Alexander McCall Smith’s work is my guilty reading pleasure. Thankfully, he is a prolific writer with several series going at once. I began with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with protagonist Mma. Ramotswe, then moved quickly into the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, followed by the Isabel Dalhousie series, 44 Scotland Street, and finally Corduroy Mansions. Then there are the stand-alones, but I won’t go there now. Each time a new book is released, I feel like I’m taking a vacation with my fictional friends, and when I finish a book, I miss them, as though they are real. This latest installment of the 44 Scotland Street series did not disappoint. It had everything I have come to love from this author: cultural references, literary references, real places and events, ruminations, meditations, digression, philosophical discourse and moral dilemmas. The substance of this post will be an excerpt from the story that encapsulates the examination of the ordinary things of daily life that give our lives meaning. So many times when I read a McCall Smith book, I pause, and say, “Yes. I know what you mean. I feel that way too.”
A pair of occupants of 44 Scotland Street, artist Angus Lordie and his bride of only a year, Domenica MacDonald, have been invited to a reception to mark the appointment of the coming year’s Artist in Residence, to be held at the City Chambers on High St. At first Angus doesn’t want to go, and questions why they were invited in the first place. Domenica reminds Angus of his reputation as a portrait painter, suggesting that perhaps the new artist in residence has an interest in portraiture. Angus pooh-poohs that notion, asserting that nobody is interested in portraiture anymore. Nonetheless, they accept the invitation. The following excerpt, of which I have left out some detail, takes place at that reception. Domenica has left Angus to get them some wine, encouraging him to seek out someone to talk to. The excerpt begins as Angus turns to make his way through the crowd that had thronged at the entrance, and I’m calling it “A Moment of Mystical Insight.”
“On the other side of the room, from the windows facing north, a view of the city revealed itself: spiky rooftops, stone crenellations, angled expanses of dark grey slate, all touched with gold by the evening sun. His artist’s eye caught the view and made him stop for a moment where he was, halfway across the room, and stare at what he saw. And for a moment he felt a strong sense of delight in belonging to this place, this city that vouchsafed to those who lived there, and to those who came in pilgrimage, sudden visions of such exquisite fragile beauty that the heart might feel it must stop. And it was his; it was his place, his home, and these people about him in a brotherhood of place, sharers in the mystery celebrated there, right there, in the City Chambers on that summer evening.”
[When Domenica returns with the wine, he tells her he just had an extraordinary experience, somewhat embarrassed. He says, “I felt as if I was being filled with something. I felt an extraordinary current pass through me.”]
“It can happen at any time,” [Domenica] went on. “We can be anywhere – out in the street, at home, climbing Ben Lawers, anywhere…and suddenly it comes to us, a sense of being at one with the world. Or it can be a sense of suddenly feeling a current of life that simply fills us with delight or warmth or…It can be anything, really.”
“You know that Auden had just such an experience? He uses it in his poem A Summer Night, but he described it later, in prose. It was when he was teaching at a school. He went to sit outside with a small group of colleagues, under the night sky, and suddenly he felt just what I think you felt a few moments ago. He had what amounted to a vision of agape, that pure disinterested love of one’s fellow man that so many of us would love to find, but never do. And he said that that the glow of this stayed with him for some days. Imagine that, Angus, you’re sitting in a deckchair under the night sky and you suddenly realise that you love humanity. Imagine that.”
He could. Now he could.
[Domenica] “Why are people so unkind to one another, Angus?”
“Because they don’t open themselves to the feelings that banish unkindness. Because when a vision of agape comes to their door they keep it closed.”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Exactly.”
Happily, I too, have had moments where I felt that energy that Angus described. It usually happens in a place known for its beauty or connection to the spiritual or religious. I’m blessed to have lived on a lake for the last eleven years of my life, and have felt a close connection to the world while looking at a sunrise or sunset, or at an egret, kestrel, hawk, or heron in flight. The images are usually too fleeting to capture, but leave my heart filled with great calm and peace.
In the excerpt above, a view of Edinburgh at sunset is the catalyst that stirs Angus to experience a feeling of love for his fellow Edinburghers. Here is a photo from myplaceinprints.com, called “Rays Over Ramparts,” that suggests the majesty that overwhelmed Angus.
In Irene’s absence, Nicola, Bertie’s fraternal grandmother has come from Portugal to assist her son, Stuart, in caring for Bertie and his baby brother, Ulysses. In one of their conversations, Nicola tells Bertie about Proust and madeleines. Madeleines were mentioned in the last Isabel Dalhousie book as well, so it’s time to offer up my recipe for this literary cookie.
Gourmet Madeleine Cookies
• 2 large eggs
• 2/3 cup sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel
• 1 pinch salt
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, cooled slightly
Preheat oven to 375º F. Generously butter and flour pan for large madeleines (about 3×1¼ inches).
Using electric mixer, beat eggs and 2/3 cup sugar in large bowl just to blend. Beat in vanilla, lemon peel and salt. Add flour; beat just until blended. Gradually add cooled melted butter in steady stream, beating just until blended.
Spoon 1 tablespoon batter into each indentation in pan. Bake until puffed and brown, about 10-16 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Gently remove from pan. Repeat process, buttering and flouring pan before each batch. (Can be made 1 day ahead.)
Dust cookies with powdered sugar. A spread of your favorite jam or jelly enhances these cookies. I’m partial to homemade raspberry jelly.