by Jeremy Gavron
One. List, ledger, inventory, exempla, litany, series, tally, catalogue, compendium, manifest, enumeration, register, roll, index, menu, repository, midden.
Two. When I was at university in the 1980s, I was taught for a term by a young lecturer named Eric Griffiths. He was my supervisor for a dissertation and we would meet in person for an hour each week. He was only a few years older than I was, twenty-seven or twenty-eight, but he was already known across the campus simply as Eric.
He was famous, or infamous, for a whole list of reasons.
Where most lectures were dull, old men droning on from papers they had already given a dozen times, Eric’s were exhilarating performances, filled with ideas, voices and gesticulations, packed to the rafters.
Elfin, erudite, words tumbling out of him, pausing only to sip from a flask – this often at nine o’clock in the morning – Eric would quote Greek poetry one minute, and give an impression of a well-known TV comic the next. He was famously disrespectful. In one lecture he mocked a rival academic’s claim that Shakespeare’s plays were proof of the richness of Elizabethan conversation by reciting imaginary exchanges down the local pub in a florid language that could have been the model for the dialogue in the TV series Deadwood. Ted Hughes complained of one of Eric’s reviews that of his poetry that it was a “mugging.” For a time the student newspaper listed Eric’s lectures in the entertainment section.
Eric himself was as hard to pin down as his lectures. The son of a Liverpool dock worker he was snobbish and demanding, but he could also be generous and patient. Openly gay at a time when this was still rare, he never had a partner, or even a sexual partner, as far as any of us knew. An iconoclast, suspicious of theories or schools, he was a convert to Catholicism.
The Guardian once called him the “cleverest man in England.” A poet he had mocked “the rudest man in the kingdom.”
In his study in college, where we had our weekly meetings, he would circle the chair on which I sat, telling me what to read and what to think and then suddenly ask me for my opinion, leaning towards me intently.
Over the years, after I left university, I would read or hear things about Eric. As a judge for the Booker prize he caused a stir by describing one of the shortlisted novels as “the kind of novel I’d write if I didn’t know I couldn’t write novels.” He incurred the wrath of Helen Vendler over an introduction he wrote for a translation of Dante. “Helen Vendler,” he responded, “does not like the way I write; I can’t blame her, there are days I don’t like it myself. But there it is, we cannot all have her style. I in my turn deplore the way she reads.”
And then I didn’t hear about him, didn’t think about him, until a year or so ago I read that a book of his essays had been published. It was only his second book. For all his brilliance, he had published before then a single volume on Victorian poetry in the 1980s. Reading on, I learned that Eric had had a stroke a few years earlier and lost his ability to speak. He who had once said that his idea of hell would be having his tongue cut out. The book had been pieced together from the manuscripts of his lectures by a former student. Eric had died, aged 66, a few days before it was published.
Of course I ordered the book. I was already thinking about the subject of this lecture, gathering material for it. When the book arrived and I opened it I saw that the first chapter was titled, Lists.
Three. It is easy, Eric argued, to dismiss lists as something “mere” or “only” or “no more than” – “a mere heap,” as Alexander Pope wrote of Homer’s list of ships in the Odyssey – but “if you know how to treat a list right, it will repay the time and attention you devote to it.”
Lists are, in good part, where writing began. The earliest known examples of writing, the Sumerian clay tablets from 5,000 years ago, largely consist of lists and ledgers, recordings of trades and transactions. “The poets like to tell us it was they, the poets, who gave mankind speech and purified the dialect of the tribe and shed light on the gods and other boasts,” Eric wrote, “but, as far as concerns writing, the evidence suggests we are in debt not so much to the poets as to the warehousemen and civil servants who kept tallies of grain and oil, recorded tributes owed from provinces, catalogued the parts of an ox.”
More relevant to today, lists connect literature, Eric continued, to the “larger land mass of language use, a landmass with which the literary parish remains continuous, and without attention to which literary works can’t be understood, as an oasis is unintelligible without thought of the dunes which surround it.”
In other words, unlike other art forms, the medium of literature is the medium of everyday discourse, not only the language but the forms of conversation, email, the to-do list stuck on the refrigerator door.
To make a list is to engage with language and with life.
