Review: Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Portuguese Irregular VerbsAlexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs

This short novel is more like a series of vignettes centering around Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a German academic whose crowning achievement is a massive book entitled Portuguese Irregular Verbs. Von Igelfeld is pompous and self-absorbed and desperately craves approval from others, while at the same time he utterly lacks any self-awareness about his shortcomings. His adventures take him from his school days — when he accidentally forces his best friend into a duel — to various academic conferences around the globe. He consults with a holy man in India, learns a great deal of profanity in Ireland, and tries unsuccessfully to play tennis in Switzerland. He suffers unrequited love for his dentist. And through it all, he is continually surprised that other people don’t recognize Portuguese Irregular Verbs for the work of genius that, at least in his mind, it is.

The subtitle of this book is “A Professor Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainment,” and I think that pretty much sums it up: it’s entertaining enough, but it doesn’t require or inspire any investment from readers. Von Igelfeld is a well-drawn stereotype of a pompous academic, and he never quite feels like a real person. I don’t think he’s supposed to; his character is just a vehicle for the book’s gentle satire. But I did want to see some character development, some growth in self-awareness, some progress toward being a less petty and self-involved person. For me, the various little incidents von Igelfeld encounters, though humorous, weren’t enough to distract me from the lack of a character arc. All that said, I feel like I could make the same criticisms about Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, but I found that book delightful! So I’m not sure why this one didn’t work for me. Nevertheless, I won’t be continuing with the series.

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