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.
Real politics is absent, however, including terrorists and, indeed, foreign faces. Unlike his fellow Scots writer Ian Rankin, McCall Smith does not do evil. Instead, his novels concern contemporary manners, with the characters constantly engaged in the kind of reflection Scarry advocates. In her professional capacity, reviewing scholarly articles on the ethics of obesity, sexual morality, lying, even taxation, Isabel has much to chew on. That includes taxation, for a special issue of the Review on the subject:
Why should the wealthy pay more tax than the poor? They did, or at least they did in most systems, but on what grounds was this defensible? Should taxation be used as a tool to redistribute wealth? She thought it should, and many others thought so as well, but it was not so clear that taxation was the most appropriate way to achieve that. Should governments perhaps be honest and say that they intended simply to confiscate assets over a certain level? She gave some thought to that, wondering how she would feel if the government started to take her capital away, beginning right now, appropriating her funds, turning them into military equipment and welfare payments and new roads, as governments tended to do.
Mostly characters are absorbed in frequent ruminations on the everyday unequal distribution of beauty, social gifts, and old-fashioned unfairness, and by their own unaided struggles to correct their judgments and behavior. As Isabel reflects, the old Scotland offers few guidelines:
Old Edinburgh had been so sedate, prissy even--like a maiden aunt--and it had been an easy target. But had the correction gone too far? Old fashioned manners, courtesies, had been swept away everywhere, it seemed, to be replaced by indifference, by coolness. And yet that had not made people any more free; in fact, the opposite, surely, had happened, as the public space became more frightening, more dangerous.
McCall Smith is not a postmodernist, and his novels shine when he debunks political correctness. As an old-fashioned moralist he is of the opinion, as one character puts it, that all that is required to increase "the sum total of human happiness" are "little acts. Small things. A word of encouragement. A gesture of love. So easy."
The Scotland Street novels are a pageant of situations in which a community of souls extend such acts of kindness or reprimand themselves when they fall short. Their behavior is almost Christian; but this Edinburgh, confirming what we know about Europe, is a postreligious city, one characterized by the absolute absence of religious observance in the characters' lives. Among people who think all the time, religion is one subject that seldom enters their thoughts. Well, Edinburgh was home to David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment.
The loss of anchoring in traditional values has a corollary in the powerful role of women in these novels. Most of the virtue, with a single exception, resides with them. Indeed, one character, reflecting on the contemporary devaluation of beauty and feeling, opines: "If things were to change, then the culture itself . . . had to become more feminine."
Well, maybe. Still, these specimens of advanced moral consciousness do have a shortcoming: Despite longings for a soulmate, they are invariably attracted by male physical beauty over the qualities that suggest solid, dependable mates. Thus, their relationships with men are unstable. Of course, none of them is pressed to find a husband or a protector (who needs one in a well-policed, well-regulated Western city?).
The independence of women correlates with the irrelevance of men, some of whom are treacherously handsome, some downright saps, but few matching the moral seriousness of the women. This uneven situation has led to a rather serious lapse on the part of ethics scholar Isabel Dalhousie. Despite wealth and evident attractiveness, Isabel has apparently had no relationships with men since being dumped years earlier by a caddish (but handsome) Irishman while she was on fellowship at Cornell.
Throughout the first three Philosophy Club volumes, her many reflections concerned the beauty of Jamie, a man in his mid-twenties who was once the boyfriend of her niece Cat. Reflection fueled desire, proximity led to action and, in a not-untypical postmodern turn of events, pregnancy. In this fourth installment she is a single mother of 40-plus while Jamie, a freelance bassoonist 20 years her junior with only a moderate income, seems (to me, anyway) in a somewhat untenable position. Isabel scarcely reflects on this uneven distribution of power while doing what is necessary (and, some might think, ethically questionable) to rout her academic opponents. As for baby Charlie: well, there is the full-time housekeeper.
Elaine Scarry take note: Appreciation for the fair does not necessarily lead to fairness.
Elizabeth Powers is a writer in New York.