Reaction: The Story of San Michele

“A man can stand a lot as long as he can stand himself.”

“I repent little I have done; I retract nothing.”

“What you keep to yourself you lose; what you give away you keep for ever.”

 

“One of the FAMOUS books of this century”, says the cover. It can’t be denied: published in 1929, it was on its twelfth English printing by 1930, when it was the best-selling non-fiction book in America. Nor was it a transient phenomenon – more copies were sold of the seventy-fifth printing than of all the editions in the year it was first published. It has been published in at least forty-five languages, and a bestseller in most of them; at least one translation, into German, sold over a million copies itself – I assume the same is true of French, Italian and Swedish at the least, but I can find no figures on a cursory search of the internet. Certainly, it is probably one of the most read books of the 20th century. My copy is from the early 1960s, and is from the 81st printing.  I speak, of course, of The Story of San Michele, by Axel Munthe. It has enjoyed impressive success – for a book that was archaic in style and content even when it was first written.

 

Although he disliked the description, San Michele is the memoirs of a doctor – the youngest doctor in modern French medical history, in fact, being fully qualified at the age of 23. In later life, Munthe was a minor celebrity himself, as a writer, philanthropist, friend and host to the famous, and personal physician to the Queen of Sweden – but his memoirs focus primarily on his life in the late 19th century, when he worked as a fashionable doctor in Paris and Rome.

 

This has hinted at the most noticeable thing about the book: it makes no attempt whatsoever to pander to the audience’s expectations of what will be interesting. Munthe tells us, in essence, a long series of anecdotes – but they are the anecdotes that he wishes to tell. In one of the prefaces (they were accreted over the years as editors demanded new prefaces for new editions), he admits quite openly that regarding his own life he has “left out its saddest and most eventful chapters”; he expresses a wish to “leave the dead in peace and the living to their illusions.” He even goes so far as to claim: “I am not a bookwriter and I hope never to become one. The Story of San Michele was the result of an unforeseen accident”.

 

Just how large the missing chapters are only becomes fully apparent once the reader learns a little of the author’s own life. The Queen of Sweden is only mentioned once or twice, and only elliptically. He served in the Red Cross during the First World War; there is one throwaway mention of the horrors of Verdun, and another about treating maimed soldiers who had been heaped into a pile in a room. He was married twice; no wife is ever mentioned, nor even any but the briefest of romances. He abandoned his own honeymoon to treat a typhus epidemic on Capri – I think the existence of the epidemic is mentioned in one sentence, but not his role in it, nor his honeymoon. His second wife was English; he moved to England, and became a naturalized British citizen; his citizenship is mentioned in a preface, but there is no account of his decades living here. He had two children by his second wife, but they are not mentioned.  Munthe clearly is not writing a confessional, and feels no duty to be complete.

 

These omissions are possible because the book is not an autobiography, but only a collection of memoirs. There is no set timeline – events late in the book as a general rule occurred later than those early on, but as between neighbouring chapters there is no way to say which precedes which, or whether they are simultaneous. A servant is dismissed in one chapter, only to be mentioned again in the next, still employed. One chapter may span several years – only for the next to return to the beginning. Frequently, the author seems to have intentionally defied the reality of time: the events of ten years are compressed into a single turning of the seasons, while a week may seem like years. Each chapter generally has one (or sometimes two) themes, and, at least at first, deals almost entirely with that theme – if he is talking about his demonic housekeeper, he does not divert into discussing his work, and if he is talking about a particular patient he will not digress into discussing his friends. This patchwork technique allows many things – even two marriages and two children – to simply disappear into the cracks without trace or indication. Later in the novel, he gains more confidence, and chapters twist in unexpected directions, generally following only thematic, rather than chronological, principles.