To list can be to organise, catalogue, bring the chaos of the world under control, like that early listicle, the Ten Commandments, and it can be to embrace disorder, abundance, contradictions, like the multitudinous lists in Walt Whitman’s poems.
Lists can be aspirational, like the schedule in the back of Gatsby’s boyhood copy of Hopalong Cassidy, or Joe Brainard’s list for a new life: “No cig before breakfast. No cheap sex novels. Use dictionary.”
Lists can be confessional, like Augustine’s 4th-century Confessions, or the “shame list” Bennie Salazar scribbles on the back of a parking ticket in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad: the lice the barber finds in his son’s hair, the woman he lusts after walking in on him in the lavatory, the kiss he plants on Mother Superior’s lips after signing her singing nuns to his record label.
Lists can be playful, satirical, comic, absurd, indulgences of the male ego, like the overflowing lists in Swift, Joyce, Salman Rushdie’s novel, Quichotte, with its list of 41 varieties of snore, “the fireworks display, the tunnel at rush hour, the traffic jam, the Alan Berg, the Schoenberg, the Webern, the Philip Glass,” or Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq’s early Arabic novel, Leg over Leg, published in 1885, with its pages-long list of euphemisms for male and female genitalia, which I will spare you by not quoting.
Lists can be brief, haunting, like the list of clothes in the closet of her sister, dead from suicide, in Jill Bialosky’s memoir, My Sister’s Unfinished Life: all black leather miniskirts and black spike heeled pumps, except for the “Laura Ashley bridesmaid dress with cabbage-rose print she wore as the maid of honor” at Bialosky’s wedding.
Lists can inform by what they include and by what they leave out. “The history of Buenos Aires,” Bruce Chatwin wrote in In Patagonia, “is written in its telephone directory. Names like Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Elisabeta Marta Calman de Rothschild, tell a story of exile, disillusion and anxiety behind lace curtains.” Compare this to the telephone directories in the Soviet Union, which listed government departments, approved businesses, but no private numbers, as if its people had no history, or its history no people.
Lists are the “signature form of our time,” according to the New Yorker, which generally uses lists only in its humour pages, and “a form of cultural hysteria,” according to Don DeLillo.
Four. List, from the Old English, ‘liste’, or border. A strip of colour. A place of combat. To list is to careen, heel, or incline to one side. To be listless is to be lethargic, unenthusiastic, without direction or purpose.
Five. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: an American Lyric, published in 2014, is officially categorized as a work of poetry, though it might also be described as an extended fragmented essay, or a collage, or at least in part, a list. It is made up of a catalogue of vignettes of racial microaggressions, most no more than half a page long, interspersed with musings on these experiences and their effect on the psyche, along with some mini essays and short documentary scripts on racially charged topics such as Serena Williams, Hurricane Katrina and the killing of Trayvon Martin.
It is impossible to capture the effect of the whole in an extract but here are three of the vignettes:
At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!
I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? he asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes swiftly after that.
And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship, as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.
Despite the fact that you have the same sabbatical schedule as everyone else, he says you are always on sabbatical. You are friends so you respond, easy.
What do you mean?
Exactly, what do you mean?
These vignettes – there are some twenty-five in all – make up the heart of the book. Each one might be a scene from a memoir, or part of a longer narrative, though they present, indeed the book as a whole presents, no obvious arc, no clear linear progress from one place to another, as we might expect in a conventional memoir or story or narrative poem. Rankine has explained that the experiences are not all her own, some were collected from conversations with friends. “A loose anthropological exercise,” as she put it. The vignettes are, in effect, a list or inventory of the kind of, the particular, everyday racisms a person of colour might experience in America.
Like the best literary lists, like the best writing I might venture, the form of Citizen both reflects and illuminates its subject matter. Lists are particularly effective at the cumulative, the incremental. Think of the Washington Post‘s lists of Trump’s lies, fourteen thousand as I write and growing. Or the list of names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which reminds us that the history they record is not the murder of six million, but six million individual murders, each one of a person with a name, a history, a life.
