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.
By the 1930s, Munthe ruled Capri’s literary coterie, and was better known than popular authors such as Compton Mackenzie or scandalous ones like Norman Douglas. At San Michele, his house which was built on the site of Tiberius’s villa overlooking the Bay of Naples, he was visited by Henry James,