 

The reader may not notice his omissions at first reading; what they will notice is the reverse, when unmentioned things float suddenly into view. These are usually not significant to the plot, yet serve to continually tantalise – in one anecdote about an arrest, for instance, the police divest him of five pocket-watches, and when he gives his name they do not believe him, for he is not wearing his Legion d’Honneur at the time. Until this point, we have no knowledge of his “mania” for watches (although there are hints), and we have had no clue (nor reason!) that the man has been awarded the highest decoration in France. When a story requires him to have solitude on a train, he reluctantly and off-handedly admits to us that was at the time the doctor of one of the Rothschilds, who happened to own the railway company. If we pay attention to a certain string of names, we happen to notice his friendship with August Strindberg. Munthe does not boast of his associations – he seems instead to be ashamed of them. Certainly he does not view them as interesting.

 

The habit of concealing things from us, added to a tendency to mention things in passing as though known to us, even when they only feature later in the novel (for instance, there are casually cryptic allusions to Mamsell Agata many chapters before she is actually employed – or else the events of the two chapters have simply been inverted; it is impossible to say), creates a curiously oceanic, almost nauseous, disconnection from time and causality. We are left entirely in the hands of the author, to guide us in the appropriate direction, as we have no way of knowing for ourselves which things will prove important and which will not.

 

Unfortunately for us, this requisite trust is not without complications: Munthe is not a reliable narrator. He admits openly that he has made omissions, and distorted his account in places to make himself appear more admirable (though this is easy to forget, faced with his continual air of almost vain humility). He even enjoins us to accept the conceit that because only parts of the book were written by hand, and others only by typewriter, that only the former sections are really his responsibility, while the latter can be partly blamed on the collusion of the Corona Typewriting Company. He does not say which passages are which, but he is interested to know whether we can tell the difference – he has set out to play games with us, even if he would never admit it. This duality of pen and typewriter is only one part of the systematic plurality of authorship – the man who acts and speaks, the man who remembers, and the man who is writing down those reminiscences are all given to us as distinct narrative figures, and yet their voices are not distinct. I am tempted to think that this plurality is a conceit to allow him to contradict and undermine himself; and yet any sort of conceit or manipulation is difficult to combine with the honesty and integrity of the author’s voice – even if that voice may sometimes take, sometimes explicitly and sometimes through irony, to lambasting its own pomposity, naivity, and dishonesty. If we cannot trust the man, should we trust him when he tells us he is not to be trusted?

 

Some instances of this unreliability are unknown to us as readers – only through external accounts could we learn that his acquaintance with Charcot was probably not nearly so close as it appears in the novel. Other examples we cannot but suspect, particularly regarding women. He is vague about his relationship with one of his patients and what exactly happened on a moonlit walk, and though he protests his innocence he does it with such knowing coyness that he seems to be trying to tell us something different from what he says. At one point, he takes under his wing an ‘orphan’ child, so like him in appearance that everybody believes that it is his illegitimate child, and he even lets some of them believe it – but he insists to us that it is merely coincidence. At another time, he is expelled by Charcot, when it is found that he has hypnotised a vulnerable young girl into going to his own house for, it is assumed, nefarious purposes; he, of course, presents his own perfectly reasonable explanation for why he hypnotised her and gave her those commands, but do we really believe him? On the other hand, if, as it seems, Charcot barely knew him, should we even take this sensationalist little story at face value? With Munthe, it is clear that he often writes himself in a better light than he deserves; yet, at the same time, we cannot discount the possibility that he is also making himself look worse than he is. And yet it is hard to believe that he is simply inventing these episodes, if only because, from the preface to the finale, he is unwavering in counterposing his own honest experience to the ignorant fictions of other. When a reviewer speaks of how the book could furnish the writers of short sensational stories with plots for their whole lives, he austerely regrets not having become such a writer himself: “Surely it must be a more comfortable job to sit in an arm-chair and write short sensational stories than to toil through life to collect the material for them”. He even castigates writers of fiction: “Novel writers, who insist on taking their readers to the slums, seldom go there themselves.” Munthe, however much of the peripheral material we take at face value, has certainly been there himself – to the slums, and to worse than the slums. His apparent untrustworthiness almost seems designed to make us doubt his undoubtable virtues.

