Thursday, November 1, 2007

Portugese Irregular Verbs

Portuguese Irregular Verbs on
Alexander McCall Smith, 128 pages, 2003

Recommended as a nice, light read.

A friend issued a challenge regarding this book. In Blogging for a Good Book she wrote

I am going to recommend a book that I have never, ever, ever been able to get anyone to read.
J_ can now say that one person (besides her mother) has read this book on her recommendation. It is, as she promised, a humorous spoof of pompous academics and I quite enjoyed it.

Alexander McCall Smith is a professor of medical law in Scotland so he is entitled to make fun of academics. He arrived on the popular literary scene with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency set in Botswana, Africa where he was once a law professor.

I also rather like the hedgehog on the cover. It relates to the name of the main character of the book, Professor Dr. Moritz-Marie von Igelfeld. Igel is German for hedgehog and a hedgehog is on his family coat of arms. I personally tend to relate hedgehogs to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. If you haven't read any of these books then looking up the hedgehog reference will make you either recoil in horror or send you to the library to find them.

Portuguese Irregular Verbs is the first in the Professor von Ingelfeld series and consists of eight loosely related stories featuring von Igelfeld and occasionally his colleagues, professors Prinzel, and Unterholzer .

von Igelfeld is a professor at the Institute of Romance Philology and author of Portuguese Irregular Verbs
a work of such majesty that it dwarfed all other books in the field ... It had been well received - not that there had ever been the slightest doubt about that - and indeed one reviewer had simply written, `There is nothing more to be said on this subject.
von Igelfeld longs for the recognition that he believes is his due but finds honors and rewards (professional and personal) going to colleagues of lesser stature (in his eyes).

Here are descriptions of three of the stories that I hope will interest you in this series.

In the lead story, The Principles of Tennis, professors von Igelfeld, Prinzel, and Unterholzer, decide to learn tennis. Being academics, they believe that reading the book of rules is sufficient to begin play, much to the amusement of the other guests of the hotel in which they are staying. They eventually give it up as a flawed game. probably due to the book having been written by someone from Cambridge.

Duels, and How to Fight Them, is one of my favorites. von Igelfeld, decides, entirely on outward appearance, that an acquaintance must be a skilled swordsman because he looks like a swordsman, and accepts a duel on his behalf. It does not go well.

Early Irish Pornography is my favorite story. No actual pornography is involved in case someone of a delicate nature is inclined to pick up this book. von Igelfeld is in Ireland assisting Professor Vogelsang who "knows more about past anterior verbs in Early Irish than anyone else in the world." This includes the Irish about whom, von Igelfeld says
Nobody in Ireland knows anything about early Irish. This is a well-established fact.
Part of the amusement in this chapter are the attempts of the ever proper von Igelfeld to come to terms with the casualness of the Irish, particularly in how they address each other.

Vogelsang and von Igelfeld find old Sean who still speaks a version of Early Irish. They knock on his cabin door and are greeted by furious shouting. After several days they have a volume of phonetically recorded Sean's tirades. Later, von Igelfeld notes
'There is some very rare material here,' he said, poring over von Igelfeld's phonetic notations. `Look, that verb over there, which is used only when addressing a pig, which was thought to have disappeared centuries ago.' ...`Everything he says to us is, in fact, obscene. Everything you have recorded here is a swear word of the most vulgar nature. But very old. Very, very old!'
Upon their return to Germany von Igelfeld sets to transcribing his notes. Unfortunately, his landlady happens upon the notes leading to an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Like most of Smith's other works, the von Igelfeld books are a quick read. I didn't time myself, but at 125 pages in length, I don't think it took me much more than an hour to an hour and a half to finish Portuguese Irregular Verbs.