McKay Susan

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2009

It’s that time of year again, and as usual there are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener provided a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging.  Probably David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide would have made the cut too, if it hadn’t been a late victim of my inability to blog and be a parent at the same time.  The following titles are listed alphabetically by author.

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A strange book which, despite its brisk length, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of. That it nonetheless stuck in my mind for most of the year must be a measure of its force.  It’s about art, life and more.  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.”  Resolution #1 for 2010: read more Aira.

Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield
A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.”

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written.  “He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.”  The best new novel I read this year.

Simon Crump: Neverland
A book which at first seems ridiculous and laughable – and then seems ridiculous and laughable, but also clever and mesmerising.  Neverland is effective and affecting on the modern subject of celebrity, and its timing, published a few months after Michael Jackson’s death, was spookily apt.  “For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back. We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.”

L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life
Here is the perfect example of the art of the reissue.  A fine, miserable comic novel (a sort of funny Richard Yates) which died a death when first (and last) published in 1971, is given new life by NYRB Classics.  Its misanthropy and set pieces make it a sort of comfort read for me: the tale of a man who realises that his life is not going to get any better.  “He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.”

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone
Another ‘lost classic’, and for once the hype was justified.   Fallada’s forgotten novel about a personal crusade against the Nazis, written in six weeks, was rough around the edges but compelling and real.  “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.” The only mystery remaining about its publication is why the US and UK publishers gave us different titles; but to balance that we have the prospect of more Fallada reissues to come.  Goody.

Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
OK, I have to admit that this is probably not a better book than the titles I left off my list (see intro), but it had a particular revelatory quality for me.  In previous years I would have shunned a book about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (too close to home), but this tragic, infuriating account of the victims and their loved ones has a power I couldn’t get over.  “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.”

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read.  It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them.  The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time.  “After mankind, the Horla!”

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18
The best way of pulling the rug from under the reader is to approach the turning point in an entirely deadpan manner.  In fact, make the entire book as flat and uninflected as possible, then they really won’t see what’s coming.  This book stayed with me longer perhaps than any other this year, not for its ‘twist’ but for its solid refusal to pander to the reader.  “He wanted a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.”

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well
The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing.   A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust.  “He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.”

Hugo Wilcken: Colony
A scandalously overlooked novel from 2007 provided my greatest surprise of the year. A multilayered novel which teases as much as it satisfies, Colony should be a huge hit, but isn’t. The most admirable pleasure in this box of delights is Wilcken’s refusal to try to impress the reader: he creates a complex and memorable work from the most lucid prose.  “Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.”

John Williams: Stoner
A traditional novel in a traditional mode – the story of an ordinary man’s life – Stoner succeeds through the respect it pays to its characters and in particular, the honest and affecting portrayal of its hero (the word is appropriate).  It tells of a man who learns that the love of literature and work can be the match of any other kind of love.  ”It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Please add your own best – or worst – reads of the year, or a link to your own list, below.  Happy Christmas, and see you again in 2010.

Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead

You wait years to read a book about Northern Ireland’s troubled past, and then gorge on three at once. After the fictional treatments in Proxopera (a fine little book which is going up in my estimation the more I think about it) and Swallowing the Sun, let’s get hardcore with Susan McKay’s report on thirty years of violent death in Ulster.

bearinmindthesedead

The title comes from lines by John Hewitt (the only Belfast poet with a pub named after him): “Bear in mind these dead: / I can find no plainer words. / I dare not risk using / that loaded word, Remember…” Yes: they have long memories, the Irish, the Northern Irish, but where remembrance is often used as a divider (Remember 1690?), McKay’s task here is to create a sort of informal truth and reconciliation document (Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, the acclaimed account of the South African truth and reconciliation commission, is referenced) so that remembrance – so that bearing in mind – can begin to heal. In doing so it risks re-opening the wounds.

The book was shortlisted for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, named after the British ambassador to Ireland, who was murdered by the IRA in 1976. The Prize (McKay was beaten to it by David Park for The Truth Commissioner) is aimed at promoting greater understanding between the people of Britain and Ireland. If Bear in Mind These Dead achieves that, it is through making readers in each country recognise the horrors carried out by people purporting to act in their name.

The first half of the book proceeds chronologically, from the civil rights marches of the 1960s to the frequently dashed hopes of the new millennium. McKay’s account is by necessity selective (for a literally full account of the deaths, you need to go to the landmark – the monolith – volume Lost Lives). It reminds us that if, as Martin Amis put it, the 3,000+ deaths in the Troubles were “the equivalent of one bad month in Iraq” (or one very bad day in New York), that the Irish conflict has a horror and hatred all its own.

“There was a [path] up through the garden and on either side of it there were … well, I’ll call them people. They spat at me and clapped their hands and cheered. My brother Thomas was lying there with blood all around him. He had left the RUC after twelve years. It was dark. I left. I had to go and tell my father and mother.

“It was the INLA shot my brother, and they said they’d attack the cortège. We had to go seven miles around the town to get to our family burial plot. We were advised not to put a green mat over the grave but to fill it in ourselves. The police had word they were going to do something to the body. The day after the burial, me and two of my brothers went to see everything was OK. The headstone, my grandmother’s, had ‘scum’ and ‘orange bastards’ scrawled on it. The wreaths had been thrown away. We could see them along the road.”

This account is representative rather than exceptional. Another victim, a killer himself, speaks of how he went to the grave of a policeman whom he had set up to be killed, and read the tribute cards in case any of his police colleagues had left useful personal details. McKay lets families of the dead speak – families of policemen, civilians, IRA men, and although they are not considered with moral equivalence, their loved ones are presented equally as victims, suffering unimaginable loss. “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.” Mostly this is highly effective and affecting, though there is occasionally a touch of sentimentality to the introductions. When a paragraph begins “Hundreds of miles away, in the south-west of the Republic, in Kerry, sixteen-year-old Michael Horan was having a ball…”, it’s hard not to think of the opening minutes of an episode of Casualty, or a public information film where a child plays Frisbee near an electrical pylon. (I’ve changed the name in the preceding sentence, as I’m commenting on the book’s presentation and not trying to belittle the event it describes.)

Bear in Mind These Dead is a depressing and gruelling read, but hard to put down – perhaps only from the desire to see some daylight break through as the chronological account takes us to the present day. The light does not quite come. After the last chapter of part one (“Corrupting a New Generation”), we move into ‘Aftermath’, and the chapter “The Damage Done,” which details how some of the victims’ loved ones reacted to their deaths. Illness, heart attacks, depression, suicide. God, but it’s hard to take. At times I wanted to give up on continuing – what was the point when all it did was make me alternately angry and tearful? – but quickly the book came to seem essential. It has force, and resonance.

McKay does excellent work in taking the bare and bloody accounts in part one and placing them in context in part two: according to themes such as confronting enemies, or the notion of hierarchies of victims, the difficulties which arise all over again in erecting memorials, or the horrifying details of collusion between security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. The book lacks an index, which would have been helpful in cross-referencing the accounts in parts one and two. It does however include a glossary, useful for those without detailed knowledge of the Troubles – and this is a book for all, with stories which pierce the reader and allow eloquence of people whose voices are rarely heard.

“The bullets that killed [my son] didn’t just travel in distance, they travelled in time,” says one man. “Some of those bullets never stop travelling.”