 

Partly, this is because Munthe seems to take a perverse joy in confusing us. Repeatedly, he says one thing and we believe another – only to see that he intended himself to be disbelieved. Again and again, we see the enormous vanity and arrogance of the character – only for he himself, or another character, to mock him for it, or, worse, to undermine our reasons for thinking him arrogant. At one point he gives himself an almost appalling speech about the inferiority of women – only to have himself undermine his own argument. Another character disapproves of his misogyny, but the conversation is interrupted by the arrival of some prostitutes, who it turns out are Munthe’s friends, and Munthe gives, in the most piteous and sympathetic tones, the terrible life story of one of them, in which he himself is featured in a positive light, while men in general are condemned.

 

Munthe’s character, in short, is complex and troublesome, particularly to the modern reader. He is arrogant – and yet he often seems to have a strain of self-contempt. That, however, is not enough for him – looking back with hindsight, he mocks both his vanity and his self-loathing, to the point where it is impossible to tell whether he is acting entirely sincerely or entirely ironically, and whether an action is from self-love or self-hate, and we cannot but suspect that many of his flaws have been inserted to make himself look better. He has an insatiable pity, and a love for all those who are weak, powerless, isolated or condemned. He likes and cares for nobody more than for prostitutes. This pity drives what we would normally consider incredible philanthropy – which is such a matter of record that we cannot doubt it: he risks his life fighting cholera in Naples, typhus on Capri; saving lives in the trenches of WWI, and in the shattered and polluted ruins of Messina after the great earthquake (which, for modern readers unfamiliar with the event, killed up to 200,000, including 70,000 in Messina alone); he spends his spare time working for free in the slums, fighting diphtheria epidemics almost single-handed, operating on kitchen tables; he helps the vets at the Parisian zoo; he volunteers to work with dangerous rabies patients, helping Pasteur develop a cure, and frequently with violent lunatics; he forces the women who rely on him for medical help to donate toys and clothes that he distributes to the poor. His home on Capri, he made into a refuge for abandoned pets (including two tortoises, an owl, a baboon, and a mongoose), and he gave up other land to make a bird sanctuary. He made a fortune through his career, and gave almost all of it to charity. And yet this is not philanthropy at all. When he refuses to send bills to his patients, and instead demands the clothes off their backs, it is just as much to humiliate them as to help the children. He admits that he cares far more for animals than he does for humans – it seems that humanity in general he treats with hatred and contempt. He is a misanthrope, and he includes himself in the contempt.

 

And yet, for him, this misanthropy is a double-edged thing. He seems to operate an inverse hierarchy: the weaker and more miserable a thing is, the more he loves it. This is why he prefers animals to humans, women to men, prostitutes to respectable women, and the poor to the rich. This explains the bizarre contradictions between word and deed: why, for instance, he happily opines that women are inherently inferior to men, and that the chief desire of women is to be dominated by men, and yet throughout the novel undoubtedly admires the female characters more than the male – for him, being inferior is something praise-worthy. Inferiority exonerates – if women sin, he says, it is usually because they have been forced to by a man. Those who are controlled are freed from guilt: guilt resides at the top of the hierarchy, and in the institution of the hierarchy itself. This spurs in him a certain antinominalism, a certain appreciation of all forms of disrespect, which produces a distinctly un-Victorian admiration for lustiness, and even criminality; and yet he has double-standards with regard to himself, accusing himself in word of being a ‘fornicator’, yet portraying his actions as continually unimpeachable. Regarding sex, there is also something of a double standard when it comes to gender: he tends to condemn men, including himself, for their crude sexual impulses, yet appreciate the same things in women – because for women it is taking something of their own from their relationships, while for men, who are generally in the position of power, it is connected too greatly to exploitation. I think that he thinks it admirable when the exploited are able to find some happiness in their exploitation, but terrible that the exploitation exists at all. It is at the lowest, most primitive point of humanity – whether naturally among the native Lapps of his own country, or forced upon the shattered people suffering after Messina, that Munthe, it seems, believes humanity is reduced to the level of animals, which is to say, from his perspective, elevated to the status of the divine. The most pitiable human being of all the book may be the poor Sicilian peasant who has lost her home and her family to the earthquake, suckling two babies by the side of the road – and it is she who in the imagination of Munthe becomes one with the highest deity, the Mother Earth itself.

