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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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McCall Smith, Alexander: Portuguese Irregular Verbs

  Amazon  

4 stars

Portuguese Irregular Verbs is one of only three books in Alexander McCall Smith's series featuring Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, author of the philological masterwork that gives this book its title. (See my reviews of the other books in the series, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances.) All of the von Igelfeld books were published in 2003, so that there is arguably no starting point to the series, yet readers would be advised to begin with this volume. The eight stories included in Portuguese Irregular Verbs provide a great deal of background information about our hero. We learn of his acquaintance while a student with Florianus Prinzel, now his colleague at the Institute of Romance Philology in Regensburg, and of his early work as an assistant to a professor of Celtic philology:

"'I couldn't have hoped for a better start to my career,' he confided in Prinzel. 'Vogelsang knows more about past anterior verbs in Early Irish than anybody else in the world.'"

We are given accounts, too, of the very moment when the idea of writing about Portuguese irregular verbs came to Igelfeld, and of his ill-fated near courtship of a certain lady dentist. Von Igelfeld travels to Ireland and Z├╝rick, Siena and Venice and India in these stories. He meets a holy man and (maybe) a murderer, gets a tooth pulled, and provokes a sword fight. Throughout von Igelfeld is characteristically self-important and endearingly out of touch:

"Von Igelfeld sat down in the reception room and picked up the first magazine he saw on the table before him. He paged through it, noticing the pictures of food and clothes. How strange, he thought--what sort of Zeitschrift is this? Do people really read about these matters? He turned a page and began to read something called the Timely Help column. Readers wrote in and asked advice over their problems. Von Igelfeld's eyes opened wide. Did people discuss such things in open print?"

Some of the stories included in the book are better than others. In the most poignant of them ("Portuguese Irregular Verbs") Igelfeld attempts to beef up sales of his monograph to save it from being sold off by shelf foot. His quest for readers leads Igelfeld for the first time to the home of his colleague and nemesis, Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer. The visit is initially infuriating:

"Von Igelfeld peered at the plate above the bell and drew in his breath sharply. Professor Dr Dr D-A. von Unterholzer. What extraordinary, bare-faced cheek! It was little short of an outrage, on three counts, no less. Firstly, Unterholzer did not have two doctorates; there was no doubt about that. Secondly, what was all this nonsense about the hyphen between Detlev and Amadeus? Amadeus was his second name, as the whole world knew, not part of his first. And finally, and perhaps most seriously of all, there was the von. Von Igelfeld felt the anger surge up within him. If people got away with adding vons to their names whenever the mood took them, then that immeasurably reduced the significance of the real vons."

But after a moving discovery while browsing Unterholzer's bookshelves, von Igelfeld finds himself warming to the man.

Alexander McCall Smith is a charming writer, and von Igelfeld a delightful character--pretentious and jealous and deeply flawed, but ultimately capable of goodness. The Igelfeld stories are delicious, quiet reads. It's unfortunate that there aren't more of them.

Review summary: Portuguese Irregular Verbs is one of only three books in Alexander McCall Smith's series featuring Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, author of the philological masterwork that gives this book its title.The eight stories included in this volume provide a great deal of background information about our hero. We learn, for example, about his friendship while a student with Florianus Prinzel, now his colleague. In the most poignant of the stories, Igelfeld attempts to beef up sales of his monograph. His quest for readers leads Igelfeld to the home of his nemesis, Detlev Unterholzer. The visit is initially infuriating, but after a moving discovery while browsing Unterholzer's bookshelves Igelfeld finds himself warming to the man. Alexander McCall Smith is a charming writer, and von Igelfeld a delightful character--pretentious and jealous and deeply flawed, but ultimately capable of goodness. The Igelfeld stories are delicious, quiet reads.

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