ON BEING LIGHT BLUE
PROFESSOR DR MORITZ-MARIA VON IGELFELD's birthday fell on the first of May. He would not always have remembered it had the anniversary not occurred on May Day itself; as a small boy he had been convinced that the newspaper photographs of parades in Red Square, those intimidating displays of missiles, and the grim-faced line-up of Politburo officials, all had something to do with the fact that he was turning six or seven, or whatever birthday it was. Such is the complete confidence of childhood that we are each of us at the centre of the world--a conviction out of which not all of us grow, and those who do grow out of it sometimes do so only with some difficulty. And this is so very understandable; as Auden remarked, how fascinating is that class of which I am the only member.
Nobody observed von Igelfeld's birthday now. It was true that he was not entirely alone in the world--there were cousins in Graz, but they were on the Austrian side of the family and the two branches of von Igelfelds, separated by both distance and nationality, had drifted apart. There was an elderly aunt in Munich, and another aged female relative in Baden-Baden, but they had both forgotten more or less everything and it had been many years since they had sent him a birthday card. If he had married, as he had firmly intended to do, then he undoubtedly would now have been surrounded by a loving wife and children, who would have made much of his birthday; but his resolution to propose to a charming dentist, Dr Lisbetta von Brautheim, had been thwarted by his colleague, Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer. That was a humiliation which von Igelfeld had found hard to bear. That Unterholzer of all people--a man whose work on the orthography of Romance languages was barely mentioned these days; a man whose idea of art was coloured reproductions of views of the Rhine; a man whose nose was so large and obtrusive, vulgar even, the sort of nose one saw on head-waiters--that Unterholzer should succeed in marrying Dr von Brautheim when he himself had planned to do so, was quite unacceptable. But the fact remained that there was nothing one could do about it; Unterholzer's birthday never went unmarked. Indeed, there were always cakes at coffee time in the Institute on Unterholzer's birthday, made by Frau Dr Unterholzer herself; as Unterholzer pointed out, she might be a dentist but she had a sweet tooth nonetheless and made wonderful, quite wonderful cakes and pastries. And then there were the cards prominently displayed on his desk, not only from Unterholzer's wife but from the receptionist and dental nurse in her practice. What did they care about Unterholzer? von Igelfeld asked himself. They could hardly like
him, and so they must have sent the cards out of deference to their employer. That was not only wrong--a form of exploitation indeed--but it was also sickeningly sentimental, and if that was what happened on birthdays then he was best off without one, or at least best off without one to which anybody paid any attention.
On the first of May in question, von Igelfeld was in the Institute coffee room before anybody else. They normally all arrived at the same time, with a degree of punctuality which would have been admired by Immanuel Kant himself, but on that particular morning von Igelfeld would treat himself to an extra ten minutes' break. Besides, if he arrived early, he could sit in the chair which Unterholzer normally contrived to occupy, and which von Igelfeld believed was more comfortable than any other in the room. As the best chair in the room it should by rights have gone to him, as he was, after all, the senior scholar, but these things were difficult to articulate in a formal way and he had been obliged to tolerate Unterholzer's occupation of the chair. It would have been different, of course, if Professor Dr Florianus Prinzel had taken that chair; von Igelfeld would have been delighted to let Prinzel have it, as he undoubtedly deserved it. He and Prinzel had been friends together at Heidelberg, in their youth, and he still thought of Prinzel as the scholar-athlete, the noble youth, deserving of every consideration. Yes, there was little he would not have done for Prinzel, and it was a matter of secret regret to von Igelfeld that he had never actually been called upon to save Prinzel's life. That would have secured Prinzel's undying admiration and indebtedness, which von Igelfeld would have worn lightly. 'It was nothing,' he imagined himself saying. 'One's own personal safety is irrelevant in such circumstances. Believe me, I know that you would have done the same for me.'
