Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Axel Munthe

Axel Munthe's The Story of San Michele (1929) is one of the best-selling and most translated books ever written, and its author has been called "the most famous Swede of all time". Bengt Jangfeldt's biography of Munthe, En Osalig Ande. Berättelsen om Axel Munthe, appeared in 2003 and my translation was published by IB Tauris in 2008.

In life, Munthe attracted the adulation of all sectors of society from the slum-dwellers of Naples, to whom he ministered during a cholera epidemic, to his patient, confidante and (allegedly) lover Crown Princess (later, Queen) Victoria of Sweden. But he also had no shortage of detractors, who accused him of vanity, hypocrisy and massaging his own legend. It's interesting to note how many of these detractors were fellow-writers : experts, one might say, on story-telling and myth-making.

One of these less than enthusiastic acquaintances of Munthe's was the writer Tor Hedberg. The two men had a bit of "history". Hedberg would become a member of the short-lived Young Sweden (Det unga Sverige) movement, and his later honours would include the directorship of Dramatiska Teatern in Stockholm and election to the Swedish Academy, but in 1884 the young Hedberg was working as tutor to the children of Baroness Sigrid von Mecklenburg and nursing a secret passion for his employer, who however had eyes only for another:

"Sigrid von Mecklenburg had been born in 1852 and was twelve years younger than her husband, a chamberlain who was 'quite fat' and 'an exceptionally jovial character', but only ten years older than her children's tutor, the young writer Tor Hedberg, who was afflicted by unhappy - and unrequited - feelings of love for her.

The baroness's coolness towards the inhibited and charmless Tor Hedberg was not because she saved her feelings for the baron - the marriage was not a happy one. The person who had captured her heart was Axel Munthe; who seems already to have fallen in love with her on the first occasions when he stayed at Lunda and Högsjö, when he was 20 and she was 25. [Lunda belonged to Munthe's brother-in-law; Högsjö was the neighbouring estate of the von Mecklenburgs]. They saw each other again during his repeated summer stays - but it is only now, in August 1884, that their romance stands out."

Forty-five years later, when Munthe's book appeared - "If there was one notice that Munthe probably read with a degree of apprehension, it was the one signed Tor Hedberg. The review was essentially positive ... But the events at Högsjö manor forty-five years earlier lived on in the mind of the 78-year-old Hedberg - now a member of the Swedish Academy - and can be glimpsed in phrases whose autobiographical background were obvious to the initiated:

A book which is largely about Italy, written in English by a Swedish doctor, then translated into Swedish by another hand, is already a rather unusual phenomenon by its very nature, yet it is not too surprising to one who on his journey through life has come across and kept company with its author. For - and partly at his own instigation - his life has turned out to be an exception, a vagabond existence outside the usual parameters, a quirky, ostensibly chance scaling of the heights of society. With remarkable consistency he has been a man who does whatever occurs to him, and he has an unusual talent for winning over people by neglecting them.

One of the few people - perhaps the only one - who knew how to interpret this text was Munthe himself: 'The sarcastic article by Tor Hedberg in Dagens Nyheter was exactly what I had expected and I am sure more in that style will follow,' he wrote in a form of words which he varied in other letters."

If Hedberg and Munthe had never been friends, the same could not be said of Munthe and the Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. When both men lived in Paris, Bjørnson was an almost daily visitor to the Munthe household, and so intimate were they that Munthe even confided in him that the reason for his unhappy marriage was that he had not had sexual relations with his wife "because he was hopelessly in love with a married woman with several children [Sigrid von Mecklenburg]". On another occasion, however, he claimed to Björnson that "He had syphilis and therefore did not indulge in intercourse with his wife." Not unnaturally, Bjørnson was sceptical of these conflicting stories, as he confided in a letter to his daughter:

A kinder, nobler disposition does not exist, nor another talent so fine and great and so capable of versatile thinking that it could accomplish wonderful things. And a loveableness, a sweetness in character and eyes and smile which makes him eternal for anyone who has been exposed to his image.

But so insecure from introspection, so preoccupied with vain coquetry, so preoccupied with his whims aimed at self-admiration and that of others, that he can no longer be at peace with himself. And so sanctimonious on account of his ambition to appear in a favourable light that he tells everyone a different version of the same story!

Munthe would later set up his medical practice in Keats's former house on the Spanish Steps in Rome, and a visit to the great man there sickened Bjørnson once and for all. He wrote to his daughter on 11th December 1894:

On the outside, completely unchanged. But now it's no longer possible to talk to him without his immediately interjecting that he has just been called to Stockholm to the queen, who didn't want to let him go. He had to make up that he had to go to London for a consultation, and strangely enough, just as he was about to set off, he got a telegram from Lord Dufferin. The same Lord Dufferin sailed with him in the Bay of Naples in the summer, but Munthe had to put him ashore on Capri as he was summoned to Princess Ruspoli in Rome ...He lives by the Spanish Steps 'in the apartment where the English poet Keats died; Shelley lived above him'. When you enter Munthe's apartment Keats' and Shelley's poems are lying open, just by chance. ... In the hall you find an excessively large dish for visiting cards. Gladstone's card lies uppermost. You are supposed to believe he was at Munthe's yesterday. ... I have been at Munthe's once - one time. Thereby my visiting-card also ended up in his dish. Since then he has had no use for me nor I for him."

So much for a fellow-Scandinavian's opinion of the great Swede. But this protean character elicited different opinions again from house-guests as diverse as Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas - whom he bravely welcomed to Anacapri when others had shunned them - Stefan Zweig, who quizzed Munthe for three hours about the best way to commit suicide (and later followed his advice) - and Henry James, who called him "my old admirable friend Axel Munthe".

Harry

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