”The Story of San Michele”, the best known of Axel Munthe’s work, was a huge success when it was published in 1929. However, he began writing 45 years previously. Munthe wrote his first work by hand, but because of his poor vision he was later unwillingly forced to use a typewriter.
He began writing in 1884, when as a doctor he found himself in Naples during a severe cholera epidemic. Munthe travelled there on his own to work at the Santa Maddalena Hospital, and in letters home to Sweden expressed his thoughts and observations. He contrasted his carefree life in Sweden with the misery that he confronted every day at the cholera hospital and on the streets of Naples.
The letters were the start of his career as a foreign correspondent for ”Stockholms Dagblad”.
Under the headline “Letters from Napoli” a number of articles were published, the first five without a byline. His travel reportage was a subjective and very personal depiction of Napoli, its people and the epidemic. The personal tone and the mixture of facts and poetry made Munthe’s images of poverty and chaos different from other reportage:
”Look at the pale yellow and withered faces, where a pair of large eyes are glazed with fever – and you see a picture of ’febbre napoletana’. Look at that – but give him a coin, because he certainly needs it, he is unfortunately usually right when he says he hungry – the destitution and the fever go together, and I hardly know if I wish that ’la febbre’ didn’t exist, it is perhaps more charitable than are we, for it so often helps the poor child from both hunger and misery to the paupers’ cemetary.”(Munthe, 1885, p 54-55
Here is both joy in telling a story and an unmistakeable social involvement.
One year later this reportage was published in the anthology “Från Napoli. Resebref” (P. A. Norstedts & Söners förlag) and in English translation in 1887 as “Letters From a Mourning City”.
Munthe continued to write, often as in “Små skizzer” (1888), from the point of view of an individual walking through the poor district of Paris or contemplating the human relationship with animals. These skillful depictions of places, events and people resulted in the books “Små skizzer, Bref och skisser” (1909) and “En gammal bok om människor och djur” (1931).
Axel Munthe has been described as having a split personality on several levels:
He expressed controversial views and lived a far more ascetic life than necessary, but his circle of friends were members of the conservative upper class.
His view of life was at times pessimistic and misanthropic and he had periods of depression. Despite this he showed compassion and decisiveness by going to crisis areas and by donating much of his income as an author to charity.
This external and internal dualism which characterised his life is also reflected in his writings. Munthe was interested in Goethe’s Faust and sometimes worked with themes involving doubles. His first books were published under the pseudonym ”Puck Munthe”, a name Axel borrowed from his beloved dog.
Beginning with “Bref och skisser” Munthe began writing in his own name, and he probably never intended for his work to be anonymous.
The rather revealing pseudonym more likely served to divide between the Physician and the Author – two roles that Munthe kept separate and regularly commented on.
Bengt Jangfeldt, who has written several biographies of Axel Munthe, has in his book “Axel Munthe” described the somewhat contradictory traits.
...a vivid imagination, a sense of humour, subjectivity and egocentricity, misanthropy and the accompanying love of animals” are some of the most important elements of his writing. (Jangfeldt, 2001, p. 2-3)
I would also like to say that Munthe’s way of writing can be characterised as both provocative and as courageous, with powerful images and a subjective and clear message.
This is clear, not least, from the quotation above, where he writes that poor children are better off in the cemetery than in life – and expression that shows the author’s involvement and provocative position, and which demonstrates that Munthe was not afraid of expressing the ethical issue of the responsibility of the rich and favoured for the poor and sick.
Axel Munthe’s work was often written during external circumstances such as sickness, war, and suffering.
“Danger and human suffering were the catalysts that that stimulated his creative energy.” (Jangfeldt, 2003, p 89)
How need became a driving force in his writing is most obvious in “Red Cross & Iron Cross” (1916), a powerfully anti-German novel about a doctor and his deeds, which Axel Munthe wrote after his experiences during the First World War when he worked with the French Red Cross at hospitals in France and in London.
It is said that Munthe used a pseudonym in the first edition, ”A Doctor in France”, in order to not further offend Queen Victoria, whose view of the war was diametrically opposite that of Axel Munthe.
He, who sympatised with Britain and France, turned against both the German generals and against the pro-German Swedish public opinion.
In the later edition of “Red Cross & Iron Cross” (1930), published under his own name, he has added another foreword where he softens the criticism and defends the book’s harsh words:
”it was written sur pied de guerre in every sense of the word, it was written in pain and in anger.” (Munthe, 1930, p 5)
He maintains, however, that what he wrote was the truth as he saw it. What he writes about the war is, in other words, true, yet not.
In this way he defends himself on all sides and the conclusion is that he no longer supports what is written in the book, but he did then, when he wrote it.
This is a complicated position, and one might think this is a duplicity typical of Munthe. A sympathetic interpretation is that this reflects circumspection and insight, but the method of modifying the book with the help of a foreword also contradicts the courage I spoke of previously, since Munthe neither supports nor withdraws his criticism.
Emma Strindmar Norström, Department of Literature, Stockholm University