In fact, the only time that Prinzel had been in danger von Igelfeld had either been responsible for creating the peril in the first place, or Prinzel had been able to handle the situation quite well without any assistance from him. In their student days in Heidelberg, von Igelfeld had unwisely persuaded Prinzel to engage in a duel with a shady member of some student Korps
, and this, of course, had been disastrous. The very tip of Prinzel's nose had been sliced off by his opponent's sword, and although it had been sewn back on in hospital, the doctor, who had been slightly drunk, had sewn it on upside down. Prinzel had never said anything about this, being too gentlemanly to complain about such an affair (no true gentleman ever notices it if the tip of his nose is sliced off), and indeed it had occurred to von Igelfeld that he had not even been aware of what had happened. But it remained a reminder of an unfortunate incident, and von Igelfeld preferred not to think about it.
That was one incident. The other occasion on which Prinzel had been in danger was when von Igelfeld had accompanied him and his wife to Venice, at a time when the city was threatened by an insidious corruption. The corruption turned out not to be cholera, as so graphically portrayed by Thomas Mann, but radioactivity in the water, and Prinzel had become mildly radioactive as a result of swimming off the Lido. Again von Igelfeld was unable to come to the rescue, and Prinzel, quite calmly, had taken the situation in hand and returned to Germany for iodine treatment at the University of Mainz. There he had been decontaminated and pronounced safe, or as safe as one could be after ingesting small quantities of strontium-90.
Thoughts of radioactivity, however, were far from von Igelfeld's mind as he enjoyed his first cup of coffee in the Institute coffee room and glanced at the headlines in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
. There was nothing of note, of course. Industrialists were sounding off about interest rates, as they always did, and there was a picture of an earnest finance minister pointing a finger at a chart. The chart could have been upside down, like Prinzel's nose, for all that von Igelfeld cared; matters of this sort left him unmoved. It was the job of politicians and bankers to run the economy and he could not understand why they often failed to do so in a competent way. It was, he assumed, something to do with their general venality and with the fact that quite the wrong type went into politics and finance. But it seemed as if there would never be any change in that, and so they would have to put up with these insolent people and with their persistent mismanagement. Far more interesting was the front-page item about a row which was developing over the appointment of a new director to a museum in Wiesbaden.
The new director, a man of modern tastes, had thrown out the old cases of fossils and rocks, and had replaced them with installations by contemporary artists. This had the effect of confusing those people who came to the museum hoping to see items of interest and found only empty galleries with a small pile of wooden boxes in a corner or a heap of old clothing, artistically arranged under a skylight and labelled: The Garments of Identity
. These visitors peered into the wooden boxes, hoping to see fossils or rocks within, and found that they were empty, and that the boxes themselves were the exhibit. And as for the piles of clothing, what was the difference between them and the museum cloakroom, where people hung their overcoats? Were both not Garments of Identity
, or would it be confusing to label the cloakroom Garments of Identity
? Would people know that it was a cloakroom, or would they search in vain for a room labelled Cloakroom
? Von Igelfeld frowned. This sort of thing was becoming far too common in Germany, and he had every sympathy with the friends of the fossils and rocks who were attempting to secure the new director's resignation. This was far more interesting than news of interest rates, and far more significant, too, von Igelfeld thought. What if the levers of power at universities were to fall into similar hands to the hands of this new director? Would he himself be considered a fossil or a rock, and thrown out, to be replaced, perhaps, by a wooden box? How would Romance philology survive in a world that honoured the works of Joseph Beuys and the like?
It was while von Igelfeld was thinking of these dire possibilities that he heard the door of the coffee room open. He looked up, to see his colleagues entering, deep in what appeared to be animated conversation. There was sudden silence when they saw von Igelfeld.
'Good morning,' said von Igelfeld, laying the newspaper to one side. 'It seems that I am here first today.'
For a moment nothing was said. Then the Librarian cleared his throat and spoke. 'That would appear to be so, Herr von Igelfeld. And seeing you here solves the mystery which I was discussing with Professor Dr Prinzel outside, in the corridor. "Where is Professor Dr von Igelfeld?" I asked. And Professor Dr Prinzel said that he did not know. Well, now we all know. You are here, in the coffee room, sitting in . . .' He tailed off, and moved quickly to the table where the coffee pot and cups stood in readiness.