 

Of course, Munthe himself would never theorise so systematically as I have above: such speculation would be ‘un-English’. Whenever he does diverge into theorizing, it is plain to see that he is mocking himself. In the discussion on women, for instance, it is never clear what their ‘inferiority’ actually consists in – he makes an attempt to show how pathetic, and rare, their efforts have been in every discipline of art and science, yet he ends by confessing, as though not noticing the contradiction, that the greatest of all poets is Sappho, and he has already admitted, in parenthesis, that as a general rule women are considerably more intelligent than men. Throughout the novel, he expresses disdain for the way he treated women as a younger man – not because of any error of theory regarding them, but as a weakness in himself. It is hard not to wonder whether he puts his misogynist views into his own mouth to further degrade himself, to make even clearer how even he has been inveigled into the structure of domination and exploitation. Certainly he does not try to hide it: his main method of treatment is to bring women under his control, through bullying and occasional hypnosis; this is justified because most of his patients are hysterical hypochondriacs, and need nothing more than discipline and a good hobby. It is plain he despises them as a group – and yet every one of them is described in sympathetic terms. As with mankind in general, he has contempt for the species, but affection for the individual – because as he gets to know the individual, he discovers their flaws, and their flaws are what make them attractive to him.

 

This is why his misanthropy is double-edged: by viewing people as contemptible, he views them as pitiable. He loves the weak and hates the strong, but by revealing the hateable flaws of the strong, he shows how they are really weak. He shows this paradox explicitly when he condemns Judas as “the greatest evildoer of all time”, yet questions whether he had any choice in the matter, and ends by comparing him to Christ himself: “Was there not in that night on Golgotha more than one man who was made to suffer for a sin which was not his?” To criticize Satan, Munthe naturally compares him to an aristocrat (what could be worse?), and even then ends by pitying him – “poor old Beelzebub!” he exclaims, “I am sure it is not easy to be a devil for one who was born with wings.”

 

Those who are cruel and controlling are driven by flaws (fear, lust, greed) that are painful and demeaning to them, and that often result in their own downfall. One example he gives is of Guy de Maupassant, who is portrayed extremely negatively – degenerate, drugged, a serial abuser of vulnerable young girls whom he seduces and abandons – and yet it is clear that Munthe has affection for him. With most authors, this would be a puzzling inconsistency, but with Munthe it makes perfect sense: it is because he is flawed that Munthe pities him. In the end, Maupassant’s cruelty to women is his downfall, as his lust drives him into pathetic madness (a form of syphilitic lunacy; he was finally placed in an asylum after a suicide attempt). Maupassant wrote his own epitaph: “I have coveted everything and enjoyed nothing”. This is why Munthe was his friend: Munthe simultaneously could look down upon him, not only for his actions, but for his sniveling pessimism, and yet at the same time admire the bold and unapologetic acceptance of inadequacy, which he seems never to have been able to achieve himself: Munthe clearly is infected with a strong love of life, and had no time for whiners, including himself.

