I had very few problems choosing presents this Christmas, for I simply gave everyone I could think of one of the novels I had to read as a Booker judge, suitably embellished with my marginalia (which I suspect means they will already have been flogged to the University of Texas for a hefty sum), but I was somewhat alarmed to see the message had not got through, and all I received in return were wretched book tokens. If you are in the same boat, I recommend you swap some for a copy of The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings, an anthology of Lists in Literature compiled by the horribly well-read Francis Spufford. Its contents are quite fascinating.
Displaying great metaphorical control and critical expertise, the editor offers in his Introduction a miniature dissertation on his subject which is sickeningly well-crafted and stamped with the imprimatur of genuine authority. One can only quail respectfully in the presence of one who confidently asserts ‘There is only one list in Racine’s entire dramatic output,’ especially when he was born as recently as 1964. (I checked the whole corpus, of course, and he is correct). It is an erudite treatise, which in some places may leave what is nowadays termed ‘the non-specialist reader’ a little agog – I need hardly say that I understood every word of it – with such nice observations as ‘One change of obvious relevance is Montaigne’s declaration of “home ondoyant et divers” against unitary conceptions of humanity’s inner nature’, but do not be deterred, Doctor Prof will make all clear, as usual.
Spufford admires lists because they ‘refuse the connecting powers of language’, and because their unliterary examples (such as recipes or wills) can surprise or arrest when they crop up in a literary context. Lists are paradoxical, unarticulated, but potentially eloquent; but are they assemblages or reductions, active or passive? Do they not, in this age of fractured sensibilities, have some peculiar affinity to Modernism? Being such a versatile and various form, does the list perhaps disqualify itself as a literary form altogether? It is a point worth debating (and you can raise it with me any day, after four in the afternoon, in the Academy Club) whether the list is a rhetorical trope of bona fide pedigree, or a mere mongrel, bred of accident or convenience. But the drinks will have to be on you.
Literary lists derive their peculiar synergy, when successful, from the adjacence of their individual, paratactically arranged elements revealing a hidden consanguinity (there – I think that will do for the jacket of the paperback edition) and they achieve a craquelant appeal, a mosaic or constructivist effect, that can be quite central to a certain type of cultural analysis. All this is blatantly obvious, I know, but what is peculiarly satisfying about this book is that the anthological extracts exemplify that very theory which the editor posits in his Introduction – because the book itself is a cunningly orchestrated list of lists. And, though Spufford does not go so far as stating this, all writing is in the end but a list of words. Now that I have made public this brilliant discovery, perhaps we should proceed to the main body of the book under review.
In a little while, I’m going to show off, in the usual way, by itemising extracts I would have included had I been the editor; but let us begin by applauding the broad reach of the book as it stands. The range is quite breathtaking, encompassing Hakluyt, Valéry, Diogenes, Calvino, and AS Byatt; Hemingway, Hergé, Cowley, Robbe-Grillet and Tradescant all rub shoulders on a great spectrum of subjects – the latter recording his collection of curiosa that includes ‘Blood that rained in the Isle of Wight’ and ‘Birds-nests from China’, the marriage of which might have made an interesting soup. We learn that the late great Roland Barthes disliked fidelity, geraniums and Bartók, but loved pears, Twombly and the Marx Brothers; that the amusements of men of fashion in 1782 included ‘A dirty scirt’ (the Earl of Effingham) and ‘a warm cot’ (Viscount Keppel), both of which might not be out of place in a Martin Amis novel; that Shackleton and his confrères in the Antarctic fantasised about elevenses comprising ‘hot coca, open jam tarts, fried cod’s roe and slices of heavy plum cake’; and Alasdair Gray romps home with a fine description of ‘constructing such bizarre containers of ourselves as the Polaris submarine, Sistine Chapel, and suspenderbelt’.