The cumulative rather than linear form of Citizen both embodies, and exposes us to, the cumulative experience of everyday racism. There is no movement from conflict to resolution in the book because there is no such movement in life. This is not something a person experiences, learns from and moves on from, but something that accumulates in the mind and in the soul, like bricks constructing a wall.
The use of “you” in each vignette personalises and universalises the incidents, so that as you read them they seem to be happening both to one particular black person and to all black people. The brevity of the vignettes mirrors what it is like to experience these moments, random, unexpected, over before they can be properly processed or even taken in. We are used in reading what looks, as these pages do, like prose form, for the narrative or argument to carry us forward, for our eyes to keep moving along the lines, down the page, but here the elliptical language and syntax makes us go back, read again, as the person who experiences such slights, assumptions, blindnesses, has to stop and go over in the mind what has just happened. As Rankine writes, “What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard?”
The order of the vignettes seems at first entirely random, as such moments are experienced, though as we read on we see that, as works of music may take up a theme, drop it, then return to it, so Rankine keeps circling back to certain experiences. The woman “you” works with who calls “you” by the name of another black colleague, echoes the earlier vignette of a friend calling “you” by the name of her black housekeeper. The trauma therapist “you” goes to see who yells at “you” to “Get away from my house,” recalls the neighbour who calls “you” to say that your house is being cased by a “menacing black guy” who is actually your babysitter.
The power of the book comes from the accumulation of these experiences, the repeated blows, like Orwell’s boot stamping on a face, but also from the variations, the slights coming from different directions, different kinds of people, in different ways. The genius of this method is to pull us all in. Reading Citizen as a Jew in Britain, where an unthinking antisemitism has always been present in certain circles, I recognise some of these experiences in my own. Reading it as a white man I see lines I might not have always paid enough attention to, might have crossed or come close to crossing. The catalogue of microaggressions in Citizen, laid bare on the page, lays bare the fault lines in our society, in ourselves.
Six. British writer Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be, is a memoir. Pawson spent most of the 2000s as a journalist reporting from west and southern Africa, especially Angola, for BBC radio, and the book grew out of those experiences. But like Citizen, This Is the Place to Be cannot be contained by conventional genre or form. The book began as a performance art-work and when Pawson sat down to write the longer version she kept to the same rules. To write associatively, instinctively. Not to go back over what she had written. “I didn’t want to shape it deliberately or plan it,” she said, but instead to “stick tight to the honesty of the process.” The result is a memoir in the shape of a list or catalogue of memories and thoughts, a mental scrapbook made up of hundreds of fragments of a single paragraph each, with no overriding chronological or narrative order. It explores her time in Africa, but also ventures into other corners of her life and mind: memories of her childhood, her bodily functions, her political views, times she has lost her temper, times she has been mistaken for a man, encounters with people on the streets of Luanda and London, and so on.
Again it’s impossible to convey the whole in a few lines but here is a section from the middle of the book:
Although I have come to understand that the violence of war affects families for generations, I continue to fear the apathy produced by peace.
I’m probably too judgmental of those who have not experienced conflict. But I’m probably too judgemental full-stop.
Jokes abound in Angola. A priest told me that my war reporting was defective because I never discussed Angolans’ sense of humour. I still reflect on my failure to report all those jokes in all that war – and when I went to see Beckett’s Endgame at the Duchess Theatre off the Strand, I experienced that pang for Angola again. It was that line of Nel’s, the one living without legs in a bin: ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’
I have a bit of a track record for passing out when I am overwhelmed. Within hours of arriving in Dubai to visit my old friend Brian, I collapsed in an Irish pub. I’d come straight from Ethiopia, from the northern town of Axum, where I’d been staying with an old woman in her cylindrical home. In those days, I had bleached hair clipped to within an inch of my scalp. My brother called me a Baader-Meinhoff lesbian. In Axum, the woman’s son said his mother thought I was a man. By the time I touched down in the concrete hoax that is Dubai, my senses were overloading. I was standing at the bar beside a group of women. They had thick locks of bronze and black hair, fixed in position, like warmed plastic. The four of them were looking at me, talking to each other, and then one of them asked, Are you a man or a woman? Minutes later, I was introduced to a man called Ian, who I recognised from a party in Tottenham, years before, when all the chocolate brownies had been laced with hash. This coincidence was the final straw: there, in the Emirates, I dropped to the floor.
