All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
You may recognise the urbane, world-weary tone, the ennui that is on the edge of cynicism. This is the opening sentence to Anna Karenina.
But you know, it’s quite untrue; in fact it is the direct opposite to the truth. Happy people enjoy and share their own unique happiness. It is misery that is the great leveller.
I must share with you an example of the uniqueness of happiness. I had dinner with some very dear friends of mine last week, in Inverleith, by the Edinburgh Botanical Garden. Gerald Lamont used to be a very serious-minded medical student with a sombre view of human nature (we used to call him Jeremiah Lamentations), but then he had the great good fortune to marry the gorgeous Egyptologist Maggie (like Jerry and Margo from the ancient BBC sitcom The Good Life) and, as somebody said about Paroles (or was it Bertram?) in Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, he was “dismissed to happiness”. Now he can walk from his house past Fettes College to the Western General in fifteen minutes, tend the sick and needy, and return home, reliably, to domestic bliss. Gerry and Maggie have two daughters of great charm and vivacity, Elizabeth and Barbara. Elizabeth is a medical student and Barbara is still at school. Barbara is a harpist. Barbara will break many hearts. I resist the temptation to advise her not to follow in her sister’s footsteps. Medicine is a noble calling, but if you are born blessed with an artistic talent, is it not a sin to neglect it? But I keep my mouth shut. None of my business.
Who else was there? Three waifs from the musical world (and is there anything more waif-like, these days, than the inhabitants of the musical world?), Josephine, flute, Marcus, hautbois, and Philip, bassoon. Party of eight. We dined right royally, and moved from the dining room to the living room for coffee. Barbara said, “Let’s play Blurbs!”
“It’s our invented game. We need to patent it.”
“Just one rubber, Barbara,” warned her mother.
Rubber of Blurbs?
“Dr Campbell might not be as enthusiastic as you.”
“That’s all right. He can be Browser.”
Browser? I said, “What do I need to do?”
“Imagine you go into a bookshop. Waterstones or Blackwell’s. You are looking for a piece of fiction, hot off the press. You search for a title that catches the eye, and you take the book off the shelf and read the blurb. All you need to do is supply the title, and the rest of us supply the blurb. We can have three teams of two. We compose a blurb to fit the title. Team members alternate, clause by clause, to supply the blurb. At the end, you will have browsed three books. The winning team is the one whose blurb is on the cover of the book you choose to buy. Dad can be adjudicator.”
“Strict rules of Blurbs?” said Gerry.
“Definitely. Proper names can be stand-alone, clauses may be principal or subordinate, adjectival phrases are permitted.”
I said, “I’ll pick it up as I go along.”
“If I’m the ref,” said father, “Elizabeth and Barbara cannot be on the same team. They’re too good. Lizzie you go with Jo, Barbara with Marcus, Mags with Philip. All set? I warn you, James, you’d better make your titles imaginative.”
Barbara sat on the carpet in the full Lotus position, rocking gently to and fro. “Begin.”
“The Piano-Tuner of Punta del Este.”
“Lizzie and Jo.”
It was so rapid fire that I have difficulty reconstructing the narrative. But I will do my best.
“Just another casual murder at the bottom of the world…
“…random, senseless, and in some ways inept…
“…yet there were clues…
“…subtle, barely visible…
“…yet taken together…
“…adding towards a sum greater than the parts…
“…for somebody who could join the dots…
“…and that somebody just might be…
There was a round of applause.
“Mike Fist? Is he the piano tuner? I was looking for a manual on how to look after my Bluthner. These tuners have become so expensive!”
“Well, if the book’s not what you expected, you don’t need to buy it. Next up!”
“How many rickshaws are in Milton Keynes?”
“Niente,” volunteered Maggie.
“Mags and Philip.”
“Before you begin,” I said, “I’d better warn you I never buy a book whose title has been concocted by somebody sticking a pin at random into a dictionary.”
“Then give us another title,” said Philip, in a bass voice, melodious as a bassoon.
“A Load of Old Codswallop.”
“I think I’ve read that.”
“Really? All right, I’ll keep it brief. Junk.”
