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99 NOVELS: The Best in English Since 1939

A Personal Choice by Anthony Burgess

peter.andren (at) gmail.com

My reading of the books on the Burgess99 is coming to an end. There are a few books I have decided not to read, e.g. Finnegans Wake. But I've read most of them, and on the whole I am very happy I started this project. One thing I'm not as happy with is the fact that I haven't received a single email with questions, comments or critique. I get mail from time to time about most of my other pages, so I don't think the web design à la 1990 is the problem.

Yes, yes, yes, I know what you're thinking — that I should take the initiative and ask questions in forums etc. if I want to discuss literature. What right have I got to be unhappy just because no one sends me an email? That's un understandable reaction, but even when I take that into account I'm still a bit disappointed. Let me explain.

A couple of years back I realized I would never reread many of the books I had. Mostly from Burgess99 but lots of other fiction too, mainly in English. So I tried to sell them. This turned out to be more or less impossible. I sold a few copies, but never any serious fiction. Not a single one, (save for a signed copy of Doris Lessing's "The Grass is Singing" which I sold to a friend). Most Swedes both read and speak English almost fluently, so that shouldn't be the problem. And it isn't. With my bitter experiences I have discussed this with owners of used bookshops in Sweden, and they all tell the same story. Broadly, the story is: you can only sell what's currently on the top-10.

So I have given most of my books to the Salvation Army, where they doubtless are filling lots of shelf-space. Is it only me, or isn't this a wee bit sad?

Peter Andrén, 2009-05-23

Introduction

This page has two purposes. First, it's an introduction to the list of "the best ninety-nine novels published in English from 1939 to 1983" compiled by Burgess. The second aim is to share some of my own experiences from reading "the Burgess ninety-nine". Actually, I think the second one is the most important. If you want to know why Burgess picked the books he picked you definitely should read the book. I'm not going to reiterate much of its content here.

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Burgess99 is much more that just a list of books. In "99 novels: the best in English since 1939" published in 1984 Burgess explains why he has chosen the books listed below. There's also an eleven page introduction on the problems and concerns he had with assembling the list, and the purpose of it. I recommend you to buy the book if you find this limited information interesting. (You can see the book on the top of the stack in the lower photo to the right.)

Here I had planned to link to other sites about the Burgess99. Alas, I haven't been able to find any. Some sites have the list, and a few sites have links to a few reviews of books they have read, but I haven't found any site about the "99 novels" and the experience of reading them. In 2005 the site www.readingtheburgess99.com made an appearance, but after three posts on the blog it seems like the author found other things to do. (You can still access the site through the Internet Archive.)

When I started writing this page I wanted to write a short review of all the books I have read. This turned out to be much harder than I thought. I have forgotten the plot from many of the books, but more importantly I found it very difficult to write literary criticism. Even just leafing through the books to help my memory takes lots and lots of time, so that turned out not to be an option. When I have something to say about a book I have made a link from the title. Hopefully, the number of links will increase with time.

I think I started reading books from Burgess99 in about 1996. When I found the list (presumably somewhere on the Internet) I had read only three or four books from it, and recognised perhaps another ten to twenty titles. I thought it might be a good idea to pick another book from the list when I had nothing else to read. I have never regretted that decision. I haven't recorded in which order I have read the books, and sometimes I'm not even one-hundred percent sure whether I have read a book or not.

Ninety-nine novels are more than one might think. Just look at the pictures here. I also have to confess that some books are missing from the photos. I know for certain that I didn't own Heartland by Wilson Harris at the time I took this photo, and I think I had given my copy of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis to a friend (at least I can't see it in the picture). Also, counted in volumes the ninety-nine novels are 134 books, counted as they were publishen in first editions (if my back-of-the-envelop calculation is correct). Today, some of the series are published in one volume, though.

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I assume Burgess choose the starting year 1939 because of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce published that year, and 1984 because of (you've guessed it) Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. (Clarification: no book from 1984 is on the list, but that's when Burgess published "99 novels: the best in English since 1939.") Without knowing too much about literature I think Anthony's choice is an interesting one. He writes "The ninety-nine novels I have chosen I have chosen with some, though not with total, confidence." There is a big span in literary ambition (from Finnegans Wake to Goldfinger) with a slight tendency towards the more difficult stuff. "The reader can decide on his own hundredth. He may even choose one of my own novels" Burgess writes. I guess he really wanted to add Earthly Powers to the list (and probably not A Clockwork Orange).

Some of the books on the list are great, and some are not so great. In general, I have found that the harder a book has been to find, the harder it has been to read. You can find The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger in just about every bookstore, but it took me almost ten years to get Heartland by Wilson Harris. And after ten years of waiting I was bitterly disappointed. It's quite short though, so I'll try to read it again later.

To this date (June 2009) I have read 91 of the 99 books on the list, and I have decided not to read six books (for now), which leaves only two books to be read. I use the codes [Y] for "Yes, I have read this one" and [N] for "No, I haven't read it (yet)".

Actually, the question of having read a book or not isn't completely black or white. I have started reading many of the [N] books below, but for some reason lost interest and never finished them. With other books I have pressed on but read only mechanically without really taking it in. Have I really read this book or not? Ancient Evenings comes to mind here. I brought it on a hike I did, found it utterly hard to read, but as I had nothing else to read I continued and finished it. Sort of at least. And when can you honestly say that you have read  Finnegans Wake?

