Professor Dr von Igelfeld / Portuguese Irregular Verbs Series

"No writer in recent times has been a more prolific dispenser of wit"—James Naughtie

Titles in this series

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil

ISBN: 9780307279897
Publisher: Anchor Books (Penguin Random House)
Publication Date: first published 01 January 2013 by Anchor Books (Penguin Random House)
The fourth book in the Von Igelfeld / Portuguese Irregular Verbs series

 

Life is so unfair, and sends many things to try Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. There is the undeserved rise of his rival (and owner of a one-legged dachshund), Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer; the perpetual ramblings of the librarian, Herr Huber; and the condescension of his colleagues with regard to his unmarried state. But when his friend Ophelia Prinzel takes it upon herself to match-make, and duly produces a cheerful heiress with her own Schloss, it appears that the professor’s true worth is about to be recognised.

Reviews

“Delightfully silly … [von Igelfeld] is a literary Mr. Magoo”
Washington Post

Portuguese Irregular Verbs

ISBN: 9781400077083
Publisher: Anchor Books (Penguin Random House)
Publication Date: first published 28 December 2004 by Anchor Books (Penguin Random House)
The first book in the Von Igelfeld / Portuguese Irregular Verbs series

 

In the first in this humorous and heart-warming series, Professor Dr von Igelfeld learns to play tennis and forces a college friend to enter into a duel that results in a nipped nose. He takes a field trip to Ireland where he becomes acquainted with the rich world of archaic Irishisms, and develops an aching infatuation with a dentist-fatale. Along the way, he takes two ill-fated Italian sojourns, the first merely uncomfortable, the second definitely dangerous.

Maddening and hugely entertaining, von Igelfeld is an inspired comic creation.

Reviews

“Alexander McCall Smith possesses a seemingly limitless imagination”
Chicago Sun-Times
“Somewhat similar in tone to E. F. Benson’s Lucia books … The world of the institute, like Lucia’s English village of Riseholme, is a small and privileged one, and, as in those books, it is a place where much is made of nothing—to great comic effect”
The New York Times Book Review

Excerpt

Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld often reflected on how fortunate he was to be exactly who he was, and nobody else. When one paused to think of who one might have been had the accident of birth not happened precisely as it did, then, well, one could be quite frankly appalled. Take his colleague Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer, for instance. Firstly, there was the name: to be called Detlev…

Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld often reflected on how fortunate he was to be exactly who he was, and nobody else. When one paused to think of who one might have been had the accident of birth not happened precisely as it did, then, well, one could be quite frankly appalled. Take his colleague Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer, for instance. Firstly, there was the name: to be called Detlev was a misfortune, but to add that ridiculous Mozartian pretension to it, and then to culminate in Unterholzer was to gild a turnip. But if one then considered Unterholzer’s general circumstances, then Pelion was surely piled upon Ossa. Unterholzer 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. A difficult nose, which can afflict anybody, may be kept in the background by a modest disposition of the head; Unterholzer, by contrast, thrust his nose forward shamelessly, as might an ant-eater, 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.

The von Igelfeld nose, by contrast, was entirely appropriate. It was not small, but then a small nose is perhaps as much of a misfortune as a large nose, lending the wearer an appearance of pettiness or even irrelevance. Von Igelfeld’s nose tended slightly to the aquiline, which was completely becoming for the scion of so distinguished a family. The von Igelfeld name was an honourable one: Igel meant hedgehog in German, and von Igelfeld, therefore, was hedgehogfield, an irreproachable territorial reference that was reflected in the family coat of arms—a hedgehog recumbent upon a background of vert. Unterholzer, of course, might snigger at the hedgehog, but what could he do but snigger, given that he had no armorial claims, whatever his pretensions in that direction might be.

But even if von Igelfeld was relieved that he was not Unterholzer, then he had to admit to himself that he would have been perfectly happy to have been Professor Dr Dr (honoris causa) Florianus Prinzel, another colleague at the Institute of Romance Philology. Prinzel was a fine man and a considerable scholar, whom von Igelfeld had met when they were both students, and whom he had long unconditionally admired. Prinzel was the athlete-poet; von Igelfeld the scholar—well, scholar-scholar one would probably have to say. If von Igelfeld had been asked to stipulate a Platonic von Igelfeld, an ideal template for all von Igelfelds, then he would have chosen Prinzel for this without the slightest hesitation.

Of the three professors, von Igelfeld was undoubtedly the most distinguished. He was the author of a seminal work on Romance philology, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, a work of such majesty that it dwarfed all other books in the field. It was a lengthy book of almost twelve hundred pages, and was the result of years of research into the etymology and vagaries of Portuguese verbs. 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. Nothing.” Von Igelfeld had taken this compliment in the spirit in which it had been intended, but there was in his view a great deal more to be said, largely by way of exposition of some of the more obscure or controversial points touched upon in the book, and for many years he continued to say it. This was mostly done at conferences, where von Igelfeld’s papers on Portuguese irregular verbs were often the highlight of proceedings. Not that this eminence always bore the fruit that might be expected: unfortunately it was Prinzel, not von Igelfeld, who had received the honorary doctorate from the University of Palermo, and many people, including von Igelfeld, thought that this might be a case of mistaken identity. After all, from the viewpoint of the fairly diminutive Sicilian professors who bestowed the honour, three tall Germans might have been difficult to tell apart. These doubts, however, were never aired, as that would have been a breach of civility and a threat to the friendship. But just as the doubts were never mentioned, neither was the honorary doctorate.

At the Annual Congress of Romance Philology in Zürich, the three professors decided to stay in a small village on the edge of the lake. There was an excellent train which took them into the city each morning for the meeting, and in the evening they could even return by the regular boat, which called at the jetty no more than five minutes from the hotel. It was altogether a much more satisfactory arrangement than staying in Zürich itself, surrounded by banks and expensive watch shops. As von Igelfeld remarked to the others: “Have you noticed how Zürich ticks? Klummit, klummit, ding! I could never sleep in such a town.”

