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

    • From the Archive: Martyn Bedford on Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' ,
    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,
    • If you want ideas about what to read next, sign up to our free email newsletter, and get book reviews, archive mate… ,