At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances Paperback – Oct 12 2004
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“In the halls of academe, a setting fraught with ego-driven battles for power and prestige [Alexander McCall Smith] has rendered yet another one-of-a-kind character: the bumbling but brilliant Dr. Mortiz-Maria von Igelfeld . . . . [a] deftly rendered trilogy [with] endearingly eccentric characters.” —Chicago Sun-Times --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH is the author of the international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie Series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and was a law professor at the University of Botswana.See all Product Description
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I found this the weakest of the three books about the misadventures of Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld of the Institute of Romance Philology. Perhaps it's because there are only two stories in the novella, so each must be sustained over sixty pages or so. Maybe it's the stories' length that makes them seem so much more improbable than the improbable stories in the other volumes.
Still, the misadventures of Dr von Igelfeld, once again experienced as a result of searching for that elusive recognition he believes he deserves (Did you know he wrote the master work, Portuguese Irregular Verbs? It's the most important philological work of the last one hundred years, you know.), are very amusing. He accepts a visiting fellowship at Cambridge, where a shadowy plot to overthrow the faculty government is brewing, as if worries over his (less-deserving) colleague taking over his office in his absence were not enough. After that, he visits Columbia (the country), where he stumbles into yet another revolutionary plot.
Although I found this book the least amusing of the three Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainments, I still laughed out loud. It's light-hearted. It's short. It's just fun.
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
The Portuguese Irregular Verb series of which "At the Villa Reduced Circumstances" is just one book can best be described as a droll send up on the absurdities of academic life. McCall's style can best be described as extremely dry and verging on the absurdist. This type of subtle humor is not for everyone.
The books in the series do not need to be read in order. I would recommend that you start with "The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs", the best book in the series. If you like this type of humor gone onto the other two books. If you like your humor dry and way over the top, this is the series for you.
In this book, von Igelfeld absorbs himself in a faculty political intrigue (which is sly, yet at times candidly accurate in its absurdity) as he takes a visiting professorship at Cambridge. Not only does he get totally immersed in academic political struggles, he has major issues with English toilets. (These two parallels surely can't be coincidental.) In the end his dealings with the politics of Cambridge and English bathroom design leave a clear opinion of Germanic superiority in von Igelfeld's mind.
Soon after the return from Cambridge, von Igelfeld is invited to become a Distinguished Corresponding Fellow at the Colombian Academy of Letters. This eventually leads to political intrigue at a different level when von Igelfeld is held captive at the Villa of Reduced Circumstances and encounters a strange group of rebels and government loyalists. It all concludes with von Igelfeld becoming the President (yes, of the country, not the Academy) and thus a target for violent overthrow. His ability to extract himself gracefully from that situation is dealt with in a most ingenious and amusing manner.
This is another great book by Alexander McCall Smith, and I recommend it to readers everywhere with a dry sense of humor and an inclination to mock the excesses of academia.