The Charming Quirks of Others: Alexander McCall Smith and the art of fiction

January 5, 2011 at 10:01 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland)

As I fell under the spell yet again, I asked my self, What is it  that makes the fiction of Alexander McCall Smith such a glowing and beautiful thing?

In The Charming Quirks of Others, Isabel Dalhousie is asked to assist in the process of vetting three candidates for the post of headmaster at a prestigious school for boys. But – no matter; she could be asked to vet three ducks for king of the pond and we’d be equally enchanted. After all, we’re not here because of the detective assignment! There is suspense, of course – there’s always suspense. But that story element has its roots in the mind of our protagonist – and in her heart as well.

One does feel at times vicariously exhausted by Isabel’s unrelenting analysis of the moral dimensions of every situation. Exhausted, yes – but fascinated and stimulated at the same time. Socrates counsels us that the unexamined life is not worth living. No chance of Isabel Dalhousie’s having that problem!

So then: what are the qualities of these novels that make them, for this reader  at least, so compelling? First and foremost, the character of Isabel is a marvelous creation. This is a woman for whom the life of the mind is supremely important. But it does not take precedence over matters of the heart. Both have a claim on her and have been known to compete for her time. Isabel also places a high value on the fine arts. She is, in fact, a collector, especially of works by Scottish artists. I knew virtually nothing about these painters until I started reading this series. Now I have several books on the subject. I’m going to insert several works here, just for the sheer joy of gazing at them!

The Tay Bridge from my Studio Window, by James McIntosh Patrick (1948)

 

Neil Gow, by Henry Raeburn

Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn

(For more of the same, click here.)

In The Charming Quirks of Others, Isabel is eager to acquire a Raeburn painting in which two of her ancestors appear. She has deep roots in Scotland, a country she loves with unabashed ardor. In fact, each novel in this series is in some way a celebration of the glories of Isabel’s native land (and the author’s too, of course).

Motherhood came late and unexpectedly to Isabel. She had been in the midst of a rapturous affair with Jamie, a young musician. The affair has matured into a committed relationship, strengthened by a mutual adoration of their son Charlie. Here are Jamie and Charlie returning home from an outing:

Charlie had fallen asleep in his pushchair – a tiny bundle of humanity in Macpherson tartan rompers and green shoes. The rompers were damp across the chest with orange juice and childish splutterings; the shoes had a thin crust of mud on them. She smiled; an active morning with his father. She kissed them both: Charlie lightly on his brow so as not to awaken him; Jamie on the mouth, and he held her, prolonging their embrace.

Isabel holds a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University. A woman of  independent means,  she owns and edits a highly regarded professional journal, The Review of Applied Ethics . She and Jamie are engaged to be married. Grace, her housekeeper of long standing, has slipped easily into the role of occasional child minder. On the surface, it would appear that Isabel has as intellectually and emotionally fulfilling a life as a woman could possibly yearn for. And in the main, this is true.

But where Jamie is concerned,  Isabel is at times terribly anxious.. He is some fourteen years younger than she, a beautiful youth as well as a gifted musician. She herself is comely and attractive, but she fears that she is  no match for the younger women who frequently cross Jamie’s path. Despite his reassurances to the contrary, she feels vulnerable, insecure – and sometimes downright jealous. And you Dear Reader, in the best tradition of great fictional love stories, suffer right along with her.

In The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings offers this analysis of the artistry evident in the author’s depiction of Kitty Fane, the protagonist of The Painted Veil. Maugham, says his biographer, “… displays an extraordinary empathy, an ability to create a woman as seen not from a man’s perspective but from that of the woman herself; he completely inhabits and possesses Kitty, knows her from the inside, down to the very nerves and fiber of her being.” This is precisely what Alexander McCall Smith does when he writes about Isabel Dalhousie.

So: what else do I admire about McCall Smith’s fiction? There’s deep insight into the human condition, his realistic depiction of the contradictions in our character that make us what we are. Brilliant, brainy Isabel is as insecure in love as any green school girl. Her vaunted powers of reasoning avail her nothing in the struggle to control her emotions. Strength of will, though, does enable to master her feelings most of the time. Most, but not all. There’s a fraught moment in this novel when she lashes out at Jamie; I confess I was shocked by what she says to him. She regrets her words, of course, the minute they’ve been uttered. As do we all in such circumstances.

