘apparently in childbirth’, in 1895.
Munthe married his second wife, who is just as absent from his memoir as the first, in London in 1907. Hilda Pennington Mellor was a young Englishwoman who met Munthe while travelling in Italy with her parents; he was the family’s doctor in Rome. They had two children, Peter and Malcolm, and remained technically married until his death in 1949, though they spent very little time together and he saw almost nothing of his sons as they were growing up. ‘There seems to have been no question of passionate love on Axel’s part,’ Jangfeldt writes. ‘Was this marriage also an attempt to flee from another, impossible relationship?’
The other woman this time was seven months away from becoming the queen of Sweden. Crown Princess Victoria – who doesn’t get a mention in The Story of San Michele either – first met Munthe on Capri in April 1891. In December 1892 she ‘asked him to be her doctor and her companion during her stay in Italy the following winter’. Their ‘union of souls’, as Jangfeldt (or his translator, Harry Watson) quaintly puts it, ‘took place in Venice in May 1893’. The relationship lasted until Victoria’s death in 1930, though it was severely strained during the First World War. Victoria, the daughter of Grand Duke Friedrich I of Baden and a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm, was keen for Sweden to join the conflict on Germany’s side. Munthe, an ardent anglophile who ‘had always been strongly anti-German’, was poised to apply for British citizenship the moment Sweden ceased to be neutral. That moment never came, but as well as working for the Red Cross, Munthe did his bit for the British war effort by writing a propaganda novel called Red Cross & Iron Cross. Narrated by a Swedish doctor, it tells of a band of noble Tommies in a French village confronting a brutal gang of Germans ‘led by a cold-blooded, Iron Cross-decorated officer called Graf Adalbert von und zu Schönbein und Rumpelmayer’.
As Munthe moves into the hinterland of European royalty, Jangfeldt gets entangled in the thickets of imperial genealogy, and there are too many paragraphs full of the following sort of non-information: ‘June was an unusually eventful month for the royal family. A week after the royal couple’s golden wedding Victoria’s second eldest son Wilhelm became engaged to the Russian princess Maria, daughter of Grand Prince Pavel Alexandrovitch. Russia’s former emperor Alexander III was her uncle, and the present emperor, Nikolai II, her cousin.’ There may be an explanation for this deferential attitude in the acknowledgments, where ‘HM King Carl XVI Gustaf’ gets a special mention ‘for his accommodating attitude to my work, which deals so intimately with his great grandmother, Queen Victoria of Sweden’. You have to wonder, though, what difference, if any, it would have made to the book had King Carl’s attitude not been so accommodating.
Jangfeldt also, perhaps unsurprisingly, errs on the side of generosity in his assessment of Munthe’s character. To say that ‘Munthe had been unlucky with both his first and his second marriage,’ for example, as if luck had anything to do with it, is absurd even on the evidence that Jangfeldt provides. But he is admirably even-handed in his judicious use of quotations from the letters of Munthe’s friends and acquaintances, several of which confirm a suspicion that it’s hard not to form while reading The Story of San Michele: wonderful storyteller though he is, Munthe must in many respects have been insufferable in person.
Norman Douglas, for example, one of his expatriate neighbours on Capri, thought him a ‘portentous fake’. In 1928, Victoria wrote to Hilda that ‘the conceitedness & self-satisfaction are alas! increasing more and more.’ Nearly twenty years later, Hilda wrote to John Murray: ‘I have long ceased to take Axel quite seriously.’ According to his literary agent, A.D. Peters, ‘one cannot be sure about anything with him, and I expect that he would accept an offer from any source if it seemed good enough.’ And in 1894, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson wrote to his daughter:
In the hall you find an excessively large dish for visiting cards. Gladstone’s card lies uppermost. You are supposed to believe he was at Munthe’s yesterday … Without further ado, as if in the passing, he tells you how important he has been to the queen, the crown princess, the princess Ruspoli, the American millionaire’s son … I have been at Munthe’s once – one time. Thereby my visiting-card also ended up in his dish. Since then he has had no use for me nor I for him.
Wilfred Sheridan, the husband of the sculptor Clare Frewen, said that Munthe ‘is a bully and has no respect for women, a fault which he is never tired of exhibiting’. It’s certainly on display in The Story of San Michele, and Jangfeldt occasionally seems to fall under its influence, dismissing a not unreasonable letter from a young Swedish woman to her mother on the subject of Munthe’s ‘bad character’ as ‘quite hysterical’; asserting that ‘the major female ailment of the period’ was ‘delicate nerves and hysteria’ (never mind TB or complications in childbirth); and writing of Munthe’s fear that ‘an attractive woman … would end up in the claws of the island’s lesbians, led by the notorious Mimì Franchetti.’ But his sympathy for his subject isn’t boundless: he’s baffled, for example, by the way that Munthe, a committed anti-Fascist (‘I cannot sleep for anxiety and grief over what is going on here,’ he wrote from Capri in 1936), was able in 1937 to consider selling the Villa San Michele to Goering.
He didn’t sell it, though. And when he died, he left it to the Swedish state, to be ‘administered by the Swedish Institute in Rome’. The house, which Henry James described as ‘a creation of the most fantastic beauty, poetry and inutility I have ever seen clustered together’, is now a museum, nature reserve and writers’ retreat. The book it lends its name to is harder to categorise. As a young man, Munthe attacked the naturalism of writers such as Zola and Strindberg: ‘You talk of a return to Nature in literature as in art, but you entirely forget that Nature herself is not realistic but idealistic!’ Jangfeldt comments that ‘there is a contradiction between Axel’s social radicalism and his aesthetic ideals and cultural conservatism.’ This conservatism apparently persisted throughout his life: just think of the difference between the Villa San Michele and the Casa Malaparte. And yet it’s tempting to see The Story of San Michele – impressionistic, fragmentary, thick with allusions and unacknowledged borrowings from all kinds of other literature (‘The Corpse-Conductor’ turns out to be based not on an incident in Munthe’s life but on an article in Stockholms Dagblad), liberally smattered with untranslated French, German and Italian, self-referential, not really autobiography but not exactly fiction either, rich in ambiguity, philosophically and scientifically engaged, with an unreliable and elusive narrator – as an accidental Modernist masterpiece.
[*] The most recent edition came out in 2004 (John Murray, 358 pp., £8.99, 978 0 7195 6699 8).