Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Sunday Philosophy Club #14

I've had an off-again, on-again relationship with the Sunday Philosophy Club, the series written by Alexander McCall Smith, best known for The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, now on its 23rd installment.

A few times I've vowed to stop listening to SPC - I always consume it via audio book - because of the Men are from Mars gender essentialism that crops up too often. In fact it crops up in this latest installment. *

But I keep coming back. 

Partly I suppose because I am interested in philosophy - that is why an actor friend told me about the series in the first place - because I was working on a play that had a philosopher character who was a devotee of Arthur Schopenhauer. 

That's been my most successful play so far, in my non-impressive theater career. I think my latest play, LE CHAT NOIR (currently being translated into French), is better, but who knows whenever that will see the light of day. 

Matt DeCapua portrays Schopenhauer 
in a dream sequence from

In between the thirteenth and fourteenth installments of SPC, I briefly explored The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, both in audio book form and the regrettably short-lived, one-season-only television series.

The concept behind the Ladies Detective Agency series is truly original and I really enjoyed the television series. But to my surprise I got bored during the first Ladies Detective book and stopped listening.

This recent installment of the SPC saga, The Sweet Remnants of Summer, has an unsurprising name - every book in the series is set during the summer. 

Even more notable is the temporal laxity of the series. The first book was published in 2004, and the protagonist, Isabel Dalhousie, was said to be in her early 40s (I was the same age at the time) and Jamie, her niece's ex-boyfriend back then, in his early 20s. The series doesn't normally reference current events so the fact that Isabel doesn't seem to age isn't noticeable - until this latest installment. The book mentions the Scottish independence movement, but really that could be almost any time. But at one point, Isabel mentions Pope Francis, although not by name, who became pope in 2013. So the series is now set at least nine years after it began - assuming the first book was set the same year it was published and not retroactively moved into the future.

So if it began in 2004, Isabel is now at least in her early fifties, but age hasn't seemed to have had any impact on her and nobody seems to think it surprising that she has two children around kindergarten age. But then, she got pregnant twice, in her early-mid 40s with no trouble at all, at an age when many women need help from fertility drugs.

Unlike Precious Ramotswe, the protagonist of Ladies Detective Agency, whose appearance is constantly discussed, and even referenced in a title, "Tea Time for the Traditionally Built," Isabel's appearance is never described. Is she supposed to be a brain in a vat, imagining her perfect placid life with her handsome young husband in Edinburgh?

Anyway, one thing I liked about this installment of SPC is that it treats the characters of Jamie and Isabel's housekeeper Grace differently than in previous ones. Although the point of view of the series has always been third-person omniscient, it has stuck closely to Isabel's point of view, with only occasional brief descriptions of the inner thoughts of other people (and one very memorable time, a fox.) But for this book, we get long passages of Jamie's and Grace's points of view, including a very amusing segment in which Grace imagines the personal lives of Aristotle and Kant. It really opened things up, I thought.

The plots of the SPC are never exciting, and very little changes, especially after the early days of the series when the Isabel-Jamie relationship evolved from friendship to marriage. In this book the most exciting plot point was that Isabel's oldest son has been biting people. But it's not about the plots, but rather Isabel's flights into philosophical thought, which are sometimes funny, even laugh out loud funny on a few occasions. In fact, if the plots did become more exciting, it would feel like a betrayal. I've come to expect placid, non-consequential plots set in an idyllic Edinburgh summer, spiced with the occasional philosophy.

And there has yet to be a meeting of this so-called Philosophy Club - on any day of the week. If there ever was a meeting, that would be a huge deal.

* Even worse, this book makes a positive reference to the dreadful, misogynist, Islamaphobic Richard Dawkins.