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Sharp yet gentle satire in McCall Smith’s parochial epic: "The World according to Bertie"

17 Apr

the_world_bertie I have reported before on other novels by Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith: here and here. The World according to Bertie (2007) is my first venture into the 44 Scotland Street series, originally serial novels in The Scotsman:

The fifth volume of the series begins on Monday. In the past three years, it’s gone worldwide: you can read about Bruce and the other inhabitants of Edinburgh’s most famous fictitious address in Lithuanian, Latvian, Turkish, French, German, Polish and (coming soon) Italian bookshops. Across America, 44 Scotland Street sells in the kind of numbers most writers can only dream about.

With well over a million copies of the series sold in the English language alone, there’s already a huge readership waiting to find out what Scotsman readers will be the first to discover: what McCall Smith’s gently comedic imagination has in store for all his characters (see panels) in the new series. But we’ll start here with Bruce, because he’s the one member of the cast who’s causing his creator the most problems.

When the series began, Bruce was merely a moderately-pleased-with-himself New Town chartered surveyor. But as McCall Smith tiptoed out on to the tightrope of writing a series that appeared in newsprint long before he had any idea of how he was going to end it, Bruce started to become something more: “An echt, 84-horse-power narcissist of toe-curling proportions.”

Nobody seemed to mind. Just the opposite, in fact: the more self-regarding he made Bruce, the more readers’ e-mails told him they liked it. “The nature of this series,” he says, “is that you can use a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get away with. You can tip over into the just-credible-but-quite-absurd.”

That licence to exaggerate is most clearly seen with Bertie. Most six-year-olds, even tyrannically hothoused ones, can’t speak reasonably fluent Italian or play the saxophone well enough to busk in Paris, but by now we expect nothing less from Bertie. Whereas at first Bertie was just a boy walking along to nursery with his mother and watching out for bears in the pavement cracks, by the fourth volume, he’d effectively become the series’s central character, and the one whom audiences from Sydney to Seattle ask McCall Smith about most often….

The inhabitants of The World according to Bertie are, quoting again from that article in The Scotsman (October 2007) which anticipates the next in this series which by definition has no end yet in sight:

  • Having been born in Scotland Street, DOMENICA MACDONALD is the senior resident of No 44. An anthropologist, she has returned safely from her fieldwork in the Malacca Straits and now finds that there is much in Edinburgh to arouse her scientific curiosity. She would like to do an anthropological study of the Company of Archers, a strange group of men who dress up in green and carry bows. But would anybody believe such a study? Are such peculiar things even vaguely credible?
  • Domenica’s neighbour, the mysterious ANTONIA COLLIE who’s arrival was heralded by only a suitcase, is engaged in the writing of a novel dealing with the lives of early Scottish saints, but in Domenica’s view Antonia is no saint, having stolen – or so Domenica believes – a blue Spode teacup from her flat. Then there is her taste in men, which seems to be getting worse…
  • …On the floor below lives the Pollock family – mother, IRENE, a disciple of Melanie Klein; father, Stuart, a statistician in the Scottish Executive (aka Government), BERTIE, that remarkable Italian-speaking, saxophone playing and yoga-aversive six-year-old, and his new brother Ulysses, who bears a striking resemblance to Bertie’s psychotherapist, Dr Hugo Fairbairn. Bertie merely wants to be six and to live the life of an ordinary boy. Irene, however, has other ideas and insists on inviting the odious Olive to the house. Olive hates Bertie’s friend TOFU, and Bertie is not so keen on him either, although Tofu’s suggestion that they should both join a paramilitary organisation (the Cub Scouts) is attractive to Bertie.
  • MATTHEW, the owner of a Dundas Street gallery, has now broken up with Pat, a rather bland young woman who, after several gap years, is now studying history of art at the University of Edinburgh. Pat dislikes BRUCE ANDERSON, a narcissistic surveyor, who has returned to Edinburgh and taken up with JULIA DONALD, a vacuous but well-heeled girl in search of a husband.
  • Matthew has met ELSPETH HARMONY, formerly Bertie’s teacher, but now suspended. Matthew has proposed to her and she has accepted. They are well-suited to each other and plan to honeymoon in Australia.
  • ANGUS LORDIE, Domenica’s friend and an accomplished portrait painter, continues to paint in his studio in Drummond Place, where he lives with his dog, CYRIL. Cyril, who is well-known for his gold tooth and tendency to wink at people, has enjoyed a brief fling in Drummond Place Gardens, with the result that six puppies have been delivered to Angus. Cyril seems to take this in his stride, but Angus is, quite understandably, at breaking point.
  • BIG LOU, a sympathetic autodidact from Arbroath, continues to observe the unfolding Edinburgh comedy from behind her coffee bar. She is still involved with her Jacobite boyfriend, who is still planning a visit to Edinburgh by a remote and obscure Belgian quasi-pretender. Big Lou could do better than this, but seems destined to attract dubious men. That famous gangster, LARD O’CONNOR, is one such, although Big Lou has little time for the portly Glaswegian. Lard, however, has ambitions to better himself and takes the view that best way of doing this is to spend more time in Edinburgh. Disaster surely awaits.

The thrust is gently conservative, with a folk wisdom that has much to commend it. I see that captured in a quotation I planned to use myself, but fortunately Kerryn Goldsworthy has used it in a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, thus saving me some typing:

For the most part, we treat others in a matter-of-fact way; we have to, in order to get on with our lives. But every so often, in a moment of insight that can be very nearly mystical in its intensity, we see others in their real humanity, in a way that makes us want to cherish them as joint pilgrims, almost, on a perilous journey.

Po-faced indeed would be any reader who is not drawn in and delighted, even if at the expense of an odd cringe or two — the latter probably being therapeutic.

Extract from “The World according to Bertie (PDF). First few chapters there: 1 mB.



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Posted by on April 17, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, Fiction, humanity, humour, reading, satire, Scottish

 

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