I have often tried to recall how I spent my days before the advent of the damned computer. It did seem to be something of a minor miracle when I acquired a primitive word processor (Amstrad 8256) around 1994. Working on it provided me with a valuable systemic relationship
after thoroughly digesting which my fountain pen writing achieved more of a flow – it even does a virtual cut & paste, putting rings round sentences & paragraphs and drawing a line with an arrow to where they’d be better positioned. But when I got plugged into the Internet & emailing (c2003) much of my time was bewitched by the (false) idea that there was another universe skulking round the corner – an e-universe – existing side by side with the one in my head to which I could abandon self. I assume that the bulk of well-fed humanunkind is enslaved by the same idea to the extent that trees, clouds, stars & sea (just down the road, the river’s horizon, from where I’m writing) become the artificial world – not worth looking at compared with the oblong electronic screen.
I’ve often engaged my remembering cogs to put myself back before 1994: how did I spend the days of pen and ink? I did use a computer at so-called ‘work’ but I resisted its intrusion into the home.
When I wasn’t building things, making gardens or tending bonfires, I spent some time writing and on warm sunny days I delighted in ‘Reading on a Summer Lawn’. In the evening there was television which was finally ditched in 1996 when we moved to our villa on the River Nene. There was music and much reading time. Before early retirement in 1992 I had moonlighted from the college where I passed most of my time to work at a private college in Kensington on staff development for the brothers Templeton – I suppose I spent quite a lot of time preparing for this.
Anyway, all of a sudden I find myself largely detached from the computer experience. There ‘s been five or six months reading all the Richard Jefferies books I have on my shelves, nearly all of his output; I’ve finished putting together a 220 page book of essays (Globs here) celebrating exactly 70 years 1952-2022 of being enthralled by him. Waiting for a proof copy of a hardback done by an outfit in Peterborough, I am now at a loose end. Having been a ‘chain reader’ for more years than I care to count I found myself in the unaccustomed position of not knowing what I was going to read next. During all those years even while reading one book I had been in the habit of deciding what to read next.
By strange chance, while I was fishing around in the doldrums, a very good friend of mine sent me a little Japanese novel; he said he thought I’d like it because when I edited the British Haiku Society’s journal I’d said that I could never resist a haiku which had a cat as its focus. It was The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide. And, lo, while reading it I decided to read The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe which I must have read before many moons ago because I have regarded it as one of the Great Books but could remember nothing of its contents Turned out that I went from a book about a man who, like myself, talked to his cat to one whose author talked to all his animals – a baboon, an owl & dogs as well as other birds & animals – and got answers! Axel Munthe was a doctor with advanced views on alternative treatments for nervous complaints, music, vegetarian diet plus fish, hypnotism & the open air; he despised his rich psychosomatic patients and treated the poor without charging them. To escape from being a ‘fashion doctor’ he acquired a dilapidated chapel & surroundings on a hillside in Anacapri.
We know about his intended purchase of San Michele early on in the book but most of it describes his absorbing & varied activities as a doctor is Paris, London & Italy. He survived cholera in Naples and an earthquake in Messina, sleeping briefly with murderers in a cellar. There are odd tantalising references to San Michele in the narrative which is not subject to standard temporal sequence so we know that he goes backwards & forwards, from & to his vision. It’s the unhurried visiting and revisiting of a dream.
Life is the same as it always was, unruffled by events, indifferent to the joys and sorrows of man, mute and incomprehensible as the Sphinx. But the Stage on which the everlasting tragedy is enacted changes constantly to avoid monotony. The world we lived in yesterday is not the same world as we live in to-day, inexorably it moves on through the infinite towards its doom, and so do we. No man bathes twice in the same river, said Heraclitus. Some of us crawl on our knees, some ride on horseback or in motor-cars, others fly past the carrier-pigeon in aeroplanes. There is no need for hurry, we are all sure to reach the journey’s end.
How does he survive his demanding experiences as a doctor/nerve specialist? He has a sound philosophical take on human experience.
Man was built to carry his own cross, that is why he was given his strong shoulders. A man can stand a lot as long as he can stand himself. He can live without hope, without friends, without books, even without music, as long as he can listen to his own thoughts and to the singing of a bird outside his window and to the far-away voice of the sea.
He expressed his dissatisfaction with the town-life he was leading to his friend and associate Norstrom who recommends that he go to Capri for a couple of months, feeling sure that he’ll come back after recovering from hard & often soul-less work. What Norstrom doesn’t understand is his loathing for pandering to the rich and his lack of enthusiasm for money.