The Hotel Carl-Gustav, in which the three professors stayed, was a large old-fashioned establishment, much favoured by families from Zürich who wanted to get away, but not too far away. Anxious bankers, into whose very bones the Swiss work ethic had penetrated, stayed there for their holidays. It was highly convenient for them, as they could tell their wives they were going for a walk in the hotel grounds and then slip off to the railway station and be in their offices in Zürich within twenty minutes. They could then return two hours later, to pretend that they had been in the woods or at the lakeside; whereas in reality they had been accepting deposits and discounting bills of exchange. In this way, certain Zürich financiers had acquired the reputation of never going on holiday at all, which filled their rivals with feelings of dread and guilt.

Prinzel had arrived first, and taken the best room, the one with the uninterrupted view of the lake. He had felt slightly uneasy about this, as it was a room which should really have gone to von Igelfeld, who always got the best of everything on the strength of Portuguese Irregular Verbs. For this reason Prinzel was careful not to mention the view and contrived to keep von Igelfeld out of his room so he could not see it for himself.
Unterholzer, who always got the worst of what was on offer, had a slightly gloomy room at the side of the hotel, above the dining room, and his view was that of the hotel tennis court.

“I look out onto the tennis court,” he announced one evening as the three gathered for a glass of mineral water on the hotel terrace.

“Ah!” said von Igelfeld. “And have you seen people playing on this tennis court?”

“I saw four Italian guests using it,” said Prinzel. “They played a very energetic game until one of them appeared to have a heart attack and they stopped.”

The three professors contemplated this remarkable story for a few moments. Even here, in these perfect surroundings, where everything was so safe, so assured, mortality could not be kept at bay. The Swiss could guarantee everything, could co-ordinate anything—but ultimately mortality was no respecter of time-tables.
Then Prinzel had an idea. Tennis did not look too difficult; the long summer evening stretched out before them, and the court, since the sudden departure of the Italians, was empty.

“We could, perhaps, have a game of tennis ourselves,” he suggested.

The others looked at him.

“I’ve never played,” said von Igelfeld.

“Nor I,” said Unterholzer. “Chess, yes. Tennis, no.”

“But that’s no reason not to play,” von Igelfeld added quickly. “Tennis, like any activity, can be mastered if one knows the principles behind it. In that respect it must be like language. The understanding of simple rules produces an understanding of a language. What could be simpler?”

Unterholzer and Prinzel agreed, and Prinzel was dispatched to speak to the manager of the hotel to find out whether tennis equipment, and a book of the rules of tennis, could be borrowed. The manager was somewhat surprised at the request for the book, but in an old hotel most things can be found and he eventually came up with an ancient dog-eared handbook from the games cupboard. This was The Rules of Lawn Tennis by Captain Geoffrey Pembleton BA (Cantab.), tennis Blue, sometime county champion of Cambridgeshire; and published in 1923, before the tie-breaker was invented.

Armed with Pembleton’s treatise, described by von Igelfeld, to the amusement of the others, as “this great work of Cambridge scholarship”, the three professors strode confidently onto the court. Captain Pembleton had thoughtfully included several chapters describing tennis technique, and here all the major strokes were illustrated with little dotted diagrams showing the movement of the arms and the disposition of the body.
It took no more than ten minutes for von Igelfeld and Prinzel to feel sufficiently confident to begin a game. Unterholzer sat on a chair at the end of the net, and declared himself the umpire. The first service, naturally, was taken by von Igelfeld, who raised his racquet in the air as recommended by Captain Pembleton, and hit the ball in the direction of Prinzel.

The tennis service is not a simple matter, and unfortunately von Igelfeld did not manage to get any of his serves over the net. Everything was a double fault.

“Love, 15; Love 30; Love 40; Game to Professor Dr Prinzel!” called out Unterholzer. “Professor Dr Prinzel to serve!”

Prinzel, who had been waiting patiently to return von Igelfeld’s serve, his feet positioned in exactly the way advised by Captain Pembleton, now quickly consulted the book to refresh his memory. Then, throwing the tennis ball high into the air, he brought his racquet down with convincing force and drove the ball into the net. Undeterred, he tried again, and again after that, but the score remained obstinately one-sided.

“Love, 15; Love 30; Love 40; Game to Professor Dr von Igelfeld!” Unterholzer intoned. “Professor Dr von Igelfeld to serve!”

And so it continued, as the number of games mounted up. Neither player ever succeeded in winning a game other than by the default of the server. At several points the ball managed to get across the net, and on one or two occasions it was even returned; but this was never enough to result in the server’s winning a game. Unterholzer continued to call out the score and attracted an occasional sharp glance from von Igelfeld, who eventually suggested that the Rules of Tennis be consulted to see who should win in such circumstances.

Unfortunately there appeared to be no answer. Captain Pembleton merely said that after six games had been won by one player this was a victory—provided that such a player was at least two games ahead of his opponent. If he was not in such a position, then the match must continue until such a lead was established. The problem with this, though, was that von Igelfeld and Prinzel, never winning a service, could never be more than one game ahead of each other.

This awkward, seemingly irresoluble difficulty seemed to all of them to be a gross flaw in the theoretical structure of the game.

“This is quite ridiculous,” snorted von Igelfeld. “A game must have a winner—everybody knows that—and yet this ... this stupid book makes no provision for moderate players like ourselves!”

“I agree,” said Prinzel, tossing down his racquet. “Unterholzer what about you?”

“I’m not interested in playing such a flawed game,” said Unterholzer, with a dismissive gesture towards The Rules of Lawn Tennis. “So much for Cambridge!”

They trooped off the tennis court, not noticing the faces draw back rapidly from the windows. Rarely had the Hotel Carl-Gustav provided such entertainment for its guests.

“Well,” said Prinzel. “I’m rather hot after all that sport. I could do with a swim.”

“A good idea,” said von Igelfeld. “Perhaps we should do that.”

“Do you swim?” asked Unterholzer, rather surprised by the sudden burst of physical activity.