 

This, perhaps, is why he portrays himself in a negative light: as a way of praising himself by making himself seem pathetic. Or, to see it the other way, perhaps he is condemning himself by making himself seem vain. Does he unabashedly show us his vanity in order to display his inadequacy, or is he so vain that he even want to show off his powers of self-criticism? And that forces us to ask the question: should we believe his self-criticism any more than his self-praise? The book seems underlain by the pathological paradox that I have set out – but was Munthe really pathological, or is he just making himself seem that way? It almost seems at times that he is an entirely healthy, even joyful, man who is merely affecting this distorted self-perception. He even has an adjective for it: ‘English’. He admires the English greatly for it, yet he admits that he is not very English himself. Another paradox to hide the first…

 

This bizarre combination of vanity and humility is seen most explicitly in a passage where, in a letter to the Swedish Consulate, he flippantly rejects the award of the Messina Medal, on the paradoxical grounds that his policy has always been to accept only honours he has done nothing to deserve (hence his vast array of them), and that as he did a great deal to deserve this honour, accepting it would be a risky endeavour that would likely introduce confusion into his philosophy. And yet, he promptly tells us, the apparent humility was really all “humbug” – the medal is still in his drawer. And yet he accepts the humbug wholesale when he defends his decision to keep it by admitting that he had done hardly anything to merit it. And yet he undermines that defence by listing some of the things he did – which, he is quick to retort, was nothing compared to what was done by the real heroes of the earthquake, and in most cases was nothing more than anybody else would have done. Except that, as we know but he does not remind us, most doctors would not have rushed to the disaster site at the first opportunity, and lodged each night with murderers and looters.

 

Let it not be thought, however, that this book is full of self-obsessed reflection. Indeed, part of the confusion is that it is almost entirely absent. The worldview I have laid out as either being Munthe’s or as being presented by Munthe as his own is never laid out explicitly, and must be gleaned from hints here and there. Indeed, there is almost nothing about Munthe at all. This, perhaps, is why his wives and children are not mentioned: they would be too close to him, reveal too much about himself. Instead, “Axel Munthe” seems often like a lens for observing the follies of the late nineteenth century – including the follies of young men, doctors, and writers of memoirs, as exposed through the reported words and thoughts of a certain “Axel Munthe”. Munthe himself, in the guise of gentle mockery, draws attention to this idea when he reports the view of an American reviewer that “Axel Munthe does not exist”. It is an appealing thought – and yet the essence of Axel Munthe, is so immanently present in every page, so seemingly real, so simple and unitary, that it is hard to accept the theory, even as it is hard to remember the inconsistencies and pluralities.

 

I have said a lot, without saying very much. Perhaps I should talk a little more about reading this book. As can be seen from all of the above, a large part of the fascination of the book is the nature and character of the narrator, who simultaneously seems so close and graspable that by the end of the novel he is likely to be thought of as a brother, father or eccentric uncle, and yet so distant and intangible that it is almost believable that he does not exist at all. He seems, like the book itself, to be both ironic and unironic at the same time, through careful attention to, and flagrant disregard of, the nature of irony. The character, and his story, can be interpreted in two quite contradictory ways: and neither way makes sense unless the opposite way is also assumed.

 

Munthe, however, is not the only interest. Although he says little about the many luminaries of European culture with whom he was good friends, he is nonetheless a fascinating window into the turn of the century – a period about which I knew little. Sometimes his own views are so extremely of their time that they may appall a modern reader – not only his views of women, but his views on criminal punishment (he believes criminals should be used for live medical experiments) and on homosexuality (or rather “sexual inversion”, a phenomenon then very much in vogue, which seemingly combined elements of homosexual and transgender behavior with physical androgyny). And yet, though his views are clearly of his time, they are so not because they state prevailing opinions of the day (indeed, Munthe is consistently contrarian and sceptical throughout his career), but because they are unacceptable even in his day, but unacceptable in a dialogue with the opinions of his day, in which the very premises are alien to us. Sexual inversion is a good example: the very concept is likely to be considered offensive these days, and yet Munthe’s views are hard to fault morally on their own grounds. Not only does he insist that there is nothing immoral about it, and that it should not be penalized by law, but he even claims that it is not a medical condition, but an act of God, and that it cannot be cured either physically or psychologically, even by hypnotism (as was then popular) – and that attempts to treat it almost always caused far more harm than good. This may seem unexceptional to us, but it should be remembered that Munthe was an acquaintance of Oscar Wilde, imprisoned for sodomy. For comparison, homosexuality was not made legal in Scotland until 1980. In 1952, thirteen years after Munthe’s book was published, Alan Turing was forced, at threat of prison, to accept a ‘treatment’ for homosexuality based on dosing him with female hormones. We should not condemn Munthe too greatly for not being modern, and instead marvel at the many ways in which he was not Victorian. While he accepts the moral panic’s claim that sexual inversion is rising alarmingly, and even describes it in seemingly critical terms, his final comment on the matter is to wonder whether, if the reports are true, sexual inversion is not the beginning of a new stage of humanity in which the genders are more equal: the “last survival of a doomed race on a worn-out planet, missing link between the Homo sapiens of to-day and the mysterious Super-Homo of to-morrow”. A conservative transhumanist… another paradox.

