I have often mentioned on this blog about my admiration for Alexander McCall Smith’s writing. Three shelves in my home library are packed with the author’s books, the sight of which always cheers me up. The mellow blue, green and orange covers and the cheerful designs by Iain McIntosh (who is to McCall Smith what Quentin Blake was to Roald Dahl)
complement the wise, witty and gentle tone of writing.
Professor McCall Smith is most popular for the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels which appear rather simplistic, and evoke values of kindness and humanity besides dispensing dollops of practical advice such as,
“Most problems could be diminished by the drinking of tea and the thinking through of things that could be done while tea was being drunk. And even if that did not solve problems, at least it could put them off for a little while, which we sometimes needed to do, we really did.”
Blue Shoes and Happiness
The Sunday Philosophy Club books are more contemplative, and perhaps a tad unrealistic when compared to the other serial novels of the author. Philosopher Isabel Dalhousie lives a charmed life cushioned by inherited wealth, with a much younger husband, young son, and housekeeper who believes in psychic phenomena. She reflects serenely on various questions pertaining to ethics and morality as she goes about solving mysteries interlinked with classical art in one way or the other. Like most of McCall Smith’s protagonists, Isabel is essentially a kind woman who looks out for her fellow human beings even if it means interfering where she does not have to get involved. But she does it with a great deal of elegance and courtesy. More than anything else, the chronicles of Isabel Dalhousie evoke nostalgia for a charming old world that must have existed once upon a time.
“Isabel had firm views on moral proximity and the obligations it created … If one encounters the need for another, because of who one happens to be, or where one happens to find oneself, and one is in a position to help, then one should do so. It was as simple as that.”
Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
The Scotland Street books paint pictures of modern life through a handful of sharply drawn out characters. The child prodigy Bertie, his mother – the insufferable and Irene, the sharp anthropologist Domenica, the painter Angus Lordie and his gold-toothed dog Cyril, Big Lou – an intelligent and well-read woman who runs a coffee bar, Matthew and Elspeth and their triplets, the genial Duke of Johannesburg and even the narcissistic Bruce come alive through each book of the series, which flow in a lucid stream of events. There is no plot to this series, just a sequence of events both small and big that highlight the lives of the above characters, and others. These books are slices of life that hold within them a great deal of interesting information, anecdotes, insights and commentary into life and the world.
“Do I shock you? I think I do. That’s the problem these days – nobody speaks their mind. No, don’t smile. They really don’t. We’ve been browbeaten into conformity by all sorts of people who tell us what we can and cannot say. Haven’t you noticed it? The tyranny of political correctness. Don’t pass any judgement on anything. Don’t open your trap in
case you offend somebody or other.”
The World According to Bertie
I had greatly enjoyed the Corduroy Mansions series which has been on a long hiatus since the third installment. The characters who lived in and around Corduroy Mansions had been left at significant turning points in their stories, and it would be interesting to find out what happens to each of them.
My favourite among Professor McCall Smith’s work remains the adventures of Professor Dr Dr Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld. A series of novellas which are funny and thought-provoking, these are great satires on academic life.
“He had been thinking of how landscape moulds a language. It was impossible to imagine these hills giving forth anything but the soft syllables of Irish, just as only certain forms of German could be spoken on the high crags of Europe; or Dutch in the muddy, guttural, phlegmish lowlands.”
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
“students had a way of creating a great deal of extra work and were, in general, the bane of a professor’s life. That was why so few German professors saw any students; it was regrettable, but necessary if one’s time was to be protected from unacceptable encroachments.”
The 2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom
To me, Professor McCall Smith is the epitome of a successful author who consistently produces high-quality fiction which is both literary and accessible and is equally popular with both critics and readers.