“Not in practice,” said von Igelfeld. “But it has never looked difficult to me. One merely extends the arms in the appropriate motion and then retracts them, thereby propelling the body through the water.”

“That’s quite correct,” said Prinzel. “I’ve seen it done many times. In fact, this morning some of the other guests were doing it from the hotel jetty. We could borrow swimming costumes from the manager.”

“Then let’s all go and swim,” said von Igelfeld, enthusiastically. “Dinner’s not for another hour or so, and it would refresh us all,” adding, with a glance at Unterholzer, “players and otherwise.”

The waters were cool and inviting. Out on the lake, the elegant white yachts dipped their tall sails in the breeze from the mountains. From where they stood on the jetty, the three professors could, by craning their necks, see the point where Jung in his study had pondered our collective dreams. As von Igelfeld had pointed out, swimming was simple, in theory.

Inside the Hotel Carl-Gustav, the watching guests waited, breathless in their anticipation.

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs

ISBN: 9781400095087
Publisher: Anchor Books (Penguin Random House)
Publication Date: first published 28 December 2004 by Anchor Books (Penguin Random House)
The second book in the Von Igelfeld / Portuguese Irregular Verbs series

 

Mistaken for a veterinarian and not wanting to call attention to the faux pas, Professor Dr von Igelfeld begins practicing veterinary medicine without a license. After operating on a friend’s dachshund to dramatic and unfortunate effect, the hapless academic finds himself transporting relics for a schismatically challenged Coptic prelate while being pursued by marriage-minded widows on board a Mediterranean cruise ship.

Reviews

“Professor von Igelfeld is a comic gem … McCall Smith skewers the pomposity of academic pretension with an irresistible, deadpan insouciance”
BlogCritics
“McCall Smith happily pushes every scene to its Monty Python-esque limit”
The Georgia Straight

Excerpt

Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, author of that great triumph of Germanic scholarship, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, had never set foot on American shores. It is true that that he had corresponded from time to time with a number of noted American philologists—Professor Giles Reid of Cornell, for example, and Professor Paul Lafouche III of Tulane—and it is also true that they had often pressed him to attend the annual meeting…

Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, author of that great triumph of Germanic scholarship, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, had never set foot on American shores. It is true that that he had corresponded from time to time with a number of noted American philologists—Professor Giles Reid of Cornell, for example, and Professor Paul Lafouche III of Tulane—and it is also true that they had often pressed him to attend the annual meeting of the American Modern Languages Association, but he had never been in a position to accept. Or so von Igelfeld said: the reality was he had never wanted to go and had inevitably come up with some excuse to turn down the invitations.

“I have absolutely no interest in the New World,” von Igelfeld said dismissively to Professor Dr Dr Florianus Prinzel. “Is there anything there that we can’t find in Germany? Anything at all? Can you name one thing?”

Prinzel thought for a moment. Cowboys? He was a secret admirer of cowboy films but he could never mention this to von Igelfeld, who, as far as he knew, had never watched a film in his life, let alone one featuring cowboys. Prinzel rather liked the idea of America, and would have been delighted to be invited there, preferably to somewhere in the West.

Then, one morning, Prinzel’s invitation arrived—and from no less an institution that the ideally-situated University of San Antonio. This was a city redolent of cowboys and the Mexican border and Prinzel immediately telephoned von Igelfeld to tell him the good news.

Von Igelfeld congratulated him warmly, but when he replaced the receiver his expression had hardened. It was quite unacceptable that Prinzel should go to America before he did. After all, the Americans might think that Prinzel, rather than he, von Igelfeld, represented German philology, and this, frankly, would never do. Quite apart from that, if Prinzel went first, they would never hear the end of it.

“I have no alternative but to go there,” he said to himself. “And I shall have to make sure that I go before Prinzel. It’s simply a matter of duty.”

Von Igelfeld found himself in a difficult position. He could hardly approach any of his American friends and solicit an invitation, particularly after he had so consistently turned them down in the past. And yet the chance that an invitation would arrive of its own accord was extremely slender.

Over coffee at the Institute the next day, he directed a casual question at Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer.

“Tell me, Herr Unterholzer,” he said. “If you were to want to go to America to give a lecture, how would you ... well, how would you get yourself invited, so to speak?” Quickly adding: “Not that I would ever be in such a position myself, but you yourself could be, could you not?”

Unterholzer had an immediate answer.

“I should contact the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst,” he said. “I should tell them who I was and I should ask them to arrange a lecture somewhere in America. That is what they are paid to do.”

“I see,” said von Igelfeld. “That would no doubt save embarrassment.”

“Of course,” said Unterholzer. “They are experts in finding places for German academics to go and lecture to other people, whether or not they want to hear them. They are very persuasive people. That is how I went to Buenos Aires and gave my lecture there. It really works.”

And indeed it did. The local director of the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst was delighted to hear from von Igelfeld the following day and assured him that a scholar of his eminence would be snapped up should he deign to leave Germany. It was only a question of finding the right institution and making the detailed arrangements.

“Rest assured that you will be invited within days,” von Igelfeld was assured. “Just leave it all in our capable hands.”

Thus von Igelfeld found himself arriving in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a charming college town nestling in the Ozark Mountains, seat of the University of Arkansas, or at least of that part not located in the minor campus at Little Rock. When the whole idea was conceived, he had not envisaged going to Arkansas. He had imagined that his destination might be California, or New York, perhaps, but one American state was very much the same as another—at least in von Igelfeld’s view, and it really made no difference. The important thing was that he was going to America, and a good two weeks ahead of Prinzel.

Von Igelfeld’s host greeted him warmly. They had insisted that he stay with them, rather than in a hotel, and so von Igelfeld found himself installed in the sleeping porch of a traditional Ozark farmhouse on the edge of the town, the home of Professor R. B. Leflar. After he had unpacked, he and von Igelfeld sat down on the swing-seat on the front verandah and discussed his programme. There would be visits to the surrounding area the next day, promised Professor Leflar, and the day after that a set-piece lecture had been planned before an open audience.

