Saturday, October 6, 2012

The story of San Michele by Axel Munthe

House of Axel Munthe on Capri. Picture by Alessandro Catuogno

I am not sure if or how I should recommend this book.

Not that it is not entertaining or badly written, on the contrary, but because I somehow have the impression that Munthe’s book has aged badly. Published in 1929, like a vintage Bordeaux which has been kept too long, it might have turned sour for some readers.

Axel Munthe was a famous Swedish doctor, who during “l’entre –deux - guerres”, attended to the Rich and Famous first in Paris and later in Rome, after he was kicked out of the famous Salpetrière Hospital, because of a disagreement with the world renowned Doctor Charcot over a business of medical ethics.

Axel Munthe, a society figure and doctor of fame, one would be proud to count as an acquaintances, or better to summon to one’s sick bed,  was introduced to me in the first chapters of Malaparte’s novel  Kaputt.

Malaparte, a namedropper if ever there was one, discusses Munthe with Prince Eugene. Speaking about Munthe and his splendid villa on Capri, where he has retired from the world, the prince suddenly remarks:

“The flowers love him”
“And do the birds love him?”
“They mistake him for an old withered tree…”

And indeed Munthe was an early ecologist and animal-lover, securing a vast tract of land from the hands of developers, to establish an ornithological sanctuary. His book, which in fact is a romanticized biography contains numerous examples, where he saves and cures animals and even as a kind of doctor Doolittle speaks to them. Munthe takes pride of an occurrence where he, like a true Androcles, with the help of hypnosis cures a lion’s bad infected paw at the Paris zoo.

And this is what I mean when I think that the book has aged badly. Listen to this excerpt:

“Snake charming is of course a hypnotic phenomenon; I have myself put a Cobra into a state of catalepsy in the temple of Karnak”.

While I can imagine an audience of hysteric female admirers in a Salon in Paris to yelp with astounded delight at such feats, today when reading such a sentence, one either breaks out laughing or hurl the book against the wall in disgust.

Here is another example which is even more hilarious. Munthe volunteers to help in Naples where the entire population is brought down by the plague. The situation is horrific. People die by the hundreds, whole families, neighborhoods are wiped away, and there are not even enough survivors to burry the dead. Munthe, tries to help where he can, but the task is daunting. After weeks of horror, Munthe is mentally drained. In a convent, where the sole helping survivor is a beautiful young nun, Munthe, amidst all the horror surprises himself to make a pass at the girl. While it is somehow understandable that these two young people seek solace with each other, Munthe is overwhelmed by post amorous doubts. So far so good, but then he decides to explain it and fit what happened in a grand theory of sexual attraction. According to him, in circumstances of mass-dead, like war or epidemics, nature compensates by turning sexual attraction a notch higher in order to compensate for all the lost souls… still with me? … enough to wet yourself laughing !

Now the biggest legacy of Axel Munthe is of course his Villa at San Michele. In the course of the book, Munthe explains how he buys the house, renovates and finally furnishes it… all bogus anecdotes, but what the heck… good reading.

So, to conclude, if you are not too picky and you can appreciate thirties wisdom as funny bullshit, then Munthe's book can be an entertaining summer read.

And yes, Axel Munthe lived in the most beautiful house of the world !!