The two chapters of Alexander McCall Smith's At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances tell two almost independent stories featuring Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld--the renowned author of that 1200-page philological masterwork Portuguese Irregular Verbs. When the book opens we find von Igelfeld embroiled in the latest battle in his protracted but unacknowledged war with Professor Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer, von Igelfeld's colleague and nemesis at the University of Regensburg's Institute of Romance Philology. Specifically, von Igelfeld is intent on occupying the most comfortable chair in the Institute's coffee room, a chair which Unterholzer is wont to claim for himself on most occasions: "As the best chair in the room it should by rights have gone to him [von Igelfeld], 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." As it happens, von Igelfeld's successful claiming of the chair on the morning in question--in fact his birthday--leads to his taking a sabbatical at Cambridge University, where he becomes involved in the petty politics of that august institution. Von Igelfeld's experiences abroad--with scheming dons and their lachrymose Master, with an inappropriate Porter, with the University's intolerable toilet situation--leave him more certain than ever of the German's superiority to the Anglo-Saxon.
Not long after his return to Regensburg von Igelfeld sets off on another foreign adventure, as he is to be inaugurated into the Colombian Academy of Letters as a Distinguished Corresponding Fellow. His experiences in Colombia, and in particular at the Villa of Reduced Circumstances of the book's title, are not at all what he expected from his trip, including as they do being held captive by revolutionaries. The Colombians are even crazier, it would seem, than the English. This second story, while amusing enough, is less successful than the first because it is rather too absurd. Smith's comedy of academic manners and madness is at its best when his wry humor settles on the more mundane, when he mocks the pretensions and petty disputes of von Igelfeld's small academic department. (Here, for example, are our hero's reflections on the prospect of a student coming to work at the Institute: "Von Igelfeld was dubious; 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.")
In von Igelfeld Smith has created a charmingly flawed character--pretentious, egocentric, oblivious to the needs of others, yet sometimes capable of nobility. The two stories in this collection are each nearly perfect little gems, almost old-fashioned in their mood and quiet humor. And it may be a small thing, but both end particularly well, with sentences that tie up their respective stories perfectly. I am eager to read Smith's two other von Igelfeld books, and to discover as well what he has waiting for readers in his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and his Sunday Philosophy Club Series.
Reviewed by Debra Hamel, author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece