Monday, March 23, 2009

Axel Munthe – ‘The Story of San Michele’

So, aside from the resemblance of the covers of recent editions, how similar is this to Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book? Writing about that in January, I remarked that it witnessed only summer, when the family lived on their tiny idyllic island. Winter was spent elsewhere, and was therefore unimportant. The Story of San Michele also idolises an island: Capri, on which Munthe expended ‘five long summers’ incessant toil’ (p. 294) building Villa San Michele according to such carefully laid plans as these:

This is a colonade with twisted Gothic columns surrounding the chapel and here looking out over the bay of Naples we are going to hoist an enormous Egyptian sphinx of red granite, older than Tiberius himself. It is the very place for a sphinx. I do not see for the present where I shall get it from but I am sure it will turn up in time. (pp. 230-1)
He further specifies that the sphinx has to be thousands of years old, and that it will have been waiting all this time to fulfil its destiny. Later on, the sphinx is noted in the passing, it has been found and installed without further comment. Things just happen in this book, the causes and the practicalities are almost always hidden.

Time spent away from San Michele is not hidden, though. In fact, the largest and most interesting portion of the book (all bar the last 60 pages or so) only mentions the project infrequently. It is always to be understood that Munthe’s efforts as a doctor are made in order to finance his building scheme, but it remains mostly in the background. In the foreground is his unusually entertaining career, which lurches from high society in France, to the lowest poverty in Italy. Here he is parading around the Faubourg Saint-Germain:

My diagnosis, in most of these cases, was over-eating, too many cakes or sweets during the day or too heavy dinners at night. It was probably the most correct diagnosis I ever made in those days, but it met with no success. Nobody wanted to hear anything more about it, nobody liked it. What they all liked was appendicitis. (p. 30)
Appendicitis not being distinctive enough for a young doctor out to make his mark in fashionable society, he starts diagnosing colitis as an alternative – soon, everyone wants to be cured of colitis, though no-one quite knows what it is (least of all Munthe). It becomes the must-have disease of the season. From France he travels to Lapland (he was Swedish, which might explain that leap), and it is here that he reads the headline: ‘TERRIBLE OUTBREAK OF CHOLERA IN NAPLES; OVER A THOUSAND CASES A DAY.’ (p. 110). He travels non stop to the scene of the tragedy, and within three chapters takes the reader from Parisian farce via Lapland folklore to this:
Must I operate at once, with not even a table to put the child on, on this low bed or on its mother’s lap, by the light of this wretched oil-lamp and no other assistant than a street-sweeper? Can’t I wait till tomorrow and try to get hold of somebody who is more of a surgeon than I am? Can I wait, dare I wait? Alas! I have waited till to-morrow when it was too late and seen the child die before my eyes. I have also operated at once and no doubt saved the life of a child, but I have also operated at once and seen the child die under my knife. (p. 64)
The only thing holding any of this together is Munthe’s big hearted approach to his own life: he bombards the reader with so many emotive stories all at once, the effect is a wide perspective, without the loss of small scale affection. I haven’t scratched the surface here of the stories he tells: there is child trafficking, hypnotism, a duel with an exceptionally well drawn cad (Vicomte Maurice), the aftermath of an earthquake, the brightening up of the last days of old Monsieur Alphonse (who spends his time in poverty brushing a top hat behind a screen), an outbreak of diphtheria, a terrifying housekeeper, rivalries between doctors. There is also a lot on animals: Munthe is always surrounded by dogs, monkeys and birds. On Capri he buys a mountain so that it can no longer be used to catch small birds, which would be shipped out to be eaten as delicacies in restaurants. Mostly the balance is well kept, and the big-heartedness always convinces, even if the details – such as they are – don’t. Thomas Jones suggested recently in the London Review of Books that the whole of the chapter ‘The Corpse-Conductor’ is fabricated, and that much else here has been moved around to improve the way the events work as stories. But they work so well.

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