“When Pippa Graz-Brise-Norton told her friends…
“…she was going to circumnavigate the globe solo in a Singaporean fishing boat…
“…they did their best to commit her to the local psychiatric facility…
“…yet she persevered…
“…Changi to Raffles in 256 days…
“…in aid of Dysmorphic Discombobulation Syndrome (DDS)…
“…a condition with devastating effects…
“…whose reality she passionately champions…
“…despite the obduracy of the medical profession…
“…and whose sinister psychological sequelae…
“…finally drives Pippa to render a confession…
“…of astonishing candour, and generosity of heart.”
I said, “Blimey!”
“Next up. Barbara and Marcus.”
“Story’s Endit, Pal.”
“He was lying in a gutter on St Vincent Street…”
I said, “Hang on, this sounds awfully like Punta del Este transported to 55 degrees north. Can we start again?”
I said, mischievously, e con malicia, “The Blurb”.
“K. walked into the bookshop and chose a book at random…
“…entitled The Blurb.
“He read the blurb.
“It occurred to K. that if the substance of the book was itself a blurb…
“…then it must refer to another blurb…
“…presumably in another tome, which, in turn…
“…must allude to a further blurb, and that therefore…
“…K. was in a hall of mirrors that vanished off to infinity. So…
“…should K. venture further into the shop?”
“Solipsistic nightmare,” I remarked. “Wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. I’m going for The Piano Tuner of Tierra del Fuego.”
“Punta del Este,” said Barbara. “But that’s just cliché.”
“So I’ll buy the cliché. Congratulations to Lizzie and Jo.”
That night I slept heavily.
The following day I found myself on Princes Street and paused before a bookshop I had not previously noticed. Blandings. It was a substantial property on several storeys, and the curvaceous, rather Dickensian windows made up of multiple small panes revealed an attractive display of the latest publications. I ventured inside. Where to begin?
The titles of the previous evening remained vivid in my memory. The blurbs had been so eloquently rendered that I had to believe they had some reality beyond will-o’-the-wisp imagination. I approached the young lady at the checkout.
Why is it that booksellers, like librarians, seem to resent us, their clients? Is it that they suspect we are all mendicants come in, briefly, to escape the elements?
“I’m looking for a book entitled The Piano Tuner of Punta del Este.”
“Who is the author?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. It’s a title I heard last night at my book club.”
She typed rapidly and frowned at the computer screen. “Can’t see it on the system. I’ve got How to keep your clavier well-tempered. A piano tuner’s guide.”
“That’s not it. Could you try another one? Junk. I think it’s a kind of travelogue and inspirational self-help book.”
“Author and publisher?”
“I’ve got Junk: How to Declutter.”
“No. Would you mind trying one last one?”
She looked at me, wondering if I had some weird personality disorder and relished playing bizarre practical jokes on total strangers. I remembered a sketch by “The Two Ronnies”, when Mr Barker wound up Mr Corbett in a hardware store. I said, “The Blurb.”
She sighed. “Author?”
Then I had an inspiration. I remembered ‘K’. “Franz Kafka.”
Sher typed rapidly. “Here it is. Der Klappentext. Berlin: Verlag Die Schmiede, 1927. We’ve got it in store. You’ll find it downstairs. In the basement.”
I was completely thunderstruck. “Thank you very much.” I glanced at the wide staircase with its elegant dark wood balustrade. I turned for the exit, and Princes Street. I became aware that the other occupants of the shop had formed a phalanx between me and the door. I was reminded of the final scene in Maeterlinck’s Pélleas et Melisande. It was then that I realised that the other occupants of the shop were not fellow browsers, but were all employees. I was the only customer. A gentleman in a frock coat with a hideous smile and very bad teeth said to me, “My name is Moser. I am the manager of Blandings. You must descend to retrieve your book.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I wish to leave.”
“That is not possible.”
“Are you telling me that you forbid it?”
“Not at all. I am telling you that for the man in the street, the man, now, in Princes Street, there is no such shop as Blandings. Blandings, Dr Campbell, has been created solely for you, and now that you have come into its precinct, no further customer can enter, since Blandings no longer exists for him, just as Princes Street no longer exists, for you.”