I have long felt that we should take popular culture seriously. By that, I do not mean that we fill the arts pages of our newspapers with unthinking celebration of that which is popular for no better reason that it is popular: that sort of thing hardly betokens any level of seriousness at all. No – what I mean is that we should subject the popular arts to stringent critical standards, as we do arts of a less popular nature: anything less is, I think, insulting both to those writers of popular literature (and indeed, to their readers) who take their craft seriously, and who have attained so high a level of craftsmanship that the boundary between craftsmanship and artistry, blurred at best, becomes irrelevant.
So far, in this blog, I have written about two popular works of literature. About one of those I could not bring myself to be anything more than merely lukewarm; and the most charitable thing that could be said about the other is that it was pisspoor. It is therefore an unmitigated pleasure to come across a book that, to judge by its sales figures and by its prominent displays in Waterstones, is undeniably popular, and which was sufficiently delightful to make me look forward even to my daily commute by train to and from work. 44 Scotland Street is the first book I have read by Alexander McCall Smith, but it certainly will not be the last. (And, given the rate at which he writes, I doubt I’ll be running out of titles within the next few years at least!)
I had meant to investigate earlier the works of Alexander McCall Smith. Indeed, I found it hard even before reading a page of his work not to feel biased towards him: after all, an enthusiast of R. K. Narayan cannot be faulted on taste, at the very least!
It is, I suppose, lazy criticism to describe Smith’s writing as “Narayanesque”, but since I have never been above lazy criticism, I am not averse to doing so: it is “Narayanesque”. Smith shares with Narayan an elegance of style, and a gentle and natural charm; a sense of ease that makes one wonder why others find the craft of novel-writing so difficult; a mischievous humour that never strays into malice; an affection for his characters that allows him to present their foibles – often very serious foibles – and to laugh at them, but without ever looking down upon them, or sneering; and an ability to communicate the sheer joy of being alive, tempered by an awareness of his characters’ emotional vulnerability, and of their essential loneliness. Those who speak airily of “only popular literature” (my emphasis) should ask themselves how many novels of ostensibly more serious intent achieve half as much.
Of course, Smith is too fine a writer to be considered merely in the shadow of Narayan. The influence is certainly there – most especially in the story of Domenica’s early life, which, set as it is in South India, seems almost a sort of tribute to Narayan. (When Domenica’s prospective mother-in-law speaks of the family business – the private generation of electricity – and says “We make very fine electricity”, the spirit of Narayan seems wondrously captured.) But it is no more than an influence: McCall Smith is very much his own man, with his own very individual sensibility; and neither in the pacing of the novel, nor in the large canvas he produces, filled with a large cast of diverse characters, is there any debt to Narayan.
The novel is broadly comic, but very unlike, say, the comic novels of Wodehouse (although, like Wodehouse, Smith appears to eschew the sex joke or the bawdy, which is a considerable sacrifice for a comic novelist to make). There are no real belly laughs in this novel, as there is in Wodehouse; but the humour is as unfailing as it is good-natured, and one does find oneself chuckling throughout. But perhaps the most important difference is in the treatment of the characters. Wodehouse’s marvellous characters are all surface: the surfaces are, admittedly, brilliant, but none of them have an inner life. The characters here most certainly do have inner lives, and, while Smith is careful not to delve so far into these inner lives as to compromise the essential lightness of the work, he does give us, often with surprising poignancy, glimpses into them. This applies not merely to the central characters, but often to the minor characters; and even, sometimes, to incidental characters: the young policeman, Chris, who works somewhat improbably in the Lothian and Borders Police “Art Squad” (if such a squad doesn’t exist, it most certainly should!) is set up merely as a comic character; but by the time he disappears from the book (a mere few pages after he has been introduced), we see him as a man who is lonely. There’s no sentimentality about it, and no lingering over the sorrow: but there it is – a fact: an incidental character whom any other comic author would have set up merely for a few laughs turns out to be rather human, and rather vulnerable.
The point is, I think, that Alexander McCall Smith likes people. He is as tolerant of people as I think I would like to be, though I know I am not. He is genuinely interested in them, and, no matter how deeply flawed they may be, he can’t bring himself to hate any of them – not even the monstrously narcissistic and insensitive Bruce, nor the utterly self-unaware pseudo-intellectual Irene. (The latter, incidentally, reminded me of the “Modern Parents” in Viz magazine, although, needless to say, Smith’s humour is far more gentle and kind than anything to be found in the scurrilous and obscene – but nonetheless very funny – Viz.) Even if the character has a walk-on role, Alexander McCall Smith is interested in them, whether it’s the barman Pat chats with briefly, or the taxi-driver whom most other novelists wouldn’t even think of mentioning at all.
As well as having inner lives, the characters are not denied their intellectual lives: Lou reads Proust, and thinks of the nature of free will; Domenica ponders on the nature of beauty, particularly on the beauty of the City of Edinburgh (this novel is, in part, a love-letter to Edinburgh: the city is depicted with such obvious affection, that even I, who have grown up in Glasgow, found myself responding to it); and so on. Of course, it’s not that everyone here is an intellectual: that would hardly be realistic. But in real life, people do think, and Smith sees no reason not to depict this in his wide-ranging tapestry.
The tapestry is, indeed, surprisingly wide ranging, taking in a vast array of characters, and sometimes even introducing important new characters (such as Angus Lordie) at a point towards the end where we would normally expect the novel to be speeding towards its denouement. This is because Smith has little interest in the plot as such: there is a plotline of sorts involving a painting which may or may not be valuable, but, again unlike Wodehouse who delighted in the sheer absurd intricacy of plot, the plotline here is a fairly minor aspect of the novel. Smith is quite happy filling his novel with scenes and characters that have very little, if anything, to do with the central plot. And he communicates his delight in his characters with such affection, that the reader (or, at least, this reader) can’t really care less whether or not the plotline is advanced. Of course, this does mean that we are left with a great many characters whose stories, such as they are, are not resolved, but I suppose this doesn’t matter when the writer is setting out, as here, to create a series of novels, rather than a one-off.
Looking through the list of novels written by Alexander McCall Smith, he appears very prolific; and he appears also to group his novels into various series – the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Sunday Philosophy Club series, the Igelfield series, the Corduroy Mansions series, etc. How alike or otherwise these different series are, I – having now read only the first of the Scotland Street series – cannot , of course, say, but I find it hard to imagine Alexander McCall Smith writing anything that is not elegant, intelligent, and charming. I will certainly be reading more of his works, but not, perhaps, right away: that would be like having two courses of dessert, one after another. In the meantime, reports (written, I admit, largely by myself) of the decline and demise of popular culture do seem somewhat exaggerated.