The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom

Rating: ★★★★
Category: Books
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author: Alexander McCall Smith

This guy is definitely one of my favourite authors. I was first introduced to his writing through The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the first in his Botswana series, which follows the fascinating life of the great lady detective Precious Ramotswe, her sidekick Mma Makutsi, and her growing friendship with the mechanic Mr J L B Matekoni. It is so beautifully well written that I feel I know Mma Ramotwe personally, and couldn’t bear to watch the film when it came out, as I didn’t want my image of this woman spoiled by someone else’s interpretation.

I have avidly followed the Botswana series, and was delighted to discover his Isabel Dalhousie series – based in Scotland, and every bit as excellently written as the other one. Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher, the editor of a philosophy publication, but she is also a very inquisitive person and gets into all sorts of interesting situations through poking her nose into suspicious circumstances… a kind of less-old-and-more-Scottish version of Miss Marple…

And now I’ve had the joy of meeting another of his wonderful characters – German this time: Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, the esteemed philologist who is well known (in the tiny academic sphere of Romance Philology) for his work on Portuguese Irregular Verbs. The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom is a trilogy, made up of:
– Portuguese Irregular Verbs
– The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs
– At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances
These books follow von Igelfeld through all sorts of adventures, including his work as a student on obscene words in Ancient Irish, having to give a talk about sausage dogs in America, falling in love with a dentist, having to *gasp* share a bathroom when living temporarily in Cambridge, and… you won’t believe what happened to him in Colombia.

The threads that weave throughout are von Igelfeld’s amazing full-of-himselfness (yes, I made that word up), his determination to always avoid embarrassment at all costs (including whatever bare-faced lying might be required), and his hate-hate relationship with his colleague Prof Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer, who “had the double misfortune of coming from an obscure potato-growing area somewhere, a place completely without consequence, and of being burdened in this life with a large and inelegant nose. This, of course, was not something for which he could be blamed, but one might certainly criticise him, thought von Igelfeld, for carrying his nose in the way he did… [he] thrust his nose forward shamelessly, as might an anteater, with the result that it was the first thing one saw when he appeared anywhere. It was exactly the wrong thing to do if one had a nose like that.”

For me the very very best point in the whole trilogy was von Igelfeld’s report upon returning from Cambridge – his description of the way the English speak, often saying completely the opposite of what they mean (as in, “charming weather we’re having” when it’s absolutely abysmal outside). He and his colleague can’t understand why they do that, and suggest it might be pathological. And I don’t remember if it was before or after this bit that they sighed together about the sad but well known fact that the English have no sense of humour ;)

2 thoughts on “The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom

  1. i must track down both of these characters. my husband introduced me to precious ramotswe a few years ago and i was delighted. i am also a miss marple fan while coming from a family heavy in scottish/english ancestry so perhaps there is another delight here for me. while german names can sometimes slow me down in reading (russian ones, too) alexander mccall smith has a style of phrasing that reminds me of t r pearson. pearson once started a book with a single sentence that carried on for 2 pages. the second sentence was 3 words. that's a sense of humour i can appreciate. smith seems to possess something very similar.birthday is coming up in about 6 weeks, must put notion into beloved's head. oooh, i love anticipation.

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