Alexander McCall Smith’s The 2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom (2004)
People have been recommending for years that I get to know the writing of the versatile Alexander McCall Smith, and now I know why. The book I’ve been reading is a trilogy of short novels, themselves sometimes operating like sequences of loosely linked short stories, to do with Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a scholar who works at the Institute of Romance Philology at Regensburg. His reputation rests on a work of nearly 1 200 pages, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the definitive study of its subject, and he inhabits a world of learned eccentricity almost forgotten in contemporary universities. His colleagues, professors Florianus Prinzel and Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer, are themselves unusual people, and their interactions involve various jealousies and squabbles over arcane matters of principle, but there is no villainy.
The funniest parts of the book are those in which von Igelfeld travels away from Regensburg. We see him in Ireland, recording the filthy speech of an elderly speaker of an old form of Irish, in Italy, where he is bullied and outwitted by the nasty owner of hotel where he stays, in Arkansas, where he bluffs his way through delivering a lecture on sausage dogs, and in Cambridge, where he becomes involved in some skulduggery planned by a group of Fellows of a Senior Common Room with names like Dr C. A. D. Wood (get it?) that reminds one of the world of C. P. Snow. Von Igelfeld is an innocent abroad, never seriously contaminated by whatever evils he encounters.
It’s the time of year when a bit of light reading does no harm. A few hours in the fictional world of McCall Smith won’t make you a better person, nor will it make you see the world in a different way. But the humour is intelligent, there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and you will go on your way smiling.