Portuguese irregular ver.., p.1
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       Portuguese Irregular Verbs, p.1
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           Alexander McCall Smith
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Portuguese Irregular Verbs

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  PROFESSOR DR MORITZ-MARIA VON IGELFELD often reflected on how fortunate he was to be exactly who he was, and nobody else. When one paused to think of who one might have been had the accident of birth not happened precisely as it did, then, well, one could be quite frankly appalled. Take his colleague Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer, for instance. Firstly, there was the name: to be called Detlev was a misfortune, but to add that ridiculous Mozartian pretension to it, and then to culminate in Unterholzer was to gild a turnip. But if one then considered Unterholzer’s general circumstances, then Pelion was surely piled upon Ossa. Unterholzer had the double misfortune of coming from an obscure potato-growing area somewhere, a place completely without consequence, and of being burdened in this life with a large and inelegant nose. This, of course, was not something for which he could be blamed, but one might certainly criticise him, thought von Igelfeld, for carrying his nose in the way he did. A difficult nose, which can afflict anybody, may be kept in the background by a modest disposition of the head; Unterholzer, by contrast, thrust his nose forward shamelessly, as might an anteater, with the result that it was the first thing one saw when he appeared anywhere. It was exactly the wrong thing to do if one had a nose like that.

  The von Igelfeld nose, by contrast, was entirely appropriate. It was not small, but then a small nose is perhaps as much of a misfortune as a large nose, lending the wearer an appearance of pettiness or even irrelevance. Von Igelfeld’s nose tended slightly to the aquiline, which was completely becoming for the scion of so distinguished a family. The von Igelfeld name was an honourable one: Igel meant hedgehog in German, and von Igelfeld, therefore, was hedgehogfield, an irreproachable territorial reference that was reflected in the family coat of arms – a hedgehog recumbent upon a background of vert. Unterholzer, of course, might snigger at the hedgehog, but what could he do but snigger, given that he had no armorial claims, whatever his pretensions in that direction might be.

  But even if von Igelfeld was relieved that he was not Unterholzer, then he had to admit to himself that he would have been perfectly happy to have been Professor Dr Dr (honoris causa) Florianus Prinzel, another colleague at the Institute of Romance Philology. Prinzel was a fine man and a considerable scholar, whom von Igelfeld had met when they were both students, and whom he had long unconditionally admired. Prinzel was the athlete-poet; von Igelfeld the scholar – well, scholar-scholar one would probably have to say. If von Igelfeld had been asked to stipulate a Platonic von Igelfeld, an ideal template for all von Igelfelds, then he would have chosen Prinzel for this without the slightest hesitation.

  Of the three professors, von Igelfeld was undoubtedly the most distinguished. He was the author of a seminal work on Romance philology, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, a work of such majesty that it dwarfed all other books in the field. It was a lengthy book of almost twelve hundred pages, and was the result of years of research into the etymology and vagaries of Portuguese verbs. It had been well received – not that there had ever been the slightest doubt about that – and indeed one reviewer had simply written, ‘There is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.’ Von Igelfeld had taken this compliment in the spirit in which it had been intended, but there was in his view a great deal more to be said, largely by way of exposition of some of the more obscure or controversial points touched upon in the book, and for many years he continued to say it. This was mostly done at conferences, where von Igelfeld’s papers on Portuguese irregular verbs were often the highlight of proceedings. Not that this eminence always bore the fruit that might be expected: unfortunately it was Prinzel, not von Igelfeld, who had received the honorary doctorate from the University of Palermo, and many people, including von Igelfeld, thought that this might be a case of mistaken identity. After all, from the viewpoint of the fairly diminutive Sicilian professors who bestowed the honour, three tall Germans might have been difficult to tell apart. These doubts, however, were never aired, as that would have been a breach of civility and a threat to the friendship. But just as the doubts were never mentioned, neither was the honorary doctorate.

