Lists may well have been around for as long as writing has; indeed, the need to inventory – to identify, to record, to provide an aide-memoire – may in part be why writing first came into being. In cuneiform, widely considered the earliest form of writing, a 4000-year-old clay tablet from Mesopotamia lists a temple offering of cattle and donkeys, and another the wages paid to workers.
Such practical records can contain unexpected insights into the social structures of the time. For example, The Statement of the Wages of the Boot and Shoemakers, Biggar, printed by D. Lockhart in 1872, itemises rates for different tasks. We see that payment for ‘Wellington, Gusset or Balmoral Boots, Soled,’ is 1s 3d, and for ‘Pumps, Soled, and Turned’ is 1s 6d. As these sums are ‘Agreed upon between Masters and Workmen’, we also catch a glimpse into labour relations of the period. Intriguing as these documents may be, I’ve long been fascinated by how the humble, mundane list can be reinvented in curious and enlivening ways when put to use in fiction.
The spark for this article, however, came from hearing a piece of vocal music: Orlando Gibbons’ The Cries of London, which dates from the early seventeenth century. The text begins:
God give you good morrow my masters, past three o’clock and a fair morning. – New mussels, new lilywhite mussels. – Hot codlings, hot. – New cockles, new great cockles, New great sprats, new. – New great lampreys, New fresh herrings, New great smelts, new. – New haddock, new, New thornbacks, new. – Hot apple pies, hot. Hot pippin pies, hot. Fine pomegranates, fine. – Hot mutton pies, hot.
As the list of street cries from seventeenth-century London continues, a vivid picture of a teeming city, and its zestful, ribald inhabitants, emerges: ‘Buy a cover for a close-stool’ (a chamberpot); ‘if your hens will not lay, your cock must obey’.
In Renaissance music, the use of ‘found’ or pre-existent text was an established practice, and five settings to ‘The Cries’ still exist. Gibbons’ quodlibet (Latin for ‘what you will’) combines several well-known melodies. By conjuring multiple voices jostling for attention, the music marries with the text, form echoes function, and the result is as fresh and new as the fish on offer.
As a literary form, the list is much older than Gibbons. We find it in the epics of Homer, Ovid and Virgil. In Book II of The Iliad, for example, in his ‘Catalogue of Ships’ Homer incorporates an exhaustive list of Greek military leaders as well as the number of ships in their respective fleets. As this section extends beyond 250 lines, it’s not surprising that the poet appeals to the Muses to aid his recall: ‘To count them all, demands a thousand tongues, /A throat of brass, and adamantine lungs. /Daughters of Jove, assist!’.
Moving forward to mediaeval France, and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, the list is very much alive and kicking — and in rollicking, outrageous form. We have, for example, Gargantua’s slew of filthy insults, or his distinctly suggestive games:
At the ramcod ball. At cock and crank it. At thrust out the harlot. At break-pot. At Marseilles figs. At my desire. At nicknamry. At twirly whirlytrill. At stick and hole. At the rush bundles. At boke or him, or flaying the fox. At the short staff. At the branching it. At the whirling gig.
A list draws attention to itself. It breaks the flow of the narrative and upsets our expectations of an ordered, comprehensible unfurling of events or ideas. If presented in traditional, vertical form, a list also commands attention by its shape on the page. Look at me! it asserts. Why am I here? What am I for? A list snaps its fingers, makes us perk up. As we are so familiar with the form and associate it with the dull stuff of the everyday, when one crops up in a story or novel, we may respond by doing a kind of double-take. At first we may resist, with a twinge of disappointment – not a list! – then if – and only if – the list is worth its salt, resistance gives way to renewed interest.
We are no longer coasting on the momentum of the prose, no longer lulled by deft phrasing or lyrical cadence, no longer rolling on, like a slow boat on a wide river. Like the appearance of a sudden, large rock, a list disrupts the flow, tugs at the seams of the carefully crafted prose. Our fictional world is no longer a homogeneous whole but contains a rogue element, which sets us thinking — about the rogue itself and, as with the list of party guests in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, wondering what we are to make of it, and how it might contribute to the story.
Of course, however ingenious or entertaining, lists don’t work for everybody: some find them irritating, intrusive, indulgent. Even for fans like myself, some overstay their welcome. Here’s an extract from Annie Proulx’s short story, ‘The Bunchgrass Edge of the World’: ‘“You want a know my problems? Brakes. Belts shot, block cracked, motor seized, everthing rusted hard, sludge, dirt, lifters need replacin, water pump’s shot, camshaft bearins shot, seals shot, magneto, alternator fried—”’.
While I enjoy Proulx’s hard sounds and taut, punchy rhythms, her list of tractor parts needing attention takes up ten lines in all when, for me, the point is made after two or three. Rather than relishing the accumulation of detail, I begin to feel as if I’m stuck in a garage with a gabby mechanic who’s charging by the hour and not getting on with the work in hand. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps, too, more can be less.
The master of inventiveness and unbridled indulgence has to be James Joyce, who also displays a seemingly inexhaustible relish for lists, not to mention lists within lists. In a letter to Frank Budgen, Joyce describes ‘Ithaca’, the penultimate chapter in Ulysses, which draws parallels with Homer’s Odyssey, as taking ‘the form of a mathematical catechism. All events are resolved into their cosmic physical, psychical etc. equivalents’. The range of topics is vast, eccentric and testament to Joyce’s extraordinary generative powers: from what Leopold Bloom admired in water to kindergarten inventions; from cosmological meditations to the cataloguing of ladies’ undergarments. List-haters be warned. In my 1960s’ edition, this fills 95 pages.
At the other end of the scale is flash fiction, which conveys as much as it can in the fewest words. In Jamaica Kincaid’s one page story, ‘Girl’, a mother lists the domestic skills her daughter should acquire in preparation for womanhood. As the list becomes pointedly embroidered, Kincaid conjures a rich, if conflicted world of experience:
this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming;
Finally, I’d like to mention a book which is all list. A dozen years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a month at a writers’ retreat in Upstate New York. Shortly before my stay was over, a visiting publisher donated several new titles to the house library. By then I was tired of my own writing so picked up Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? I was hooked by the first page but when my stay came to an end, I was only half-way through. Loath to leave the unfinished book behind, I did something I’d never done before, or since: I stole it. Composed entirely of questions, it is not only a stylistic tour de force but, for me, elicited an entirely new way of reading. As the questions came thick and fast, I found myself responding — occasionally aloud. I was interacting with a fictional narrator and it was exhilarating. When I’d finished the book, I returned it, with sheepish apologies, and immediately bought a copy for myself. My question is: Does The Interrogative Mood…do it for you?
Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you lie down and take a rest on the sidewalk?