That night, after dinner, von Igelfeld retired to his bed and looked out through the gauze-covered porch windows. The house was surrounded by mixed forest, oak trees and sycamores, and their shapes, dark silhouettes, swayed in the breeze. And there, he thought, there’s the moon, rising slowly over the trees like a giant lantern. What were they planning for him tomorrow? Would they show him their libraries? Were there manuscripts? What about Leflar’s maternal grandfather, the adventurer, Charles Finger? He had been in South America and may have come across some Portuguese manuscripts of note, which could well be in the attic above his very head. Arkansas, it seemed, was rich in possibilities for the philologist.

The next morning he ate a hearty breakfast with Professor and Mrs Leflar before they set off.

“We’re heading north,” said his host. “We’ll show you a typical hog operation.”

“Most intriguing,” said von Igelfeld. “I am always interested in ... ” He paused. What was he interested in? Philology? Portuguese verbs? “I am always interested in everything.”

They drove out of town, following a road that wound up into the hills. It was a gentle landscape—limestone hills which had been softened by the action of the rain; meandering valleys dotted with farmhouses under shady oak trees. Von Igelfeld had not thought of America as being at all like this; there were no dry plains, no glittering Dallas in the distance, no leafy suburbia with neat white houses. This could have been Bavaria, or even Austria.

Suddenly Leflar turned off the road and followed a dusty track leading towards a large, unpainted barn.

“Here we are,” he said. “They’re expecting us.”

The farmer came out and shook von Igelfeld’s hand. Von Igelfeld sniffed the air; it was distinctly malodorous.

“This way,” said the farmer. “The hogs are in here.”

The farmer opened a door in the side of the barn and ushered von Igelfeld inside. For the next half hour, they wandered between rows of large sties, each surmounted by a large sun lamp and each filled with a squealing mass of pigs. The farmer demonstrated the automatic feeding system and showed von Igelfeld the blood-sampling equipment.

“We’re mighty careful about viruses here,” he said. “You’d know all about that.”

Von Igelfeld looked at the farmer. Did pigs get colds, he wondered?

“You have to be careful about viruses,” he agreed. “I myself always use vitamin C during the winter ... ”

He did not finish. “You’re right,” said the farmer. “Each pig gets sixty IU vitamin C every morning with its food. And then we given them a shot of B group when they’re seven weeks old. Some people are trying a short course of potassium a week before market. What do you think?”

Von Igelfeld shook his head. “You have to be careful,” he said. “I would never use potassium myself.”

The farmer listened intently. ‘You hear that, Professor Leflar? No potassium. I’m inclined to agree with our visitor. You tell those folks down in Little Rock, no potassium—the Germans recommend against it.”

Leflar nodded. “Could be,” he said.

An hour later they set off again. After a brief lunch, they made their way to a chicken farm, where von Igelfeld was shown the latest methods of production by a farmer who spoke in such a way that he could understand not one word. Then there was a call at some sort of animal laboratory, which interested von Igelfeld very little. Then home to dinner.

That night, in the silence of his sleeping porch, von Igelfeld reflected on his day. It had been interesting, in its way, but he wondered why they had chosen to show him all those farms and animals. Animals were all very well; indeed he had once written a small paper on the nature of collective nouns used for groups of animals, but that was about as far as his interest went. Still, this was America, and he assumed that this was what they laid on for all their visitors.

The lecture was to be at six thirty, following a short reception. When von Igelfeld arrived with Leflar the audience was largely assembled, milling about the ante-room of the lecture theatre. Glasses of wine had been provided, and plates of snacks were being circulated by waitresses dressed in black and white.

Everybody seemed keen to talk to von Igelfeld.

“We’ve all heard about your work,” said one man in a lightweight blue suit. “In fact, I’ve got an off-print here which I thought you might care to sign.”

“I’d be happy to do so,” said von Igelfeld. And what about Portuguese Irregular Verbs? he reflected. Were there copies even here in Fayetteville, amongst these charming hills?

The man in the blue suit produced a pamphlet from his pocket.

“I was sent this by a colleague in Germany,” he said. “He thought that I might find it useful. And I sure did.”

Von Igelfeld took the pamphlet. The cover was unfamiliar; all his off-prints from the Zeitschrift were bound in a plain white cover. This one was blue.

He adjusted his reading glasses and looked at the title page.

Further Studies of Canine Pulmonary Efficiency, he read. And then: by Professor Martin Igelfold, Universtiy of Münster.

Von Igelfeld stared at the page for a moment, his heart a cold stone within him. It was immediately clear to him what had happened. They thought that he was Professor Igelfold, Dean of Veterinary Medicine at Münster. Von Igelfeld knew of Igelfold’s existence, as he had seen the remarkably similar name in the newspaper during an anthrax scare. But he had never dreamed that there would be confusion on such a heroic scale! Those foolish, bumbling people at the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst had mixed them up and sent him off to lecture on veterinary medicine in Arkansas! It was a situation of such terrible embarrassment that for a moment he hardly dared contemplate it. And the lecture was about to begin, before all these people—these expectant scientists, veterinarians and dog breeders—and he had proposed to talk about modal verbs in the writings of Fernando Pessoa.

Almost without thinking, he signed the pamphlet and returned it to the other man.

“We’re so honoured to have you here in Fayetteville,” said the man. “We understand that you are the world authority on the sausage dog. We are looking forward to what you have to say to us tonight. Sausage dogs are quite popular here. German settlers brought them with them in the late nineties and have bred them ever since.”

Von Igelfeld stared at him in horror. Sausage dogs! He was expected to talk about sausage dogs, a subject on which he knew absolutely nothing. It was a nightmare; like one of those dreams where you imagine that you are about to take the lead part in a Greek play or where you are sitting down to write an examination in advanced calculus. But he was awake, and it was really happening.

Leflar was at his side now.

“Almost time,” he said. “Should I ask people to move into the hall?”

