Thursday, May 6, 2010

The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom


A little while ago Katherine from The Last Visible Dog asked me if I had read Alexander McCall Smith’s The 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom.  Given that I have read most of his novels published to date I couldn’t really understand why I had had this in my bookshelves for several years but had not read it.  So I got it off the shelf and put it on the coffee table.  That usually means that it’ll be read ‘sometime’.  In fact I read it almost immediately.

It is described as Frasier Crane meets Inspector Clouseau.  I think that is a pretty accurate description.  The principal character of the books (It’s three books amalgamated into one volume) has all the worst aspects of Frasier’s character although I have to say that I didn’t really see any of his more endearing traits.  Come to think of it I’m not sure Frasier had any either.  I have to admit that Clouseau wasn’t one of my favourite characters.  So we were off to a bad start: an unlikable central character and stories of undisguised slapstick.

One of the criticisms I have sometimes levelled at McCall Smith is his use of novels as a vehicle to demonstrate his prodigious knowledge and very considerable intellect to an audience who would not normally read his works on legal ethics and moral philosophy.  This volume is a shining example of that.  He quotes Auden (I wonder if there is a novel in his two Scottish series in which he has not done so), Kant, Proust and so many more and uses plenty of untranslated  languages other than English.  Fortunately for me my German and Italian is good enough for this book.

The book’s title comes from the central character, Von Igelfeld [hedgehog field!] who ‘had heard the three of them described as the Three Pillars of Wisdom, but looking at Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer he came to the conclusion that perhaps The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom might be more appropriate.  This, he thought, was rather funny.’  

The book is a very clever book.  It’s also very typical of AMcS’s easy, unchallenging, style.   The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the 44 Scotland Street and the Sunday Philosophy Club series all have the same unchallenging easy style but they also have wit and charm woven into the less appealing side of some of the characters portrayed in them.  This does not have that charm.

Did I enjoy the book?  Oddly I did quite enjoy it for all that I have said about it.  It had some wonderful moments and prose in it.  Would I recommend it?  No.  Would I recommend his other series?  Absolutely.


Professor Dr Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld often reflected on how fortunate he was to be exactly who he was, and nobody else. [The opening words of the book.  Wasn’t that what the Pharisee said according to Luke?]

Von Igelfeld wondered whether there is a moral obligation to read a letter.  Surely the moral principles involved were the same as those which applied when somebody addressed a remark to one. One does not have to answer; but inevitably does.  Yet, why should one have to answer: was there something intrinsically wrong about ignoring somebody who said something if you hadn’t asked them to say something in the first place?

That must be safe;  there was nothing threatening about Belgium.  Ineffably dull, perhaps; but not threatening.

The mind, you see, is full of dark furniture.

…unlike Germany, where everybody seemed to be . . . well, they seemed to be so cross for some reason or another.

Von Igelfeld had little time for Belgium.  In the first place he was not at all sure that the country was even necessary, in the way that France and Germany were obviously necessary.


  1. Haven't manqaged to get into any of the |von Igelfeld books. Like you, I didn't really see myself finding his haracter attractive. Gave up about a quarter of the way through the first one. And one thing I have learned is that there are so many exccellent books out there it's not worth spending time on one'sd I'm not thoroughly enjoying.

  2. Well, just goes to show... you see, I thought Von Igelfeld was a wonderful character, painted to reveal those parts of us that are self-satisfied, self-serving and silly. I loved to laugh at him.