All new homes come with a clarinet … Babel’s Alexander McCall Smith

The Michael Kelleher-less era of Babel began tonight with one of the biggest crowds the series has ever seen. If Alexander McCall Smith didn’t find himself standing before more audience members than Salman Rushdie two years ago, the numbers must have been close. But while the popular kilt-wearing author is probably used to the spotlight at such a large venue like Kleinhans Music Hall, new Just Buffalo Literary Center Artistic Director Barbara Cole’s was ushered in at a definite peak.

Assured and unafraid to talk at length, Cole’s introduction played out a bit like The Return of the King with its multiple, perfect stopping points that found themselves continuing into more praise. I do recall Kelleher having his own lengthy monologue early on in his tenure too, though, so we’ll chalk it up to getting her feet wet with the new tasks at hand. A well-composed speech exposing upon McCall Smith’s life, work, and an ambition any of us would be hard-pressed to find the time to sleep and still accomplish half of what he has done, no one could stifle their laughter as the author came out with thanks and the matter-of-fact admission of Cole getting a couple facts wrong.

As we all soon found out though, McCall Smith is not one to be taken very seriously. The mistakes he would point out included the fact he was so bad at playing the bassoon in Edinburgh’s Really Terrible Orchestra that he only played ‘half’ of it and his birthplace was actually South Rhodesia, not Zimbabwe despite both being the same geographical land. But this was the type of talk the accomplished writer, professor, and veritable Renaissance Man wanted to share—more a stand-up comedy act than anything Babel has yet put on stage.

“The Dickens of the Digital Age” did sprinkle in a few details about novelists he enjoys and opinions he has on institutions like book clubs—they’re nasty things that rape the authors—but with a permanent smile and constant chuckle at his own words, comedy was the name of the game and the aged crowd ate up every second. Laughs were big despite most jokes slight and obvious, only showing McCall Smith has total appeal with fans. They would even be in hysterics just listening to him paraphrase a character or a book they probably already read themselves. But the mood was light and although I am unfamiliar with his work, I found myself giggling along with the rest when I wasn’t flabbergasted by the extremely positive response.

Prolific in releasing three to four novels a year and very proud of his bibliography, it’s hard to say he has a big ego since he seemed to have so much fun. It wasn’t a snooty, “Bertie is my favorite character and you need to like him because …” No, it was a, “Bertie is such a hoot that he makes me laugh as much as I hope he does you.” All about the small details and becoming a part of his worlds to live within them rather than critique from outside, McCall Smith’s moment of seriousness to admit humor as his way to illuminate our fragility and humanity during the Q&A proved he wasn’t just a flake babbling excessively past his self-imposed 45-minute quota.

A well-traveled man very much apart of Botswana with stops in Scotland, England, Western Perth, and more, his The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is hugely successful world wide. While he enjoyed talking about it and its characters, I personally found asides about his favorite ‘first lines’ from novels and authors creating fictional backstories far more interesting. Definitely a talk strongly catered to his fans rather than the masses, one cannot deny his exuberance, but I definitely felt like an outsider—by my own fault for not reading the book—throughout.

Babel 2012/2013 Season:
Russell Banks (USA) – October 18, 2012 – The Sweet Hereafter
Nuruddin Farah (Somalia) – November 7, 2012 – Links
Alexandra Fuller (Great Britain/Zimbabwe) – March 7, 2013 – Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic/USA) – April 3, 2013 – In the Time of Butterflies
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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