The books in chronological order (as presented by Burgess)

1939

[Y] Party Going by  Henry Green
[Y] After Many a Summer by  Aldous Huxley
[N] Finnegans Wake by  James Joyce
[Y] At Swim-Two-Birds by  Flann O'Brien

1940

[Y] The Power and the Glory by  Graham Greene
[N] For Whom the Bell Tolls by  Ernest Hemingway
[Y] Strangers and Brothers by  C. P. Snow (to 1970)

1941

[Y] The Aerodrome by  Rex Warner

1944

[Y] The Horse's Mouth by  Joyce Cary
[Y] The Razor's Edge by  Somerset Maugham

1945

[Y] Brideshead Revisited by  Evelyn Waugh

1946

[N] Titus Groan by  Mervyn Peake

1947

[Y] The Victim by  Saul Bellow
[Y] Under the Volcano by  Malcolm Lowry

1948

[Y] The Heart of the Matter by  Graham Greene
[Y] Ape and Essence by  Aldous Huxley
[Y] The Naked and the Dead by  Norman Mailer
[Y] No Highway by  Nevil Shute

1949

[Y] The Heat of the Day by  Elizabeth Bowen
[Y] Nineteen Eighty-Four by  George Orwell
[Y] The Body by  William Sansom

1950

[Y] Scenes from Provincial Life by  William Cooper
[Y] The Disenchanted by  Budd Schulberg

1951

[N] A Dance to the Music of Time by  Anthony Powell (to 1975)
[Y] The Catcher in the Rye by  J. D. Salinger
[Y] A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight by  Henry Williamson (to 1969)
[Y] The Caine Mutiny by  Herman Wouk

1952

[Y] Invisible Man by  Ralph Ellison
[Y] The Old Man and the Sea by  Ernest Hemingway
[Y] The Groves of Academe by  Mary McCarthy
[Y] Wise Blood by  Flannery O'Connor
[Y] Sword of Honour by  Evelyn Waugh (to 1961)

1953

[Y] The Long Goodbye by  Raymond Chandler

1954

[Y] Lucky Jim by  Kingsley Amis

1957

[Y] Room at the Top by  John Braine
[Y] The Alexandria Quartet by  Lawrence Durrell (to 1960)
[Y] The London Novels by  Colin MacInnes (to 1960)
[Y] The Assistant by  Bernard Malamud

1958

[Y] The Bell by  Iris Murdoch
[Y] Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by  Alan Sillitoe
[N] The Once and Future King by  T. H. White

1959

[Y] The Mansion by  William Faulkner
[Y] Goldfinger by  Ian Fleming

1960

[Y] Facial Justice by  L. P. Hartley
[Y] The Balkans Trilogy by  Olivia Manning (to 1965)

1961

[Y] The Mighty and Their Fall by  Ivy Compton-Burnett
[Y] Catch-22 by  Joseph Heller
[Y] The Fox in the Attic by  Richard Hughes
[Y] Riders in the Chariot by  Patrick White
[Y] The Old Men at the Zoo by  Angus Wilson

1962

[Y] Another Country by  James Baldwin
[Y] An Error of Judgement by  Pamela Hansford Johnson
[Y] Island by  Aldous Huxley
[N] The Golden Notebook by  Doris Lessing
[Y] Pale Fire by  Vladimir Nabokov

1963

[Y] The Girls of Slender Means by  Muriel Spark

1964

[Y] The Spire by  William Golding
[Y] Heartland by  Wilson Harris
[Y] A Single Man by  Christopher Isherwood
[Y] The Defence by  Vladimir Nabokov
[Y] Late Call by  Angus Wilson

1965

[Y] The Lockwood Concern by  John O'Hara
[Y] The Mandelbaum Gate by  Muriel Spark

1966

[Y] A Man of the People by  Chinua Achebe
[Y] The Anti-Death League by  Kingsley Amis
[Y] Giles Goat-Boy by  John Barth
[Y] The Late Bourgeois World by  Nadine Gordimer
[Y] The Last Gentleman by  Walker Percy

1967

[Y] The Vendor of Sweets by  R. K. Narayan

1968

[Y] The Image Men by  J. B. Priestley
[Y] Cocksure by  Mordecai Richler
[Y] Pavane by  Keith Roberts

1969

[Y] The French Lieutenant's Woman by  John Fowles
[Y] Portnoy's Complaint by  Philip Roth

1970

[Y] Bomber by  Len Deighton

1973

[Y] Sweet Dreams by  Michael Frayn
[N] Gravity's Rainbow by  Thomas Pynchon

1975

[Y] Humboldt's Gift by  Saul Bellow
[Y] The History Man by  Malcolm Bradbury

1976

[Y] The Doctor's Wife by  Brian Moore
[N] Falstaff by  Robert Nye

1977

[Y] How to Save Your Own Life by  Erica Jong
[Y] Farewell Companions by  James Plunkett
[Y] Staying On by  Paul Scott

1978

[Y] The Coup by  John Updike

1979

[Y] The Unlimited Dream Company by  J. G. Ballard
[Y] Dubin's Lives by  Bernard Malamud
[Y] A Bend in the River by  V. S. Naipaul
[Y] Sophie's Choice by  William Stryon

1980

[Y] Life in the West by  Brian Aldiss
[Y] Riddley Walker by  Russell Hoban
[Y] How Far Can You Go? by  David Lodge
[Y] A Confederacy of Dunces by  John Kennedy Toole

1981

[Y] Lanark by  Alasdair Gray
[Y] Darconville's Cat by  Alexander Theroux
[Y] The Mosquito Coast by  Paul Theroux
[Y] Creation by  Gore Vidal

1982

[Y] The Rebel Angels by  Robertson Davies

1983

[Y] Ancient Evenings by  Norman Mailer

Copyright © 2008–2010 Peter Andrén