  At the Annual Congress of Romance Philology in Zürich, the three professors decided to stay in a small village on the edge of the lake. There was an excellent train which took them into the city each morning for the meeting, and in the evening they could even return by the regular boat, which called at the jetty no more than five minutes from the hotel. It was altogether a much more satisfactory arrangement than staying in Zürich itself, surrounded by banks and expensive watch shops. As von Igelfeld remarked to the others: ‘Have you noticed how Zürich ticks? Klummit, klummit, ding! I could never sleep in such a town.’

  The Hotel Carl-Gustav, in which the three professors stayed, was a large old-fashioned establishment, much favoured by families from Zürich who wanted to get away, but not too far away. Anxious bankers, into whose very bones the Swiss work ethic had penetrated, stayed there for their holidays. It was highly convenient for them, as they could tell their wives they were going for a walk in the hotel grounds and then slip off to the railway station and be in their offices in Zürich within twenty minutes. They could then return two hours later, to pretend that they had been in the woods or at the lakeside; whereas in reality they had been accepting deposits and discounting bills of exchange. In this way, certain Zürich financiers had acquired the reputation of never going on holiday at all, which filled their rivals with feelings of dread and guilt.

  Prinzel had arrived first, and taken the best room, the one with the uninterrupted view of the lake. He had felt slightly uneasy about this, as it was a room which should really have gone to von Igelfeld, who always got the best of everything on the strength of Portuguese Irregular Verbs. For this reason Prinzel was careful not to mention the view and contrived to keep von Igelfeld out of his room so he could not see it for himself. Unterholzer, who always got the worst of what was on offer, had a slightly gloomy room at the side of the hotel, above the dining room, and his view was that of the hotel tennis court.

  ‘I look out on to the tennis court,’ he announced one evening as the three gathered for a glass of mineral water on the hotel terrace.

  ‘Ah!’ said von Igelfeld. ‘And have you seen people playing on this tennis court?’

  ‘I saw four Italian guests using it,’ said Prinzel. ‘They played a very energetic game until one of them appeared to have a heart attack and they stopped.’

  The three professors contemplated this remarkable story for a few moments. Even here, in these perfect surroundings, where everything was so safe, so assured, mortality could not be kept at bay. The Swiss could guarantee everything, could co-ordinate anything – but ultimately mortality was no respecter of timetables.

  Then Prinzel had an idea. Tennis did not look too difficult; the long summer evening stretched out before them, and the court, since the sudden departure of the Italians, was empty.

  ‘We could, perhaps, have a game of tennis ourselves,’ he suggested.

  The others looked at him.

  ‘I’ve never played,’ said von Igelfeld.

  ‘Nor I,’ said Unterholzer. ‘Chess, yes. Tennis, no.’

  ‘But that’s no reason not to play,’ von Igelfeld added quickly.
‘Tennis, like any activity, can be mastered if one knows the principles behind it. In that respect it must be like language. The understanding of simple rules produces an understanding of a language. What could be simpler?’

  Unterholzer and Prinzel agreed, and Prinzel was despatched to speak to the manager of the hotel to find out whether tennis equipment, and a book of the rules of tennis, could be borrowed. The manager was somewhat surprised at the request for the book, but in an old hotel most things can be found and he eventually came up with an ancient dog-eared handbook from the games cupboard. This was The Rules of Lawn Tennis by Captain Geoffrey Pembleton BA (Cantab.), tennis Blue, sometime county champion of Cambridgeshire; and published in 1923, before the tie-breaker was invented.

  Armed with Pembleton’s treatise, described by von Igelfeld, to the amusement of the others, as ‘this great work of Cambridge scholarship’, the three professors strode confidently on to the court. Captain Pembleton had thoughtfully included several chapters describing tennis technique, and here all the major strokes were illustrated with little dotted diagrams showing the movement of the arms and the disposition of the body.

  It took no more than ten minutes for von Igelfeld and Prinzel to feel sufficiently confident to begin a game. Unterholzer sat on a chair at the end of the net, and declared himself the umpire. The first service, naturally, was taken by von Igelfeld, who raised his racquet in the air as recommended by Captain Pembleton, and hit the ball in the direction of Prinzel.

