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The Story of San Michele

The Story of San Michele is Axel Munthe’s best known work. It first appeared in English in 1929 and immediately became a worldwide bestseller. No one really knows how many copies have been sold or how many editions have been published. And despite the passage of 90 years, it is still one of the books written by a Swede which has been translated into most foreign languages, more than 40.
Axel Munthe’s bestseller is both an autobiography and a work of fiction and encompasses the whole spectrum of literature. The Story of San Michele contains drama and humour, is sarcastic and sentimental, literary and journalistic, true and false; in other words as full of contradictions as its author.

In the chapters about Villa San Michele, Munthe enhances the mystique surrounding the villa through his fanciful storytelling; for instance the one of how he found the Egyptian Sphinx and the head of the Medusa. Oh the other hand, the descriptions of the cholera epidemic in Naples at the end of the 19th century are an accurate reflection of the abysmal misery that was the lot of the poor in many parts of Europe at that time. In other parts of the book, Munthe gives us very interesting insights into the medical profession of the turn of the 20th century.

The Story of San Michele became so famous that Axel Munthe negotiated with Paramount Pictures about making a blockbuster out of it. The superstar John Barrymore was going to have the starring role. These negotiations, however, came to nothing.

Axel Munthe had published four books before The Story of San Michele. The first, Från Neapel Resebref (Letters From a Mourning City) in 1885, is a collection of newspaper reportages which had appeared in Stockholms Dagblad to much acclaim. The critics described Munthe in positive terms as a promising new writing talent. However, despite his huge success, Axel Munthe is hardly mentioned at all in Swedish literary history.