They served themselves coffee in silence, and then came to join von Igelfeld around his table.
'How is your aunt?' von Igelfeld asked the Librarian. 'This spring weather will be cheering her up, no doubt.' The health of his demanding aunt was the Librarian's main topic of conversation, and it was rare for anybody to raise it, as they had all heard everything there was to be said about this aunt.
'That is very kind of you to ask,' said the Librarian. 'Very thoughtful. I shall tell my aunt that you asked after her. That will make her very happy. So few people care about people like her these days. It's good that at least somebody remembers.' He paused, throwing a sideways glance at Unterholzer and Prinzel. 'She will be very pleased indeed, I can assure you. And she does need some cheering up, now that they have changed her medicine and the new one takes some getting used to. It's Dutch, you know. I wasn't aware that the Dutch made medicines at all, but this one is said to be very good. The only problem is that it irritates her stomach and that makes her querulous at times. Not that she is always like that; it seems to be at its worst about twenty minutes after taking the pill in question. They come in peculiar yellow and white capsules, which are actually quite difficult to swallow. The last ones were white, and had the manufacturers' initials stamped into every capsule. Quite remarkable . . .'
It was Unterholzer who interrupted him. 'So,' he said. 'So this is a special day, is it not?'
Prinzel glanced nervously at Unterholzer. He had been hoping that he would not make an issue of the chair, but it seemed that he might. Really, this was most unwise. Everybody knew that von Igelfeld could be difficult, and Unterholzer really had no legal claim on that chair. He might have a moral claim, as people undoubtedly did develop moral claims to chairs, but this was quite different from a claim which could be defended in the face of a direct challenge. It would be far better to pass over the whole incident and for Unterholzer simply to arrive slightly early the following morning and secure the chair for himself. He could surely count on their moral support in any such manoeuvre.
'Today, you see,' Unterholzer went on, 'today is special because it is the birthday of our dear colleague, Professor Dr von Igelfeld.'
'My!' exclaimed the Librarian. 'The same month as my aunt! Hers is on the twelfth. What a coincidence!'
'May Day,' said Prinzel. 'A distress signal at sea, but for you quite the opposite!'
They all laughed at the witticism. Prinzel was so amusing and could be counted upon to bring a welcome note of levity, particularly to a potentially difficult situation.
Von Igelfeld smiled. 'It is very kind of you to remember, Herr Unterholzer,' he said. 'I had not intended to celebrate it.'
Unterholzer looked thoughtful. 'I suppose not,' he said. 'A birthday can't be much fun when one has to celebrate it all by oneself. There's no point, really.'
Von Igelfeld stared at him. Unterholzer often took the opportunity to condescend to him, if he thought he could get away with it, and this was quite intolerable. If anybody deserved to be pitied, it was Unterholzer himself, with his wretched, out-of-date book on Portuguese subjunctives, and that nose. Who was he even to hint that von Igelfeld's life might be incomplete in some way? It defied belief; it really did. He would tell Zimmermann himself about it, and Zimmermann, he knew, would laugh. He always laughed when Unterholzer's name was mentioned, even before anything else was said.
Prinzel intervened rapidly. 'I remember, Moritz-Maria, how we used to celebrate our birthdays, back in Heidelberg, when we were students. Do you remember when we went to that inn where the innkeeper gave us free steins of beer when he heard it was your birthday. He always used to call you the Baron! "Free beer for the Baron's birthday," he said. Those were his very words, were they not?'
Unterholzer listened closely, but with increasing impatience. This Heidelberg story had irritated him, and he was beginning to regret his act of generosity--supererogatory in the provocative circumstances--in drawing attention to von Igelfeld's birthday. He had not anticipated that Prinzel would launch into this embarrassing tribute to von Igelfeld. 'So why did he call Professor Dr von Igelfeld a baron, when he isn't one?' he asked. 'Why would anyone do that?'
Copyright © 2003 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.