PD Smith

Elisabeth’s Lists

23 March 2018 | cities, Guardian, Lisbon, Reviewing | Post a comment

We've just returned from a few days staying in Lisbon - a beautiful hilly city of cobbled streets, tiled houses and delicious food. You can see some of my impressions of the city on Flickr.

Before I left, I read Elisabeth’s Lists: A Family Story, by Lulah Ellender, a hauntingly beautiful meditation on life and death, spanning three generations of a family. The narrative is anchored in a book of lists kept by the author's grandmother. The lists range from inventories of household linen and a “register” of eggs laid by her chickens during the war, to what to serve at a cocktail party for eighty people. According to Ellender, “Elisabeth’s lists are her filing system for her troubles and her joys, triumphs and boredom”.

Ellender also explores how we use lists to bring order to the world: “these catalogues hold our chaos”. As his marriage crumbled, Einstein handed his wife an impossible list of Conditions for Marriage. Before he married, Darwin wrote down the pros and cons of marriage, eventually deciding a wife would be “better than a dog anyhow”.

My review of Ellender's book is published in Saturday's Guardian.

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