The Magazine

Edinburgh Rhapsodies

The lives and loves of Scotland's intellectual gentlefolk.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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The Careful Use of Compliments

An Isabel Dalhousie Novel

by Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, 247 pp., $21.95

Love Over Scotland

The New 44 Scotland Street Novel

by Alexander McCall Smith

Anchor, 356 pp., $13.95

Before the postmodernists deconstructed it for us, the enclosed moral world was one of the chief attractions of the 19th-century European novel. Think Austen, Eliot, Trollope. The charming novels of Alexander McCall Smith attempt something similar for our current age of moral uncertainty, when even educated people sport tattoos and women engage in serial relationships with unsuitable men.

Portraying the ways that people attempt to do the right thing, these novels also inadvertently suggest clues as to how we have reached this point. McCall Smith has written--and I think we should take him at his word--that his books "represent the range of things I would like to say about the world."

Best known for the hugely successful No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, as of early this year in its eighth installment, McCall Smith is a veritable writing machine, and the fourth volume in The Sunday Philosophy Club series, The Careful Use of Compliments, has just appeared. (I leave out his numerous books for children.)

Compliments features Isabel Dalhousie, an independently wealthy woman in her forties, living discreetly in a Victorian house in Edinburgh (where McCall Smith, in his spare time, is a professor of medical law), complete with music room, cherished Scottish watercolors, summer house with garden, full-time housekeeper, and resident fox. A Ph.D. from Cambridge, where she wrote a dissertation on Wittgenstein, she is an independent scholar, editing from her library the Review of Applied Ethics.

Isabel has "intuitions," which lead her to inquiries about matters that, as her niece Cat says, mean getting "involved in things that are really none of your business." Here, while defending the Review against academic interlopers, she clears up a mystery concerning the possible forgery of a painting attributed to an apparently dead artist. This takes her to the island of Jura, known for its distillery and for Barnhill, the house where George Orwell began writing 1984 at the end of World War II.

Completing this year's troika is Love Over Scotland, the third in a series that began with 44 Scotland Street, which portrays the often-disorderly lives of inhabitants of Edinburgh, many of them resident in an apartment building of that name. A clue to the "exquisite scheme" (to use a term of Henry James) behind the moral world McCall Smith has created can be found in 44 Scotland Street.

In a scene in that novel the intriguingly named painter Angus Lordie, a man of 50, advises a young woman of 20 not to waste her time on her passion for an unworthy young man. She replies that you can't stop yourself feeling something for somebody else. To which Lordie replies that, yes, you can: "You simply change the way you look at them." It requires an effort of the will, of course.

This is exactly what the Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard did. She decided that she found palm trees beautiful--before that she thought them an unattractive sort of tree. Then she discovered that she liked the way their fronds made striped light. And after that, palm trees were beautiful.

The professor of aesthetics in question is Elaine Scarry. The reference to palm trees is from her small treatise On Beauty and Being Just, in which Alexander McCall Smith has read deeply. (Scarry's influence can also be seen in Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty.)

To put the matter in its simplest terms, Scarry has sought to extend our regard for beautiful objects to the issue of social justice. In the first part of On Beauty and Being Just, she makes an intricate argument for the way Beauty trains us mentally to be more perceptive. She approaches the subject by elaborating on the experience that all of us have had in moving beyond youthful aesthetic enthusiasms: with training, we leave Norman Rockwell behind and grapple with the challenge of works that might initially appear ugly--say, Matisse's palm trees. For Scarry, this process of intellectual self-correction can be applied to the moral world: We go from perception of "the fair" (lovely countenance) to receptiveness to "fairness" (as in equal distribution of goods).

McCall Smith has brought this idea down to earth, specifically to contemporary Edinburgh, to a familiar urban setting in which citizens, especially women, enjoy not only symphonies, theater, and art galleries but also wine bars, friendly cafés, and stores selling imported cheeses and olive oil. A feature of both the Philosophy Club and the Scotland series is a fullness of references to Scottish culture, while authentic local personalities have walk-on parts.