I said I would never return to Paris if I went there now, I hated this artificial life of a big city more and more. I did not want to waste my time any longer in this atmosphere of sickness and decay. I wanted to go away for good. I did not want to be a fashionable doctor any longer, the more patients I got the heavier did I feel my chains. I had plenty of other interests in life than to look after rich Americans and silly neurotic females. What was the good of his talking about throwing away ‘my splendid opportunities’? He knew quite well I had not the stuff in me to become a first-rate doctor. He knew equally well that I could neither make money nor keep it. Besides I did not want any money, I should not know what to do with it, I was afraid of money, I hated it. I wanted to lead a simple life amongst simple, unsophisticated people. If they could neither read nor write, so much the better. All I needed was a whitewashed room with a hard bed, a deal table, a couple of chairs and a piano. The twitter of birds outside my open window and the sound of the sea from afar. All the things I really cared for could be got for very little money, I should be quite happy in the humblest surroundings as long as I had nothing ugly around me.
The very brief glimpses we allowed of San Michele in most of the narrative leave us to make a dream vision of it in our own minds; ‘San Michele’ exists as a haunting cognitive spectacle all through the book. Perhaps it’s best left that way for the sake of it. From photos on the Internet (the computer does, of course, have its uses as a reference machine!) the building certainly doesn’t look very ‘humble’. It must have cost quite a lot to build but Munthe’s attitude to money works for me though one might think that it’s OK if you’ve got plenty of it, as he seems to have from time to time – he’s not a hoarder.
The gods sell all things at a fair price, said an old poet. He might have added that they sell their best goods at the cheapest rate. All that is really useful to us can be bought for little money, it is only the superfluous that is put up for sale at a high price. All that is really beautiful is not put up for sale at all but is offered us as a gift by the immortal gods. We are allowed to watch the sun rise and set, the clouds sailing along in the sky, the forests and the fields, the glorious sea, all without spending a penny. The birds sing to us for nothing, the wild flowers we may pick as we are walking along by the roadside. There is no entrance fee to the Starlit hall of the Night. The poor man sleeps better than the rich man. Simple food tastes in the long run better than food from Ritz. Contentment and peace of mind thrive better in a small country cottage than in the Stately palace in a town. A few friends, a few books, indeed a very few, and a dog is all you need to have about you as long as you have yourself. But you should live in the country. The first town was planned by the Devil, that is why God wanted to destroy the tower of Babel.
Here it rains. I sit reading & writing in the conservatory. A blackbird stomps about on the lawn. The whole wide scope of the verdant garden surround is available to me with a sweep of the eyes from tall sycamore & silver birch to precious hornbeam and old lilac. The there’s a sudden unexpected burst of sunshine from some gap in the passing grey clouds over the house. I now know that I’m ready to spend much more of my time ‘reading on a summer lawn’ at least when this winter in late spring is finished – this must have been the case those years ago which seem to have been always warm & sunny.
And what shall I be reading next? I’d already decided before I finished The Story of San Michele to read Axel Munthe’s Memories and Vagaries of 1898, my copy 1930 after the huge success of The Story the previous year. I shall set myself to think of the next book while I’m reading that! I am looking forward to going back to old patterns.
Photos of San Michele from the Internet! They add a little to my mental vision!
Axel Munthe (from various locations)
1857 born in Sweden. Qualified as a neurological doctor in Paris.
1875 first visit to Capri; began to dream about turning a ruined chapel into his home
1884 at Naples for the cholera epidemic
Around 1889 to Capri after ill-health, a failed marriage and a quarrel with Charcot over the role of hypnosis. Then returned to Rome & soon dealt with plenty of wealthy expatriates, as well as the city’s poor who he treated for nothing.
1892 he began to look after the Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden and was appointed her personal physician when she became Queen in 1903.
1895 in Anacapri he bought the ruins of what may have been the villa of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Spent five years restoring it to what became San Michele.
1902 left Rome to live there in solitude, but still travelled extensively with the Queen and saw patients in Sweden and increasingly in London.
1907 married a young Englishwoman, Hilda Pennington-Mellor, an only child of wealthy parents, with whom he had two sons. They soon agreed to live apart.
Eyesight failing he moved to Torre Materita, an old castle on the other side of the island to avoid bright light. Began laboriously to write The Story of San Michele – published in 1929
1908 Messina earthquake
1914 Off to France to help the Red Cross
1934 Operation to improve eyesight
1942 left Capri due to the second world war & lived with the King of Sweden in Stockholm.
1949 died there at the age of 91.
He was a complex character, full of contradictions and prone to odd behaviour with an extraordinary attraction to women. All his life Munthe complained of hypochondria, melancholy, insomnia, fear of death. At other times he ‘rushed to help’ the victims of a cholera epidemic in Naples and an earthquake in Messina; climbed in the Alps in dangerous conditions that cost him three toes from frostbite; and dashed to France in 1914, at the age of 57 and partially blind, to help the Red Cross.