 

As for the book itself, Munthe is quite correct in saying that he is no bookwriter – many passages are constructed inelegantly, and in particular he lacks any ear for authentic dialogue. Most agonizingly of all, he is seemingly unaware of semi-colons: he uses them correctly, but writes them as simple commas, a mistake it is essential to correct in one’s own head while reading, for fear of fatal annoyance. He is not, however, an ineloquent man, and though his arrangement of sentences may be sometimes clumsy, the sentences themselves are often pithy, endearing, humorous, or agonizing in their pathos. On the larger scale, it is hard to judge how much of the alienation from space and time is due to inexperience and how much is intentional – it is certainly intriguing. In addition to the paradoxes of time and character, there is also a surprising liberality with events – in essence, Munthe was a magic realist before such a movement existed. The Sweden of his childhood is not dissimilar to the Colombia of Garcia Marquez – a place where magic and reality, simplicity and modernity, co-exist and intermingle. He tells his tales, as Garcia Marquez puts it, as though they were being told by his grandmother, like fairy-tales – although most of the chapters have no opportunity to display this, it is a constant theme. No attention is paid to reality, or to the distinction between metaphor and narration – from the apparently demonic stature of his housekeeper, easily dismissed as exaggeration, to the goblin who talks to him in Sweden, he relates it all in the same, bloodily realistic, yet childishly whimsical tone. Nor is it clear when an episode is light-hearted and when it is serious: the episode with the goblin may be seen at first as a frippery, but it turns somewhat somber, and it is poignantly picked out at the conclusion to the preface, where he states that it is only the myth, the trolls and the goblins in the forest, whose habitat is being stolen by modernity, that is truly immortal: “Old uncle Lars Anders in Forsstugan, six feet six in his sheepskin-coat and wooden shoes, is dead long ago, and so is dear old Mother Kerstin, his wife. But the little goblin I saw sitting cross-legged on the table in the attic over the cow-stall is alive. It is only we who die.” The dreamlike quality is also particularly evident in the first chapter, set on Capri, where the young man discovers a seeming paradise, and makes his future life there his sole goal in the present – if it were filmed, it would be filmed with a blurred lens, much light, and cheerful rustic music. It is in fact somewhat off-putting to the casual reader, who is not to know that the book becomes rapidly more realistic.

 

Character, style, prose, themes… what of the plot? There isn’t any. He is young, he grows older, and then he faces death. There is no apparent rhyme of reason why certain things are including and others not, or why a certain order has been given, except that in general the book becomes increasingly disjointed, abstract, and meaningful. There is no destination, other than death – it is a book to read for the journey (and, indeed, when ON a journey, I’ve discovered – the discrete anecdotal chapters can fit into the most broken travel plan without causing frustration).

