I first read Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, soon after it was published in English in 1958, and since then it has topped my list of great novels. In the 1970s I discovered Alexander Solzhenitsyn and placed his August 1914 near the top of my list, where Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina also resides.
Considering my favourable experience with the great Russian novelists, it’s odd that I didn’t get around to Mikhail Sholokhov’s 1929 novel And Quiet Flows the Don until just the other day. It deals with the same tumultuous period of Russian history as Pasternak’s and Solzhenitsyn’s books, and while it is interesting throughout and poetic in parts, in my opinion it doesn’t quite achieve greatness. It does however portray a significant segment of Russian society about whom I knew little – the Cossacks living in the Don region.
It is peopled by a bewildering number of characters – in common with most Russian novels – and in some cases their personal stories are not brought to any kind of conclusion. The first part of the book felt a little like a work by Thomas Hardy, but then the war came and the descriptions of warfare dominated, perhaps excessively, though there is possibly a case for such massiveness.
In the last part, during the revolutionary struggle, individual personalities again come to the fore, but in general life does not go well for those who have thus far survived, and the overall effect is pessimistic, which is probably realistic considering what other horrors were to come for the Russian people.
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When I first read “The Story of San Michele”, by Axel Munthe, many years ago as an impressionable young man, I considered it a great find. The San Michele of the title was the name of the author’s villa on the island of Capri, but the book is in fact a wide-ranging autobiography which deals only partly with the construction of the villa out of the ruins of a chapel.
Long before the time of online book clubs, this is a book that was often read because someone you knew said it was a MUST. A surprising number of people told me it was one of the best books they had ever read, so I read it and was duly impressed. So much so that years later, while travelling in Italy, I took the boat from Sorrento to Capri, and went to find the villa near the top of the steep island. At the time it seemed like a kind of pilgrimage.
But later I started having doubts – partly about the book but mainly about the man.
Axel Munthe (1857 – 1949) was a Swedish-born medical practitioner whose patients seem to have been mainly the aristocracy and the wealthy, including Queen Victoria of Sweden. But he also worked among the poor, especially during a cholera epidemic in Naples.
Munthe had first visited Capri while a medical student in 1875, and had then conceived the idea of building a villa from the ruins of the San Michele chapel, but it was only in 1887 that he was in a position to buy the property and begin construction. He did much of the work himself but also employed a local family. In 1890, running low on funds for the project, he opened a practice in Rome and from then onward divided his time between Rome and Capri.
For me “The Story of San Michele” (published in 1929) was, and remains, a compelling read, but the impression it leaves on me now is that many of its episodes are, at the very least, embellished. It might even be that he has introduced some fiction here and there for the sake of the story. There are also strange omissions (for an autobiography) such as any mention of his marriages and children. He was certainly aware of his own worth as a person, and although he must have been an entertaining dinner companion, I wonder whether one might have wearied of him a little towards the end of the evening.