James Owen

Dilettante Doctor

Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele


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

    • 'Moore’s work has been so influential that the former ministers who provided him with much of his information now r… ,
    • 'Although he travels through time and space to find the best produce, his choices, delightfully, are not obvious.'… ,
    • RT : I regularly make purchases based on - it’s excellent.,
    • RT : I wrote about Yoko Ogawa's dreamlike, allegorical novel The Memory Police, newly published in English in a translat… ,
    • 'At this frankly apocalyptic moment for indigenous rights in Brazil, John Hemming’s "People of the Rainforest" is a… ,
    • 'I was dumbfounded by the view of the Berlin Wall from the eastern side. It seemed inconceivable that in under thre… ,
    • RT : Danger for ‘local’ staff, access in exchange for silence (and logos) - all sounds familiar in this fascinating look… ,