Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Story of San Michele

by Axel Munthe

No matter how much Axel Munthe has seasoned the actual happenings of his life in this book, one is assured of that he was a man who did his best to bravely jump into experiences. The story begins in 1880s Paris, where the young Swede finished his medical education in a hurry in order to set up a practice at Avenue de Villiers. The first half of the book is an exciting tale on Munthe's mingling with the aristocratic and creative jet set, amongst the latter many renowned Swedes who at the time took their refuge in the French capital. These were at least partly made his acquaintance through his medical skills, which Munthe claims being much the same as his luck. He travels all over, from his practice in Paris to England, from the very north of Scandinavian Thule to southern Italy and through the Alps and cities of Western Europe. For anyone who has been interrailing sufficiently Axel Munthe's chronicles is a fantastic read, and makes it possible to understand the ventures of going from Lund, via ferry from Korsör on Western Zealand to Kiel on the continent and all the way to Paris in 48 hours. Munthe considered his work as a doctor a calling and argues on how to make medical care available also for the destitute. When the cholera epidemic ravages Naples, he hurries south to be able to give a physician's helping hand. He writes about how he befriended one of the fathers of modern neurology, Jean-Martin Charcot, and how he attended his famous demonstrations at la Salpêtrière. The brusque ending of that friendship humiliates Munthe greatly and acts as a turn for the narrative.

The last part of this autobiography is, apart from Axel Munthe's endless and fierce fight against the suffering of the poor and human cruelty towards animals, less of political agitation and philosophical writing. The reminiscences are not in as much of detail as those from his youth and come between vaster periods of time. One understands that much of his later life is left out, perhaps partly because Munthe wants to finish his book. He writes about building up Villa San Michele and the beauty of the simple life at the island of Capri. After his account of the time he ran a clinic in Rome the story becomes less coherent and more of a reflection of growing old. In the final chapter, in which Munthe writes about his own death, he claims he is saved from purgatory at the gates of heaven by Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the animals.