“Not yet,” said von Igelfeld, looking about him desperately. “I have so many colleagues yet to meet.”

He detached himself from Leflar and made his way over to a knot of people standing near the door. This proved to be a group of veterinary surgeons who welcomed him to their circle and refilled his glass from a bottle of wine which one of them was holding.

It was in this group that one of the guests drew him aside and engaged him in distinctly unsettling conversation.

“I was sorry to read about your death,” said the guest.

Von Igelfeld looked at him in astonishment.

“My death?”

“Yes,” said the guest. “There was a small item in the International Veterinary Review this week reporting the very recent death of Professor Igelfold. There was a glowing obituary.”

Von Igelfeld stared glassily at the man before him, who was surveying him over his drink.

“I did not read it,” he said weakly.

“Not surprising,” said the man. “One rarely has the pleasure of reading one’s own obituary.”

Von Igelfeld laughed, mopping his brow with his handkerchief.

“Very amusing,” he said. “And you are so right!”

“So this is a posthumous lecture,” said the man.

“Well,” said von Igelfeld. “It would appear to be something of that sort.”

The man looked pensive. “I must say that you don’t look at all like your photograph. They published one with the obituary, you know.”

Von Igelfeld gripped at the stem of his glass. “The camera is often deceptive, I find.”

“You were a smaller man in the photograph,” went on the other. “Not nearly so tall.”

“I see,” said von Igelfeld icily. “A smaller photograph, perhaps? Anyway, do you not know that in Germany we sometimes publish obituaries before a person’s demise. It happens quite often. This is because we Germans are so efficient. An early obituary means that there is never a backlog. That, I suspect, is the explanation.”

There was a silence. Then von Igelfeld spoke again.

“You must excuse me,” he said. “I am feeling rather tired.”

“Quite understandable,” muttered the man. “In the circumstances.”

But von Igelfeld did not hear him. He had moved away and was looking about him. The simplest solution was to escape, to vanish entirely. If he managed to get out of the hall he could summon a taxi, go back to the Leflar house, creep in through the back and reclaim his belongings. Then he could make his way to the airport and await the first flight out of town, wherever it happened to be going.

The front door was impossible. Everybody would see him leaving and somebody was bound to come after him to enquire where he was going. But there was another door at the side of the room, a door out of which it looked much easier to sneak. He moved over towards it, smiling at people as he walked past, nodding his head in acknowledgement of their greetings. Then, having reached the door, he discreetly turned the handle and pushed against it.

“Oh, there you are,” said Leflar. “Is everything all right?”

“I am very well,” said von Igelfeld. “I was just trying ... ” His voice faded away.

Leflar glanced anxiously at his watch.

“We don’t have much time,” he said. “The hall has to be used for another purpose in twenty-five minutes.”

“Please don’t hurry,” said von Igelfeld. “The real point of these meetings is that there should be personal contact and I am making sure that this happens by talking to all these excellent people.”

A few minutes later, von Igelfeld looked out over the faces of his audience. They had enjoyed the reception, and the supply of wine had been liberal. He, too, had taken several glasses and had recovered after the shock of discovering that he was dead. Now it now seemed to him that to talk for—what time remained? Ten minutes at the most—about sausage dogs would not be an impossible task. And by now he had remembered that Zimmermann himself had been in such a situation some years before, when he had been mistaken for another Zimmermann and had been obliged to deliver a lecture on developments in exhaust systems, a subject of which he was completely ignorant. And yet had not he done so, and with distinction? With such distinction, indeed, that the resulting paper had been published in the Karlsruher Forum für Moderne Auspuffkonstruktion? If Zimmermann could do it, then surely he could do so too.

“The sausage dog,” he began, “is a remarkable dog. It differs from other dogs in respect of its shape, which is similar to that of a sausage. It belongs to that genus of dogs marked out by their proximity to the ground. In most cases this is because of the shortness of the legs. If a dog has short legs, we have found that the body is almost invariably close to the ground. Yet this does not prevent the sausage dog from making its way about its business with considerable dispatch.”

He glanced at his watch. One minute had passed, leaving nine minutes to go. There would be one minute, or perhaps two, for thanks at the end, which meant that he now had to speak for no more than seven minutes. But what more was there to say about sausage dogs? Were they good hunting dogs? He believed they were. Perhaps he could say something about the role of the sausage dog in the rural economy, how they had their place and how unwise it was to introduce new, untested breeds.

This went down well with the audience, and there were murmurs of agreement from corners of the room. Emboldened, von Igelfeld moved on to the topic of whether there should be restrictions on the free movement of sausage dogs. Should sausage dog breeders not be allowed to export animals with as few restrictions as possible? Again the audience agreed with von Igelfeld when he said that this was a good idea.

There were several other points before it was time to stop. After thanking Leflar and the University of Arkansas, von Igelfeld sat down, to thunderous applause.

Leflar leant over to von Igelfeld as the sound of clapping filled the room.

“Well done,” he said. “That went down very well. Guest speakers are sometimes far too technical for an open lecture like this. You hit just the right note.”

Von Igelfeld nodded gravely.

“I hope I lived up to expectations,” he said modestly.

“Oh you did,” said Leflar. “It was a resounding success. Even if you were somewhat brief.”

From his seat on the aeroplane, von Igelfeld looked down at the Ozarks as they became smaller and smaller beneath him. It was a good place, America, and Arkansas was a good state. He had been invited to return, but how could he, particularly when the news of Professor Igelfold’s death became widespread? Besides, he reflected, he had nothing further to say about sausage dogs; indeed he had already said more than enough.

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances

ISBN: 9781400095094
Publisher: Anchor Books (Penguin Random House)
Publication Date: first published 28 December 2004 by Anchor Books (Penguin Random House)
The third book in the Von Igelfeld / Portuguese Irregular Verbs series

 

While on a sabbatical at the prestigious Cambridge University, ill-fated Professor Dr von Igelfeld gets caught up in a nasty case of academic intrigue. When he returns to Regensburg he is confronted with the thrilling news that someone from a foreign embassy has actually checked his masterpiece, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, out of the Institute’s Library. But that particular revelation leads to him becoming caught up in intrigue of a different sort on a visit to Bogota, Colombia.

