McCall Smith in Germany

In several previous posts, I have written about the first five novels in Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana series, featuring Precious Ramotswe, as well as the first novel in his Edinburgh series, featuring Isabel Dalhousie. Now I’ve read all three in his Germany trilogy, featuring Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld: Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances. These are light-hearted academic satires, painted with a broad brush. I first picked these up because I couldn’t possibly resist a work of fiction entitled Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and I have a weakness for academic satires. The anti-hero, von Igelfeld, is a German professor of Romance philology, best known for his definitive tome (hundreds of pages long — I don’t remember how many) on Portuguese irregular verbs.

When I was a kid, I learned the definition of an expert as someone who knows more and more about less and less, and I resolved never to become that sort of expert. Perhaps that’s why I became somethng of a polymath. But von Igelfeld is definitely that sort of expert, knowing everything about Romance philology and nothing about anything else. These blinders lead to dozens of comic situations — chuckle-to-oneself comic, not laugh-out-loud comic — as von Igelfeld and his colleagues attempt to deal with a panoply of real-life situations in the first two volumes and fantasy situations in the third. My favorite scene is one in which the three German professors attempt to learn how to play tennis by reading a textbook.

Like the other two series, the von Igelfeld novels frequently raise philosophical questions, often in the guise of moral dilemmas. These books are not for everyone, but they’re fun to read and provide a useful perspective for those of us whose worlds are often academic, in both senses of the word.

Categories: Books