The book isn’t all as idiosyncratic as this, there are some devastating passages of war reporting or observation, though more often than not Pawson is more interested in what she sees out of the corner of her eye as she hurries to report a story than the story itself. But these paragraphs give you a flavour of the way the book unfolds on the page. The free form allows Pawson to go wherever her thoughts and memories take her, untrammelled by linear or narrative demands. The result is unexpectedly page-turning, less to find out what happens next, or how one act leads to another, than to see where Pawson goes next, to follow the associations and leaps of her mind. It’s partly her honesty, her readiness to look things, including herself, in the eye, that so grips. But the book also has something of the shape of a growing friendship or love affair, the excitement of getting to know a person not from some carefully prepared narrative, but organically through the stories, thoughts, opinions and memories that emerge as you keep company with them.
While I was writing this, the New Yorker published a review of the new book of poetry, Felon, by Reginald Dwayne Betts, which contains these lines: “The book shows how poems can be enlisted to radically disrupt narrative: stanzas interrupt the flow and sequence of time by constantly hitting refresh; jagged line breaks appear to sever cause and effect; in place of ‘days & their ruthless abundance,’ poetic form offers itself as an alternative calendar.”
This sums up very nicely what Pawson is doing in This Is the Place to Be. The abundance of white space. The rejection of the linear or the chronological. The juxtaposition of a soldier shooting himself in the head in a market-place in Angola with musings on marsh birds in London with memories of the first time Pawson saw her father cry. This can be jarring at times, but that is the point, and the “constantly hitting refresh” gives the book an unusual energy, keeps us on our toes, like one of those moments when a newsreader or a stand-up comic abandons her script and starts telling us what is on her mind.
Like Citizen, the form of Pawson’s book both embodies and complements its author’s preoccupations. This Is the Place to Be is in part a meditation on truth, on what we can and can’t know, a challenge to the idea implicit in the conventional prose form Pawson rejects that life has shape and pattern. “Memory,” she writes, “doesn’t function as a tidy narrative.” Objectivity is “false and a lie.” Assumptions are to be challenged, the paradoxical nature of life acknowledged both in Pawson’s readiness to question things and in a form that embraces contradictions. “I’d lived in war-torn places, but I was aware that I’d also experienced a lot of violence in peaceful places,” she writes. “In fact while living in countries with war, I’d experienced a lot of peace.”
I’m not arguing that we should all reject the conventional narrative form, the linear story with its arc, its conflict and resolution, and write all our stories as lists or catalogues. Merely I would encourage you to be open to the possibility that a particular story might be better, or differently, served, by a less obvious or conventional form.
Before we move on, I want to look briefly at an example of a writer who did just this: Joan Wickersham in her memoir The Suicide Index. It’s the story of her father’s suicide, organised in the structure of an index.
I’m not going to quote from the book – though I’d recommend The Suicide Index to anyone who is interested – but instead quote some lines from an interview Wickersham gave in which she spoke about the process of writing the book, how after years of trying to shoehorn the story into a conventional narrative, in despair she stuck her notes randomly on the wall and realised that what she was looking at represented her story more truthfully and effectively than a linear approach. “I tried,” she said, “all kinds of tidier, more conventional ways of telling the story: novel, chronological memoir. Nothing worked. And I finally realized that the experience of my father’s death, and my own trying to piece it together, was by nature fragmentary and circular. The structure had to somehow reflect the chaotic character of the experience, but I didn’t want the book to feel chaotic. The index is something of a paradox: it is inherently numb and formal, but it allows all the intense feelings to be as wild as they need to be.”
This touches on something I love about lists, that they are free but not formless. I think of Robert Frost’s comments after the death of his friend Edward Thomas: “Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry.” Lists are a way of combining that necessary formality with the freedom to go wherever thoughts, feelings, need to go.
Numbers 7-13 coming next week!
Cartoon credit: David Jacobson/The New Yorker Collection/The Cartoon Bank
 This post is an excerpt from a talk with the same title that the author recently gave at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa North Carolina, where he is on the faculty of the MFA Program for Writers.
 The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols, 1993.