Axel Munthe’s “The Story of San Michele”

BLOG #31, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #43
AXEL MUNTHE’S THE STORY OF SAN MICHELE
August 5, 2015

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It is August, for millions a time to vacation, get away from it all. It is because August is, in that respect, such a seminal month that it is a difficult month to marry a book-of-the-month to.

In the end, it was no contest. It had to be the incredible story of Capri’s Villa San Michele, and the man whose dream it was: Dr. Axel Munthe.

On July 10, 2014, Connie and I set eyes on the near mythical Isle of Capri for the very first time. Earlier that morning, we had seen the ancient city of Naples outside our veranda room on the Norwegian Spirit. One more item to cross off our Bucket List: See Naples and die—but we hoped we wouldn’t die too soon. Certainly not before we reached Capri :-). We were one of the first foursomes (Connie, I, our son Greg, and our grandson Seth) to be permitted off the ship. Soon our excursion boat was racing out to sea. About an hour later, there looming above us was the towering Isle of Capri. Shortly afterwards we boarded a minibus for one of the wildest rides of our lives! Our little bus tore up the narrow serpentine road barely missing other busses, autos, motorbikes, etc. by only inches; our driver and the other drivers kept up a running commentary with each other (verbal and arm gestures); again and again you could hear our fellow passengers belting out “Mama Mia!” as once again we escaped a crash by only an inch or so. Especially terrifying was the bus’s hair-raising careening around curves, and seen over the flimsy low brick walls the deep blue Mediterranean far far below!

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When we shakily disembarked in the little town of Anacapri, Greg and Seth took the chairlift to the top of the island and Connie and I were led by our guide to another place on my Bucket List: the world famous Villa San Michele. All my life, at various times, the subject of the villa would come up. Always, how beautiful it was. Soon we reached the villa, paid to get in, ambled through the villa, then walked out under that glorious colonnaded pergola, with verdant gardens and trees on both sides, and then, a thousand feet below the bluest blue one will ever see. Connie and I were speechless. Rarely, in this short lifetime we are given on earth, do we encounter a scene so incredibly beautiful that it is beyond speech’s capacity to describe it in mere words. As for me, it proved to be a time-stopper.

After we had walked through the gardens and taken pictures (so inadequate to capture it all!), we stopped at the gift shop where we purchased two books: Axel Munthe’s best-selling The Story of San Michele (translated into over 40 languages) and the definitive biography of the man who created this masterpiece: Axel Munthe.

Capri, A Garden in the Blue. Carcavallo Editore. Milano, Italy, n.d.

Capri, A Garden in the Blue. Carcavallo Editore. Milano, Italy, n.d.

He was only eighteen, when the young Swede first set eyes on Capri. On shore, he looked up, up, and up the 777 steps carved out of solid rocks by orders of the Roman Emperor Tiberius who lived on the island the last eleven years of his tumultuous life. Munthe was warned not to try to climb it for it was a mighty steep thousand feet to the top. But he ignored the warnings and made the ascent. At the top—well, he never got over that view! Right then and there he vowed that whatever it would take, he’d somehow buy that land and build on it a villa of such beauty it would be the talk of the world.

Many years later Dr. Munthe would tell the riveting story of his life—and what an incredible life it was!—in The Story of San Michele. The novelist Henry James was the one who suggested that he write it. For Dr. Munthe moved in, and received at the villa, the likes of Henry James, Howard Carter, Oscar Wilde, Greta Garbo, Count Zeppeliln, Rainer Maria Rilke, and much of Europe’s royalty, including Sweden’s Crown princess Victoria, who locked in a loveless marriage, was destined to fall in love with Munthe. Russian Czar Nicholas II tried to get Munthe to become physician to his family, and Herman Goering tried to buy the villa from him.

Oh all this is but the beginning of one of the most remarkable autobiographies I have ever read! I was so glad later on that I’d also purchased Bengt Jangfeldt’s powerful life story: Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele. Reason being that his biography fills in, amplifies, and builds upon the original book. Half of the Munthe story is missing if you fail to also read the biography!

I will be mighty surprised if you don’t conclude (at the end of your reading both books) that your life will never be the same as it was when you began. Munthe’s life story is so quotable, so mind-numbing in its intensity and in the sheer number of people of all levels of society Munthe treated as a physician, the unforgettable stories of improbable but true personal encounters, the menagerie of animals he surrounded himself with, and on and on and on.

Long before you complete reading Munthe’s book, I predict you will yourself vow, “I will see Capri and Munthe’s Villa San Michele myself before I die!”

Will be interested in hearing from you after you read the books—especially Munthe’s, because that’s the starting spot for Jangfeldt’s biography.

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The Story of San Michele, by Axel Munthe (London: John Murray, Publishers, 1929). The trade paper edition I purchased is that edition’s 17th printing. ISBN 978-0-7195-6699-8. 2004 printing.

Axel Munth: The Road to San Michele, by Bengt Jangfeldt (London, New York: I. B. Taures, distributed by Palgrave Macmillan/San Martin’s Press, 2008). ISBN 978-1-84511-710-7.