Reviews

“A comedic jewel … Attains a level of sublime nonsense reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Bananas”
THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

Excerpt

Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s birthday fell on the first of May. He would not always have remembered it had the anniversary not occurred on May Day itself; as a small boy he had been convinced that the newspaper photographs of parades in Red Square, those intimidating displays of missiles, and the grim-faced line-up of Politburo officials, all had something to do with the fact that he was turning six…

Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s birthday fell on the first of May. He would not always have remembered it had the anniversary not occurred on May Day itself; as a small boy he had been convinced that the newspaper photographs of parades in Red Square, those intimidating displays of missiles, and the grim-faced line-up of Politburo officials, all had something to do with the fact that he was turning six or seven, or whatever birthday it was. Such is the complete confidence of childhood that we are each of us at the centre of the world—a conviction out of which not all of us grow, and those who do grow out of it sometimes do so only with some difficulty. And this is so very understandable; as Auden remarked, how fascinating is that class of which I am the only member.

Nobody observed von Igelfeld’s birthday now. It was true that he was not entirely alone in the world—there were cousins in Graz, but they were on the Austrian side of the family and the two branches of von Igelfelds, separated by both distance and nationality, had drifted apart. There was an elderly aunt in Munich, and another aged female relative in Baden Baden, but they had both forgotten more or less everything and it had been many years since they had sent him a birthday card. If he had married, as he had firmly intended to do, then he undoubtedly would now have been surrounded by a loving wife and children, who would have made much of his birthday; but his resolution to propose to a charming dentist, Dr Lisbetta von Brautheim, had been thwarted by his colleague, Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer. That was a humiliation which von Igelfeld had found hard to bear. That Unterholzer of all people—a man whose work on the orthography of Romance languages was barely mentioned these days; a man whose idea of art was coloured reproductions of views of the Rhine; a man whose nose was so large and obtrusive—vulgar even—the sort of nose one saw on head-waiters; that Unterholzer should succeed in marrying Dr von Brautheim when he himself had planned to do so, was quite unacceptable. But the fact remained that there was nothing one could do about it; Unterholzer’s birthday never went unmarked. Indeed, there were always cakes at coffee time in the Institute on Unterholzer’s birthday, made by Frau Dr Unterholzer herself; as Unterholzer pointed out, she might be a dentist but she had a sweet tooth nonetheless and made wonderful, quite wonderful cakes and pastries. And then there were the cards prominently displayed on his desk, not only from Unterholzer’s wife but from the receptionist and dental nurse in her practice. What did they care about Unterholzer? von Igelfeld asked himself. They could hardly like him, and so they must have sent the cards out of deference to their employer. That was not only wrong—a form of exploitation indeed—but it was also sickeningly sentimental, and if that was what happened on birthdays then he was best off without one, or at least best off without one to which anybody paid any attention.

On the first of May in question, von Igelfeld was in the Institute coffee room before anybody else. They normally all arrived at the same time, with a degree of punctuality which would have been admired by Immanuel Kant himself, but on that particular morning von Igelfeld would treat himself to an extra ten minutes’ break. Besides, if he arrived early, he could sit in the chair which Unterholzer normally contrived to occupy, and which von Igelfeld believed was more comfortable than any other in the room. As the best chair in the room it should by rights have gone to him, as he was, after all, the senior scholar, but these things were difficult to articulate in a formal way and he had been obliged to tolerate Unterholzer’s occupation of the chair. It would have been different, of course, if Professor Dr Dr Florianus Prinzel had taken that chair; von Igelfeld would have been delighted to let Prinzel have it, as he undoubtedly deserved it. He and Prinzel had been friends together at Heidelberg, in their youth, and he still thought of Prinzel as the scholar athlete, the noble youth, deserving of every consideration. Yes, there was little he would not have done for Prinzel, and it was a matter of secret regret to von Igelfeld that he had never actually been called upon to save Prinzel’s life. That would have secured Prinzel’s undying admiration and indebtedness, which von Igelfeld would have worn lightly. “It was nothing,” he imagined himself saying. “One’s own personal safety is irrelevant in such circumstances. Believe me, I know that you would have done the same for me.”

In fact, the only time that Prinzel had been in danger von Igelfeld had either been responsible for creating the peril in the first place, or Prinzel had been able to handle the situation quite well without any assistance from him. In their student days in Heidelberg, von Igelfeld had unwisely persuaded Prinzel to engage in a duel with a shady member of some student Korps, and this, of course, had been disastrous. The very tip of Prinzel’s nose had been sliced off by his opponent’s sword, and although it had been sewn back on in hospital, the doctor, who had been slightly drunk, had sewn it on upside down. Prinzel had never said anything about this, being too gentlemanly to complain about such an affair (no true gentleman ever notices it if the tip of his nose is sliced off), and indeed it had occurred to von Igelfeld that he had not even been aware of what had happened. But it remained a reminder of an unfortunate incident, and von Igelfeld preferred not to think about it.

That was one incident. The other occasion on which Prinzel had been in danger was when von Igelfeld had accompanied him and his wife to Venice, at a time when the city was threatened by an insidious corruption. The corruption turned out not to be cholera, as so graphically portrayed by Thomas Mann, but radioactivity in the water, and Prinzel had become mildly radioactive as a result of swimming off the Lido. Again von Igelfeld was unable to come to the rescue, and Prinzel, quite calmly, had taken the situation in hand and returned to Germany for iodine treatment at the University of Mainz. There he had been decontaminated and pronounced safe, or as safe as one could be after ingesting small quantities of strontium-90.