  The tennis service is not a simple matter, and unfortunately von Igelfeld did not manage to get any of his serves over the net. Everything was a double fault.

  ‘Love 15; Love 30; Love 40; Game to Professor Dr Prinzel!’ called out Unterholzer. ‘Professor Dr Prinzel to serve!’

  Prinzel, who had been waiting patiently to return von Igelfeld’s serve, his feet positioned in exactly the way advised by Captain Pembleton, now quickly consulted the book to refresh his memory. Then, throwing the tennis ball high into the air, he brought his racquet down with convincing force and drove the ball into the net. Undeterred, he tried again, and again after that, but the score remained obstinately one-sided.

  ‘Love 15; Love 30; Love 40; Game to Professor Dr von Igelfeld!’ Unterholzer intoned. ‘Professor Dr von Igelfeld to serve!’

  And so it continued, as the number of games mounted up. Neither player ever succeeded in winning a game other than by the default of the server. At several points the ball managed to get across the net, and on one or two occasions it was even returned; but this was never enough to result in the server’s winning a game. Unterholzer continued to call out the score and attracted an occasional sharp glance from von Igelfeld, who eventually suggested that the Rules of Lawn Tennis be consulted to see who should win in such circumstances.

  Unfortunately there appeared to be no answer. Captain Pembleton merely said that after six games had been won by one player this was a victory – provided that such a player was at least two games ahead of his opponent. If he was not in such a position, then the match must continue until such a lead was established. The problem with this, though, was that von Igelfeld and Prinzel, never winning a service, could never be more than one game ahead of each other.

  This awkward, seemingly irresoluble difficulty seemed to all of them to be a gross flaw in the theoretical structure of the game.

  ‘This is quite ridiculous,’ snorted von Igelfeld. ‘A game must have a winner – everybody knows that – and yet this . . . this stupid book makes no provision for moderate players like ourselves!’

  ‘I agree,’ said Prinzel, tossing down his racquet. ‘Unterholzer, what about you?’

  ‘I’m not interested in playing such a flawed game,’ said Unterholzer, with a dismissive gesture towards The Rules of Lawn Tennis. ‘So much for Cambridge!’

  They trooped off the tennis court, not noticing the faces draw back rapidly from the windows. Rarely had the Hotel Carl-Gustav provided such entertainment for its guests.

  ‘Well,’ said Prinzel. ‘I’m rather hot after all that sport. I could do with a swim.’

  ‘A good idea,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘Perhaps we should do that.’

  ‘Do you swim?’ asked Unterholzer, rather surprised by the sudden burst of physical activity.

  ‘Not in practice,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘But it has never looked difficult to me. One merely extends the arms in the appropriate motion and then retracts them, thereby propelling the body through the water.’

  ‘That’s quite correct,’ said Prinzel. ‘I’ve seen it done many times. In fact, this morning some of the other guests were doing it from the hotel jetty. We could borrow swimming costumes from the manager.’

  ‘Then let’s all go and swim,’ said von Igelfeld, enthusiastically. ‘Dinner’s not for another hour or so, and it would refresh us all,’ adding, with a glance at Unterholzer, ‘players and otherwise.’

  The waters were cool and inviting. Out on the lake, the elegant white yachts dipped their tall sails in the breeze from the mountains. From where they stood on the jetty, the three professors could, by craning their necks, see the point where Jung in his study had pondered our collective dreams. As von Igelfeld had pointed out, swimming was simple, in theory.

  Inside the Hotel Carl-Gustav, the watching guests waited, breathless in their anticipation.


  HEIDELBERG AND YOUTH! Ach, die Jugendzeit! When he was a student, von Igelfeld lodged in Heidelberg with Frau Ilse Krantzenhauf, a landlady of the old school. Her precise age was a matter of speculation among generations of students, but she showed no signs of retiring, and on their graduation from the university her lodgers frequently promised to send their own sons to her when the next generation’s time came. For her part, Frau Krantzenhauf solemnly promised to reserve a room for twenty or so years hence. In many cases this promise was called upon, and a fresh-faced boy from a Gymnasium in Hanover, or Hamburg, or Regensburg would find himself received by his father’s old landlady and led to the very room which his father had occupied, to sit at the same desk and look out at the same view.

