“The Story of San Michele” is regarded as Munthe’s life-work. It was the book he spent most time writing, and it has the story of his life, and has the title implies, of his home.
In the foreword to the Swedish edition, however, Munthe denies that the book is an autobiography:
”The English kritici made been puzzled by trying to classify ’The Story of San Michele’, and I don’t wonder why. Some have called the book ‘An Autobiography’, others have called it ’A Doctor’s Memoirs’. The book is neither.” (Munthe, 1930, p viii)
Axel Munthe involved himself in his books even after they were written and published. He negotiated with publishers, he had strong opinions about publication, and willingly used forewords to comment both on his overall writing and on the individual texts.
The forewords follow the same pattern: Munthe writes that he was hesitant before publishing the text, but has been persuaded. He had planned to edit and improve the texts before publication, but that hasn’t happened.
Had he culled his texts, there wouldn’t have been enough left worth publishing, he says. Actually he really isn’t an author, and expects strong criticism. In “Från Naploi. Resebref” he writes in jest:
”Before the gentlemen kritici prepare to eat me alive, I would like to warn them, however, that should they do so, some cholera microbes might be included…” (Munthe, 1885)
This expression of what one can assume is false humility, returns more or less in all of his books, despite previous success among both readers and critics.
Another way to dissociate from the role of author is to play with identity. With the help of different roles (Puck, Axel and mouthpieces like the donkey Rosina who speaks for him in the books) can he either abdicate or take responsibility for the texts.
A significant example is the foreword to “Från Napoli. Resebref”, where he, as Puck, frees Axel Munthe from all suspicion of being the book’s author, despite the fatal similarity of names with the “real” author Puck Munthe. Nor does this persona want to take responsibility for the contents of the books, but in turn blames the donkey Rosina, who is in the book. Later, in “Små skizzer”, Puck repents, and takes responsibility for the letters from Napoli.
Munthe’s hide-and-seek with names is often a humourous part of the books. As a reader I smile when in he in his various roles blame each other – himself! – and then he says the donkey is the author. To at the same time go back to the earlier books is also a way to unite the books in a single authorship.
Literature and culture were part of Axel Munthe’s life, but it was after all his experiences as a doctor which led him to write. In the foreword to “The Story of San Michele he writes:
”I ask nothing better than to not always be believed, I have anyway more than enough to answer for. It would flatter my writer’s vanity if I succeed in these my endeavours. Life is a first-rate storyteller.”(Munthe, 1930, p ix)
Emma Strindmar Norström, Department of Literature, Stockholm University