The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe

I’ve recently borrowed from the Toronto Public Library The Story of San Michele, first published in 1929, by Axel Munthe.

I borrowed the book because I remember reading it when I was a student at Malcolm Campbell High School.

I read a fair amount of non-fiction and fiction when I was in high school. Some of the texts were classic texts from British empire fiction literature, which, to be honest, turned my stomach. There was other recent fiction as well, but for a variety of reasons, I could not relate to it. The John Galsworthy tales, by way of example, didn’t resonate for me given that my own life experiences, at that time, had no apparent relationship to the experiences and outlooks of the main characters depicted in Galsworthy’s novels.

The books were useful, however, as they enabled me to learn something about how English words are spelled, and sentences are constructed. English is my third language. By frequently encountering a large number of words, and remembering their spelling, I became an ace speller. Through extensive practice in reading and writing, I also learned to do a good job of writing English exams and essays, and was awarded, in June 1963, a couple of books – Understanding Poetry (which I still have) and Understanding Fiction (I’d like to find a copy and read it) – for “Outstanding Achievement in English” at an MCHS graduation ceremony.

The Story of San Michele

The one book that I remember, with some level of fondness, is The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe. A goodreads.com blurb provides the following overview, which I read with interest, about the book:

The Story of San Michele (a villa built on the ruins of a Roman Emperor’s villa in Capri) is a series of overlapping vignettes, roughly but not entirely in chronological order. It contains reminiscences of many periods of the author’s life. He associated with a number of celebrities of his times, including Jean-Martin Charcot, Louis Pasteur, Henry James, and Guy de Maupassant, all of whom figure in the book. He also associated with the very poorest of people, including Italian immigrants in Paris and plague victims in Naples, as well as rural people such as the residents of Capri, and the Nordic Lapplanders. He was an unabashed animal lover, and animals figure prominently in several stories, perhaps most notably his alcoholic pet baboon, Billy.

The stories cover a wide range in terms of both how serious they are and how literal. Several discussions with animals and various supernatural beings take place, and the final chapter actually takes place after Munthe has died and includes his discussions with Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven. At no point does Munthe seem to take himself particularly seriously, but some of the things he discusses are very serious, such as his descriptions of rabies research in Paris, including euthanasia of human patients, and a suicide attempt by a man convinced he had been exposed to the disease.

Several of the most prominent figures in Munthe’s life are not mentioned in Story of San Michele. His wife and children do not figure in the narrative; very little of his time in England is mentioned, even though he married a British woman, his children were largely raised in England, and he himself became a British citizen during the First World War. His decades-long service as personal physician and confidante to the Queen of Sweden is mentioned only in the most oblique terms; at one point, while naming her only as “she who must be mother to a whole nation”, he mentions that she regularly brings flowers for the grave of one of her dogs buried at Villa San Michele, at another point, one of his servants is out walking his dogs, and encounters the Queen, who mentions having given the dog to Munthe.

Munthe published a few other reminiscences and essays during the course of his life, and some of them were incorporated into The Story of San Michele, which vastly overshadows all his other writing both in length and popularity. Notably, his accounts of working with a French ambulance corps during the First World War are not included.

World wide, the book was immensely successful; by 1930, there had been twelve editions of the English version alone, and Munthe added a second preface. A third preface was written in 1936 for an illustrated edition.

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Understanding Fiction

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library about Understanding Fiction, Third Edition (I would have probably received the Second Edition, at the June 1963 MCHS graduation ceremony) shares the following information about a key contributor to the book, namely Robert Penn Warren:

Robert Penn Warren, the first Poet Laureate of the United States, was an unusually versatile writer who tried his hand at almost every kind of literature. In all of these forms, he achieved recognition and distinction, but it is as a poet, critic, and novelist that he was most widely known.

Writing almost always about his native South, Warren produced 10 novels and a collection of short stories, The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (1948). By far the most successful of his novels is All the King’s Men (1946), the story of a southern politician and demagogue named Willie Stark, which Warren based on the rise and fall of Huey Long. Warren was considered one of the most influential of the New Critics, whose influence on the teaching of literature in American schools and universities during the late 1940s and 1950s could scarcely be overestimated. Because All the King’s Men seemed to be the very epitome of what a good work of literature should be in New Critical terms—a complicated but highly readable narrative filled with irony and ambiguity—the novel came to be used widely in courses on modern fiction. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Southern Authors Award in 1947.

Warren’s other novels are disappointing by comparison. Following the success of All the King’s Men, however, Warren seemed to turn to more loosely told stories about dramatic and romantic subjects, such as the interracial theme of Band of Angels (1955) or the natural catastrophes that serve as the crisis background for The Cave (1959) and Flood: A Romance of Our Time (1964). Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961) is an allegory of a man’s spiritual quest for truth about himself and the world. Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971), the story of a tragic love affair, seemed to mark a return to the tighter structure and more complex artistry of Warren’s earlier novels, but A Place to Come To (1977), his last novel, in which an elderly and renowned scholar who seems to owe much to Warren himself looks back on his family’s past in an effort to find the meaning of his life, struck some reviewers as a confused and tired work. Sometime midway through his career as a novelist it is as if Warren stopped thinking of himself as a southern writer in the tradition of William Faulkner and turned instead to Thomas Wolfe for inspiration. Although in retrospect that switch must be regretted, no one can deny the immense influence of Robert Penn Warren on modern letters. Warren’s poetry is intellectual, rich in powerful images, and has its roots in the pre-Civil War South. He continued to write impressive poetry almost until the time of his death.

(Bowker Author Biography)

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