  Three other students lodged with Frau Krantzenhauf during von Igelfeld’s days in Heidelberg. Two of these were regarded by von Igelfeld as being of no interest, and only barely to be tolerated. Dorflinger was a tall, bony youth from a farm near Munich, while Giesbach, his ponderous friend, was as rotund as Dorflinger was thin. They both studied engineering, knew next to no Latin, and spent every evening in a beer hall. Von Igelfeld exchanged a few words with them and then retreated into silence. There was nothing more to say to people like that – nothing.

  Far more congenial in von Igelfeld’s view was a young student of philology from Freiburg, Florianus Prinzel. Prinzel was tall, had dark wavy hair, and invariably fixed those to whom he spoke with a direct, honest look. Von Igelfeld, whose notions of friendship were those of nineteenth-century romanticism, in which young men aspired to noble friendships, thought that here, at last, was one whose qualities he could respect. He, von Igelfeld, the aesthete-scholar, could befriend the athlete-hero, Prinzel. He could see it already; Prinzel streaking past his hopelessly outclassed competitors, leaping over hurdles, his brow high in the wind; Prinzel’s manly chest breasting the finishing tape; Prinzel receiving the fencing trophy and handing it over to von Igelfeld to hold while he removed his gauntlets. It was to be the sort of friendship which had been commonplace fifty years before, in military academies and such places, but which had been irretrievably ruined by the reductionist insights of Vienna.

  Unfortunately, von Igelfeld’s vision of the relationship was fatally flawed. Although Prinzel was tall and strong, and perhaps should have been an athlete, he had not the slightest interest in athletic matters. Prinzel was, in fact, every bit as intellectual and bookish as was von Igelfeld, and not at all capable of being a hero on, or indeed off, the field. He could not run very fast; he had no interest in rowing; and he regarded ball games as absurd.

  Undeterred, von
Igelfeld decided that even if Prinzel were to prove slow to realise his natural prowess, he could be made to appreciate just how fundamentally he had mistaken his destiny. Von Igelfeld began to tell others of Prinzel’s sporting instincts and abilities.

  ‘My friend, Prinzel,’ he would say, ‘is very good at games. I’m not really so accomplished at that sort of thing myself, but you should see him. A consummate athlete!’

  Others believed this, and soon Prinzel had a reputation for being a great sportsman. And if anybody thought it strange that they should never have seen Prinzel on the field, then they reasoned that this must be because he did not deign to do much with the very inferior competition which he found in Heidelberg.

  ‘Is it true that Prinzel represented Germany somewhere at something or other?’ von Igelfeld was asked from time to time.

  ‘Yes, it’s quite true,’ he answered, not deliberately seeking to tell a lie, but replying in this way because he had persuaded himself that Prinzel must indeed be the holder of records of which he was silent. Or, if he were not the holder, then the records could certainly be his for the asking if only he would bother to win them.

  It may all have remained at the level of fantasy, harmless enough, even if somewhat irritating for Prinzel, had it not been for von Igelfeld’s sudden conviction that Prinzel could be a fine swordsman, were he to try the sport. Unprotected fencing amongst students was then strongly discouraged, even if there had been a time when it had flourished greatly in Heidelberg. In spite of this twentieth-century squeamishness, a small group of students obstinately adhered to the view that the possession of a small duelling scar on the cheek made an important statement about one’s values, and was also of incidental value in later advancement in one’s career. It was widely suspected that a man with a scar would always give a job to another man with a scar, even if there was a stronger, unscarred candidate. Of course, this mock duelling was carried out in a spirit of fun, and nobody was meant to be seriously hurt, but the flashing of swords and the graceful thrusts and parries of those unencumbered by clumsy protective jackets were much appreciated by the more reactionary students. These students were unexcited by the heady messages from Paris that made German universities in the nineteen-sixties and -seventies such hotbeds of radicalism and ferment.

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