First in the three cycles of stories introducing quietly hapless Prof. Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, of the Institute of Romance Philology.
“All I want is love,” dolefully reflects the author of that standard but slow-selling reference work, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, “and a tiny bit of recognition from the Portuguese.” What he gets instead is a series of eight little adventures that add up to a life of quiet desperation. Sidelined from his original interest in Early Irish by his landlady’s horror at discovering a German translation of the off-color remarks a surviving speaker of Early Irish shared with him, he settles into a chair at Regensburg. Although he ventures as far afield as Italy and India, von Igelfeld remains as predictable in his habits and as impervious to the outside world as Kant. Supported by his colleagues, the unfortunately named Prof. Dr. Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer and Prof. Dr. Dr. (honoris causa) Florianus Prinzel, who looks like an athlete but isn’t, he plays tennis after spending an hour with a rulebook, recalls a foreshortened duel that ended with a foreshortened nose, attempts to disprove a xenophobic Sienese landlady’s claims that Germans eat too much, falls in love with his dentist, and turns himself radioactive. Trudging stoutly from one academic conference to the next, von Igelfeld recalls the great 19th-century comedies of minutiae inflated to monstrous proportions, though he’s less majestic than Mr. Pickwick and less fiercely stupid than Bouvard and Pécuchet. Perhaps the closest analogy is Mr. Pooter, the office drudge of George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody, whose indulgently satiric tone Smith faithfully reproduces.
Like these lovable antiheroes of the past, von Igelfeld remains a gentle figure who deserves every cartoon anvil that falls on his head but retains his dignity and goodness throughout. (Illus. throughout with b&w block prints)