Thoughts of radioactivity, however, were far from von Igelfeld’s mind as he enjoyed his first cup of coffee in the Institute coffee room and glanced at the headlines in the Frankfurter Allgemeine. There was nothing of note, of course. Industrialists were sounding off about interest rates, as they always did, and there was a picture of an earnest finance minister pointing a finger at a chart. The chart could have been upside down, like Prinzel’s nose, for all that von Igelfeld cared; matters of this sort left him unmoved. It was the job of politicians and bankers to run the economy and he could not understand why they often failed to do so in a competent way. It was, he assumed, something to do with their general venality and with the fact that quite the wrong type went into politics and finance. But it seemed as if there would never be any change in that, and so they would have to put up with these insolent people and with their persistent mismanagement. Far more interesting was the front-page item about a row which was developing over the appointment of a new director to a museum in Wiesbaden.

The new director, a man of modern tastes, had thrown out the old cases of fossils and rocks and had replaced them with installations by contemporary artists. This had the effect of confusing those people who came to the museum hoping to see items of interest and found only empty galleries with a small pile of wooden boxes in a corner or a heap of old clothing, artistically arranged under a skylight and labelled: The Garments of Identity. These visitors peered into the wooden boxes, hoping to see fossils or rocks within, and found that they were empty, and that the boxes themselves were the exhibit. And as for the piles of clothing, what was the difference between them and the museum cloakroom, where people hung their overcoats? Were both not Garments of Identity, or would it be confusing to label the cloakroom Garments of Identity? Would people know that it was a cloakroom, or would they search in vain for a room labelled Cloakroom? Von Igelfeld frowned. This sort of thing was becoming far too common in Germany, and he had every sympathy with the friends of the fossils and rocks who were attempting to secure the new director’s resignation. This was far more interesting than news of interest rates, and far more significant, too, von Igelfeld thought. What if the levers of power at universities were to fall into similar hands to the hands of this new director? Would he himself be considered a fossil or a rock, and thrown out, to be replaced, perhaps, by a wooden box? How would Romance philology survive in a world that honoured the works of Joseph Beuys and the like?

It was while von Igelfeld was thinking of these dire possibilities that he heard the door of the coffee room open. He looked up, to see his colleagues entering, deep in what appeared to be animated conversation. There was sudden silence when they saw von Igelfeld.

“Good morning,” said von Igelfeld, laying the newspaper to one side. “It seems that I am here first today.”

For a moment nothing was said. Then the Librarian cleared his throat and spoke. “That would appear to be so, Herr von Igelfeld. And seeing you here solves the mystery which I was discussing with Professor Dr Prinzel outside, in the corridor. ‘Where is Professor Dr von Igelfeld?’ I asked. And Professor Dr Prinzel said that he did not know. Well, now we all know. You are here, in the coffee room, sitting in ... ” He tailed off, and moved quickly to the table where the coffee pot and cups stood in readiness.

They served themselves coffee in silence, and then came to join von Igelfeld around his table.

“How is your aunt?” von Igelfeld asked the Librarian. “This spring weather will be cheering her up, no doubt.”

The health of his demanding aunt was the Librarian’s main topic of conversation, and it was rare for anybody to raise it, as they had all heard everything there was to be said about this aunt.

“That is very kind of you to ask,” said the Librarian. “Very thoughtful. I shall tell my aunt that you asked after her. That will make her very happy. So few people care about people like her these days. It’s good that at least somebody remembers.” He paused, throwing a sideways glance at Unterholzer and Prinzel. “She will be very pleased indeed, I can assure you. And she does need some cheering up, now that they have changed her medicine and the new one takes some getting used to. It’s Dutch, you know. I wasn’t aware that the Dutch made medicines at all, but this one is said to be very good. The only problem is that it irritates her stomach and that makes her querulous at times. Not that she is always like that; it seems to be at its worst about twenty minutes after taking the pill in question. They come in peculiar yellow and white capsules, which are actually quite difficult to swallow. The last ones were white, and had the manufacturers’ initials stamped into every capsule. Quite remarkable ... ”

It was Unterholzer who interrupted him. “So,” he said. “So this is a special day, is it not?”

Prinzel glanced nervously at Unterholzer. He had been hoping that he would not make an issue of the chair, but it seemed that he might. Really, this was most unwise. Everybody knew that von Igelfeld could be difficult, and Unterholzer really had no legal claim on that chair. He might have a moral claim, as people undoubtedly did develop moral claims to chairs, but this was quite different from a claim which could be defended in the face of a direct challenge. It would be far better to pass over the whole incident and for Unterholzer simply to arrive slightly early the following morning and secure the chair for himself. He could surely count on their moral support in any such manoeuvre.

“Today, you see,” Unterholzer went on, “today is special because it is the birthday of our dear colleague, Professor Dr von Igelfeld.”

“My!” exclaimed the Librarian. “The same month as my aunt! Hers is on the twelfth. What a coincidence!”

“May Day,” said Prinzel. “A distress signal at sea, but for you quite the opposite!”

They all laughed at the witticism. Prinzel was so amusing and could be counted upon to bring a welcome note of levity, particularly to a potentially difficult situation.

Von Igelfeld smiled. “It is very kind of you to remember, Herr Unterholzer,” he said. “I had not intended to celebrate it.”

Unterholzer looked thoughtful. “I suppose not,” he said. “A birthday can’t be much fun when one has to celebrate it all by oneself. There’s no point, really.”

Von Igelfeld stared at him. Unterholzer often took the opportunity to condescend to him, if he thought he could get away with it, and this was quite intolerable. If anybody deserved to be pitied, it was Unterholzer himself, with his wretched, out-of-date book on Portuguese subjunctives, and that nose. Who was he even to hint that von Igelfeld’s life might be incomplete in some way? It defied belief; it really did. He would tell Zimmermann himself about it, and Zimmermann, he knew, would laugh. He always laughed when Unterholzer’s name was mentioned, even before anything else was said.

Prinzel intervened rapidly. “I remember, Moritz-Maria, how we used to celebrate our birthdays, back in Heidelberg, when we were students. Do you remember when we went to that inn where the innkeeper gave us free steins of beer when he heard it was your birthday. He always used to call you the Baron! ‘Free beer for the Baron’s birthday,’ he said. Those were his very words, were they not?”