I love the way in which Isabel grapples gamely with life’s Big Questions. It is incumbent on her to do this as a philosopher, but this vocation is one she has deliberately chosen, and she never shirks what she sees as her intellectual responsibilities. McCall Smith conveys Isabel’s thought processes as profundity tempered with a touch of irony: “One of the drawbacks to being a philosopher was that you became aware of what you should not do, and this took from you so many opportunities to savor the human pleasure of revenge or greed or sheer fantasising.”

In Isabel’s world, small events can have large implications. At one point, Jamie tells her of an incident from his childhood, when he threw his teddy bear over the Dean Bridge. Isabel finds herself speculating on what could have motivated the child Jamie to fling away a cherished possession:

He was punishing him, no doubt – or perhaps he was punishing himself. And if he was punishing himself, what for? She would ask a psychotherapist friend who knew all about such things. The friend had once said to Isabel that we punish ourselves for all sorts of reasons, but for the most part, we did not deserve it. ‘In fact, Isabel had said, I wonder who truly deserves punishment, anyway. What good does it do to punish a person? All that does is add to the pain of the world.’

Her friend had stared at Isabel. ‘Yes,’ she said. And then, after a further few minutes of thought, she had said yes again. ‘That sounds so right,’ she said. ‘And yet I suspect, Isabel, that you are very wrong.’ And Isabel thought: Yes, I am. She’s right; I’m wrong.

Words or comments casually dropped can initiate a whole new  train of thought. Charlie’s childish enunciation of the word “rabbits” – he leaves off the ‘r’ – tickles his mother’s fancy:

Hearing this, Isabel thought of its crossword potential. Cockney customs? Abbits. Senior members of monasteries? Abbits. Not the right thing to do? Bad abbits.

McCall Smith’s descriptions of the city of Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside are worth lingering over. In this scene, Isabel is heading out of the city:

On the drive out she stopped just after Silverburn to watch a bird of prey hunting over the lower slopes of the Pentlands. It was a large hawk, waiting to swoop down on its victim. She drew up at  the side of the road and watched as it was mobbed by a flock of smaller birds and ignominiously chased away. The small birds, like tiny spitfires in some unequal, heroic Battle of Britain, twisted and turned in dizzying aerial combat; the hawk, outnumbered and irritated by the onslaught, suddenly flew off towards higher ground and disappeared. Isabel sat for a moment, the engine of the green Swedish car idling, before she resumed her journey. The little battle was so close to the city and yet belonged so completely to another world – as did the man feeding his  cattle in the field a mile further along the road, emptying a sack of food into a metal hopper while the cattle thronged about him, jostling for position at the trough.

When Isabel thinks about her love for Jamie, and about what makes the feeling so powerful, she focuses on one exemplary trait:

It is not because you are  beautiful; not because I see perfection in your features, in your smile, in your litheness- all of which I do, of course I do, and have done since the moment I first met you. It is because you are generous in spirit; and may I be like that; may I become like you – which unrealistic wish, to become the other, is  such a true and revealing symptom of love, its most obvious clue, its unmistakable calling card.

From the specific to the general: spoken like a true philosopher – in this case, a philosopher who is deeply in love.

**********************************************

Alexander McCall Smith will be appearing at the Howard County Library on Sunday April 10, at 6 PM. For information on registration, check the March – May (Spring) issue library’s publication Source, coming out on or around March 1. You can also check the library’s website.

3 Comments

  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    I mostly enjoyed “The Charming Quirks of Others”, but I also found myself getting a little impatient with Isabel’s endless musings. I don’t remember feeling that way in the earlier books. Am I getting old and curmudgeonly I wonder? (You don’t need to answer that question!) I also have had the urge, from time to time, to wring Cat’s neck, figuratively speaking!! She’s so churlish.

    Pauline

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Pauline,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, I can see where a reader might become impatient with Isabel. Luckily, I’m not there yet! As for the nice Cat, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think Isabel’s forbearance with regard to the irritating young woman is nothing short of amazing!

  2. Idiot box? Only if you want it to be… | Neil's final decade said,

    […] I said in April 2011: See this great post: The Charming Quirks of Others: Alexander McCall Smith and the art of fiction. How can anyone resist the sheer wisdom of this guy? It is not because you are  beautiful; not […]

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