Tuesday, October 3, 2017
A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith
In this delightful book, Alexander McCall Smith shares his unique perspectives on a whole variety of things. As Charlie, Jamie and Isabel's toddler, plays with his toy cars, the narrator notices an old Citroen police car "with miniature metal doors that could be opened and shut," and lying on its side, a "battered red Mercedes that had been the getaway car of some tiny desperadoes."
In Edinburgh, people are fond of their dogs -- think Angus and Cyril. But the idea "that a dog should somehow have the eyes of its owner" is "fanciful anthropomorphism."
Grace, the spiritualist housekeeper, is always interested in the goings-on of the "other side." For Jamie, one of her comments raises a momentary alarm at the possibility that the "grudges and battles of this side" might imply "the existence of arguments and feuds lasting for all eternity, with petty disputes stretching out over the centuries, waged from whatever trenches people could dig for themselves in such firmament as the other side afforded." Isabel, meanwhile, muses that "Christianity had unfortunately taken wrong turnings" until "a lovely message of love and redemption had become one of threats, fear and institutional self-preservation."
This conversation leads the couple to meditate on lies; then they move on to a discussion of Churchill's speeches. While Isabel is more interested in the content of his metaphors, Jamie, the musician, "loved Churchill's growl."
With her friend Peter, Isabel considers the vagaries of the Internet. He puts forward the idea that not looking for someone online is "a breach of civility," because it implies "that they aren't interesting enough to have...an online presence." Isabel then reflects on "our narcissistic times." Unable to see the attraction of "leading one's life in public," Isabel, who has never taken a selfie, admits ruefully that she may be out of date." Before they move on to a new topic, Peter observes that the culture of selfies has "made being the Pope or Prime Minister a very demanding job. The moment you meet somebody, they want a selfie."
The friends go on to discuss promises and mottoes, and how "Latin adds dignity" to such things. They observe how saying "Love you" at the end of a telephone conversation has "become the equivalent" of goodbye, but "could be awkward if you made it too automatic," and you used this form of farewell on your bank manager, your child's teacher, or the plumber.
Later, a meditation on the possibility of a future edition of her Applied Review of Ethics devoted to the ethics of sleep evokes images of Victorian art and Victorian aspiration for "the elegant swoon...the well-timed and graceful collapse into unconsciousness."
Closer to home, Isabel is thrown into panic at the suggestion of serious illness in the house, facing what "we all secretly feared," the knowledge that life hangs by a thin and tenuous thread. Her emotional consternation leads her to reflect that "to say something is unfunny raises and often irresistible temptation to laugh...the humour being in the need to conceal our true feelings."
We hear the characters' thoughts on the natures of women, men, foxes, and historical revisionism. And as Isabel is obliged to consider that "her flights of fancy were not for everyone," we are invited along with her to entertain thoughts about information and power. When her niece Cat withholds information from her about a new employee at the delicatessen, Isabel observes that knowing something but not disclosing it" makes on feel "stronger than the one denied the information."
As always, her thoughts turn to moral proximity. This time, though, a sudden threat makes her realize that she also has "a moral firewall" which must be kept in good repair. We are invited to consider forgiveness, and love, and remembering the past, and the possible location of the soul.
Against the grosser grain of common practice, Isabel thinks of reproach and censure as "powerful weapons" to be used only when there was no alternative, lest they "cut the ties of good will that kept people together," or damage "a relationship that had taken years to establish."
Through her encounter with the hapless Rob, she faces the almost incredible fact that some people "slipped through the net" and "had never had anything nice said about them," an omission she attempts to ameliorate with a kind and sincere compliment.
In the final scene, Isabel's return home to cook and converse with her husband re-establishes the secure world of daily doings, still so very important in the greater theme of things. Alexander McCall Smith never disappoints. Like his others, this book was an absolute joy to read.