Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld is a bit of an academic Charlie Brown. His masterpiece of philology, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, is well-known in philological circles and has sold two hundred copies, but the publishers are about to sell the remainders to a furniture company to furnish the home bookshelves of wealthy patrons. He is the most distinguished professor at the Institute of Romance Philology in Regensburg, but it is his colleague, Professor Dr Dr (honorary) Florianus Prinzel who was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Palermo. And even when Professor Igelfeld finds a dentist who is the most beautiful creature he’s ever had the privilege of allowing to pull his tooth, well, he becomes the victim of the old saw, “Faint heart never won fair maid.”
I must say that after reading Possession by A.S. Byatt, a serious novel about the arcane world of literary scholarship, it was just pure fun to read Portuguese Irregular Verbs, a comedic collection of vignettes that treats the equally arcane world of philological scholarship with a light touch and a Wodehousian humor. Poor Professor Igelfeld is so proud of the “von” in his name and of his almost twelve hundred page epic on the vagaries of Portuguese verbs. Then, he discovers that his book is being used by at least one person as a step-stool, and the institute librarian has plans to move it to the basement storage room.
But Professor Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld is not discouraged for long. He comes back just as Charlie Brown comes back to try one more time to kick the football, and he maintains his dignity in the face of nefarious plots in the library, ominous warnings from an Indian holy man, and danger in the canals of Venice.
This book has two sequels, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and The Villa of Reduced Circumstances. I plan to seek out both of them as soon as possible; Professor von Igelfeld is my new, rather absurd, quixotic hero.
Alexander McCall Smith also wrote the series of detective books that begins with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and another series of mystery stories set in Scotland, starting with The Sunday Philosophy Club. All of his books, all the ones I’ve read so far, are worth your time with delightful characterization and insight into human nature.