The origins of such stuff lie in epic, and this is well represented. Elsewhere, extracts range from the time-capsule variety to an inventory of the foul rag-and-bone-shop of the human heart. Anthony Fitzherbert’s enumeration of the qualities shared by a good horse and fine woman include ‘the ix to be alwaye besye with the mouthe’, whereas the SCUM manifesto of Valerie Solanas advocates squashing the male sex during Turd sessions. It is difficult to tell whether the centre can hold in Finnegans Wake where they are yoked together ‘broken wafers, unloosed shoe latchets, crooked strait waistcoats, fresh horrors from Hades, globules of mercury’, and you have to wait a couple more centuries before encountering (in the work of Dylan Thomas) such extravagance as this, from the poor pen of deranged enthusiast Kit Smart, a poet with no penchant for clean linen: ‘Let Ross, house of Ross rejoice with the Great Flabber Dabber Flat Clapping Fish with Hands …’
Though he spares us certain predictable horrors such as that lyric about favourite things from The Sound of Music, and while he includes such classic gibberish from the Bible like ‘And Abishua begat Bukki, and Bukki begat Uzzi’, I do feel I’ve got to quibble a teensy bit. One category of list he overlooks is the book index (those appended to the Diaries of Pepys, and Boswell’s Life of Johnson both furnish tremendous little sequences of narrative juxtaposition which are surely classics), and I would have preferred to have seen more recipes (culinary or alchemical); bills of fare are also important, such as the definitive couplet from Blaise Cendrars’ Postcards from America ‘Je bois un cocktail au whiskey, puis un deuxième puis un troisième/Puis un mint-julep un milk-mother un prairie oyster un nightcap’. Other paradigmatic lists might be found in Swift’s gushing triplet at the close of ‘A Description of a City Shower’, which is the fons et origo of the catchphrase ‘raining cats and dogs’, or Adrien Henri’s catalogue poem ‘If you weren’t you, who would you like to be?’
There is a goodish showing of children’s literature, which habitually relies on the incremental list for its hypnotic effects, and Thurber’s story The Wonderful O is conspicuous by its presence: but surely we could have had The Gingerbread Man, The Fisherman and the Flounder, or my favourite among all infantile sagas, the tale which finishes ‘The the foxes ate Chicken Licken, Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey for their dinners’, an epic denouement which has for generations of exasperated parents signalled that moment of finality when lights go out over terrified children, and there is just time to have a hit on the decanter of Lagavulin, before proceeding to the theatre.
‘Lists of writers with wooden legs, or unusual preferences at bedtime, are a familiar feature of books of literary trivia’, observes Spufford: and I fear that the latter aspect of the writerly life is the one that is so dismally represented in Edward Ableson’s Misalliance. Hugh Kingsmill once identified a condition know as ‘anthologist’s ear’ wherein a person suffered ‘in extreme case, an inability to hear six consecutive words spoken without extracting a title for an anthology out of them’. I do not know if Ableson procured his title from that of Anita Brookner’s novel of similar appellation, but I do feel it is a dismal exercise on a subject that is surely richer in possibilities.
That writers, like many other artistic types, are bananas, is well known. One does not have to drag on Gerard de Nerval with his lobster, or, indeed, Joyce, and Nora’s underpants, to stake one’s claim. But this compilation is singularly disappointing, since most of the case-histories it covers are not strictly speaking bizarre, and many if them could hardly be described as disastrous. Perhaps the facts of the matter are that writers, as a breed, are too busy getting drunk to provide them much in the way of bizarre sexual habits, but from the tame record here inscribed it would seem preferable to stick to the practices of estate agents or gamekeepers.
Lovers of both sexes regularly succumb to laudanum, insanity, or the pox – but so did most folk. We learn of Gissing being beaten up by one of his mad wives, Lamb chortling at Hazlitt’s wedding, the author of The Railway Children enjoying young lovers and marrying the Captain of the Woolwich Ferry, but bizarreries are there none. Of Simenon, that human domino who toppled into bed with all and sundry, there is no mention. Rochester’s sexual career is palely represented, and the wilder shores of homosexual disporting have been poorly beachcombed. In short, the book is a dud. It has failed to grasp the appropriate nettles, such as the other anthology has identified, that lunatical and precise quality which is summed up in the words of Smart – ‘For I have seen the White Raven & Thomas Hall of Willingham & am myself a greater curiosity than both.’ Complete bonkers, of course, but this is surely the stuff of which anthologists are made.