Unterholzer listened closely, but with increasing impatience. This Heidelberg story had irritated him, and he was beginning to regret his act of generosity—supererogatory in the provocative circumstances—in drawing attention to von Igelfeld’s birthday. He had not anticipated that Prinzel would launch into this embarrassing tribute to von Igelfeld. “So why did he call Professor Dr von Igelfeld a baron, when he isn’t one?” he asked. “Why would anyone do that?”

Prinzel smiled. “Because some people, even if they aren’t barons in the technical sense have—how shall I put it?; this really is a bit embarrassing—some of the qualities that one normally associates with that position in life. That is why, for example, that my friend Charles von Klain is often addressed as Capitano by the proprietors of Italian restaurants. He has the appropriate bearing. He has no military rank, but he could have. Do you see what I mean?”

Unterholzer shook his head. “I do not see why people should be called Baron or Count, or even Capitano for that matter, when they are not entitled to these titles.”

“It is not an important thing,” said von Igelfeld. “It is really nothing.”

“But it is!” said the Librarian. “These things are important. One of the doctors who visits my aunt’s nursing home is a Polish count. Of course he doesn’t use the title, but do you know, one of the other patients there, a charming lady from Berlin, could spot it. She said to my aunt: ‘That Dr Wlavoski is an aristocrat. I can tell.’ And do you know, when they asked the Director of the nursing home, he confirmed it! He explained that the Wlavoskis had been an important family of landowners in the East and they had been dispossessed—first by our own authorities when they invaded—and that was most unfortunate and regrettable—and then again by the Russians when they came in. They were a very scientifically distinguished family and they all became physicians or astronomers or the like, but the fact that they had been counts somehow shone through.”

They all looked at the Librarian. The conversation was intensely embarrassing to von Igelfeld. The von Igelfelds were certainly not from that extensive and ubiquitous class of people, the “vegetable nobles” (for whom von was nothing more than an address). Of course he could be addressed as Baron by only the very smallest extension of the rules of entitlement; after all, his father’s cousin had been the Freiherr von Igelfeld, the title having been granted to the family by the Emperor Francis II, and on his mother’s side there were barons and baronesses aplenty, but this was not something that people like him liked to discuss.

“Perhaps we should change the subject,” said Prinzel, who could sense Unterholzer’s hostility. The problem there was that Unterholzer would have liked to have been mistaken for a baron, but never could be. It was out of the question. And it was not just a question of physical appearance – which alone would have precluded it—it was something to do with manner. Unterholzer was just too ... too clumsy to pass for anything but what he was, which was a man of very obscure origins from some dim and undistinguished town in a potato-growing area somewhere.
“Yes,” said Unterholzer. “A good idea. We are, after all, meant to be serious people. Talk about barons and all such nonsense is suitable only for those silly magazines that you see at the railway station. Such silliness. It’s surprising that it survives. So let us talk about your birthday, Herr von Igelfeld! How are you going to celebrate it?”

“I am not proposing to do anything in particular,” said von Igelfeld. “I shall possibly go out for dinner somewhere. I don’t know. I have not thought about it.”

“A birthday is a good time to review the past year,” said Prinzel. “I always think over what I’ve done. It’s useful to do that.”

“Or indeed to review one’s entire life,” suggested Unterholzer. “You might think with some satisfaction of all your achievements, Herr von Igelfeld.” This remark was quite sincere. In spite of his envy, Unterholzer admired von Igelfeld, and would have liked to have been more like him. He would have loved to have written Portuguese Irregular Verbs himself and to have enjoyed von Igelfeld’s undoubted distinction. But of course he had not, and, in moments of real honesty, he acknowledged that he never would.

“Yes,” said Prinzel. “You have done so much. You could even write your autobiography. And when you wrote it, the final chapter would be: Things still left to be done. That would allow it to end on a positive note.”

“Such as?” interjected Unterholzer. “What has Professor Dr von Igelfeld still to do?”

“I have no idea,” said Prinzel. “He has done so much. We had better ask him.” He turned to von Igelfeld, who was taking a sip of his coffee. “What would you really like to do, Herr von Igelfeld?”

Von Igelfeld put down his coffee cup and thought for a moment. They were right. He had done so much; he had been to so many conferences; he had delivered so many lectures; he had written so many learned papers. And yet, there were things undone, that he would like to do. He would like, for example, to have gone to Cambridge, as Zimmermann had done only a few years before. They had given Zimmermann a lodge for a year when he had been a visiting professor and von Igelfeld had visited him there. The day of his visit had been a perfect summer day, and after taking tea on the lawns of the lodge they had driven out to Grantchester in Zimmermann’s car and had drunk more tea possibly under the very chestnut trees which Rupert Brooke had referred to in his poem. And von Igelfeld had felt so content, and so pleased with the scholarly atmosphere, that he had decided that one day he too would like to follow in Zimmermann’s footsteps and visit this curious English city with its colleges and its lanes and its feeling of gentleness.

“I should like to go to Cambridge,” he announced. “And indeed one day I shall go there.”

Unterholzer listened with interest. If von Igelfeld were to go to Cambridge for an appreciable length of time, then he might be able to get his office for the duration of his time away. It was a far better office than his own, and if he simply moved in while von Igelfeld was away nobody would wish to make a fuss. After all, what was the point of having empty space? He could give his own office over to one of the research assistants, who currently had to share with another. It was the logical thing to do. And so he decided, there and then, to contact his friend at the German Scholarly Exchange Programme and see whether he could fix an invitation for von Igelfeld to go to Cambridge for a period of six months or so. A year would be acceptable, of course, but one would not want to be too greedy.

“I hope your wish comes true,” said Unterholzer, raising his coffee cup in a toast to von Igelfeld. “To Cambridge!”

They all raised their coffee cups and von Igelfeld smiled modestly. “It would be most agreeable,” he said. “But perhaps it will never happen.”