James Owen

Dilettante Doctor

Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele

By

IB Tauris 381pp £25 order from our bookshop

Axel Munthe’s memoirs, The Story of San Michele (1929), was one of the great bestsellers of the interwar years. Republished a dozen times in its first few months and translated into forty languages, its fame has now rather faded, although it remains in print. If it finds new readers, it is because the charm of Munthe’s reminiscences remains undiminished, and because the idyllic life he created for himself in an Italian villa retains its potency.

Yet even during its heyday there were many who wondered if the portrait that Munthe painted of himself – the modest but brilliant doctor, the talented writer undesiring of recognition, the reclusive yet intimate friend to the famous – was too good to be true. His réclame rested on a slim but much-praised volume of vignettes written from Italy in the grip of cholera in the 1880s, and on his having later renounced a lucrative, Europe-wide medical practice to treat the poor for free. As his fellow Swede Bengt Jangfeldt makes clear in this astute study (the first to benefit from full access to Munthe’s papers), his reputation as a contemporary St Francis who had mastered the vanities of world was, if not wholly bogus, at least rooted in self-deception.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • RT : Founded in 1979, is a trusted independent source for reviews of new books across a variety of genres. A… ,
    • RT : Here we are - "Shelf Indulgence" by Ed Potten, a wonderful read, well worth your time: @Lit_Review,
    • 'Like going to a party hoping to get away as quickly as politeness allowed and at 4am finding myself still engrosse… ,
    • 'Neville never shed his sense of being the junior, and perhaps least-deserving Chamberlain.' From the archive, Mic… ,
    • 'The erecting and immediate destruction of a series of straw men rather detracts from what is for the most part an… ,
    • RT : A magnificent demolition job on this "acid laced tirade...unpleasantly self-obsessed...self pitying polemic...book… ,
    • 'Seventy years on, the time we have left to gather such first-hand testimony is running out.' John Keay on the sig… ,