 

I’ve more or less run out of things to say now, or at least I have run out of things to say that I haven’t said already, although I do feel something of an urge to say a few of them again. Instead, I’ll leave you with the end of the “Instead of a Preface” to the book, written seven years later, where his thoughts yet again turn to death:

 

“…I ought to warn the reader to try not to believe all the nice things I have been telling about myself with un-English volubility. I am not conscious of having told any deliberate lies to my readers. Where I may deceived them, I have been deceived myself, deceived by the better man I might have been. But in one respect at least I can say with a clear conscience that I have not deceived m readers – in my love for animals. I have loved them and suffered with them my whole life. I have loved them far more than I have ever loved my fellow-men. All that is best in me I have given to them, and I mean to stand by them to the last and share their fate whatever it may be. If it is true that there is to be no haven of rest for them when their sufferings here are at an end, I, for one, am not going to bargain for any haven for myself. I shall go without fear where they go, and by the side of my brothers and sisters from the forests and the fields, from skies and seas, lie down to merciful extinction in their mysterious underworld, safe from any further torments inflicted by God or man, safe from any haunting dream of eternity.

The night will be dark for there will be no stars overhead and no hope for a dawn, but I have been in darkness before. It will be lonely to be dead, but it cannot be much more lonely than to be alive.”

And now to the evaluation!

 

Adrenaline: 2/5. I can’t deny it: I struggled through at times. Most of the chapters have enough interest to see me through to the end, but I often stopped between chapters. This is definitely a “read a chapter on the train each day” book, rather than a book to be read through in a single drive. Munthe doesn’t care too much to try to be sensational. That said, there were a couple of exciting moments, and plenty of curious ones.

 

Emotion: 4/5. Bizarrely mixed. I think perhaps there is a great river of pathos running beneath the book, but it is paved over with jollity, humour, and a stiff upper lip. Much of it was therefore fairly unemotional. I have to give it at least a 4, however, because it made me cry on several occasions, which takes a certain power.

 

Thought: 4/5. There’s no world-shattering rumination going on here. Nonetheless, the ramblings up above bear testimony to how itchingly engaging the novel was – my brain still wants to scratch at the memory until it makes better sense. Seeing the world through eyes so alien as Munthe’s is also inevitably going to encourage a degree of re-evaluation and confusion.

 

Beauty: 4/5. I think that there’s an ineffable elegance about not only portions of the prose, but the dream-like structure, the pathos, certain images and concepts, and much of the attitude – paradoxical or otherwise – of the narrator.

 

Craft: 2/5. As noted above, I have to mark him down for the prose, which is occasionally superb, but frequently pedestrian, and for the dialogue, which is rarely convincing. It is likely that a degree of the overall stylistic effect, and possibly even of his own self-portrayal, are accidental. It tells, at time, that this book is not written by a professional novelist – which is not always a flaw in general terms, but which does entail a somewhat lower degree of overall craft.

 

Endearingness: 4/5. I loved it as a child – I adored it. It was my favourite book in the world. Even today, I feel a strong attraction to it, to an extent not entirely justified by its quality. Much of this is due to the avuncular quality of the author. That said, on re-reading it left me just a tiny bit cold – probably because of the lack of a sufficient overall direction.

 

Originality: 5/5. I’ve never read another book like it, and I doubt I ever will. The combination of honest, simple Victorian memoir with a literary playfulness and a unique perspective make this book extremely difficult to find a replica of. Some books appear stunningly singular at first observation, yet could honestly be fairly easily replicated by another novel in the same genre: I’m not sure anybody could, and certain nobody will, replicate this one. When somebody asks “what’s that about”, I really don’t know how to answer them – there’s nothing to compare it to. The closest thing, presumably, would be to compare it to other fin de siècle memoirs – a genre almost entirely lost to time – but I can’t imagine any of them feeling much like this.

 

 

Overall: 5/7: Good. Never going to be on top of my list of books to recommend to people looking for great literature, but a book I’ll probably still be reading in old age, and that I’ll recommend to any grandchildren, when I think they’re ready for it. It enhanced and expanded my world; only a handful of books have had a greater impact on me, and though I didn’t enjoy it as much this time round, that’s mostly because I have now encountered a wider range of brilliant books – there’s much in this one that I never saw the first few times through.

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