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Reassessing Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939, A Personal Choice by Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess knew what he liked and why he liked it, which is a lot more than I can say about many of today's alleged critics so quick with their clichés -- "it was lyrical," or my unfavorite, "an evocative meditation on ______" -- that are absent of any originality or insight whatsoever.  Burgess, crusty curmudgeon he could be (ask on-the-cusp-of-being-nominated-for-the-National Book Award-and-Pulitzer-before-Burgess-butchered-him, Steve Erickson, in 1993!) was always original.  Always insightful.  Being an innovative novelist and being so well versed in contemporary trends and classic tastes, he knew quality writing wherever he encountered it; knew what made for great novels and what didn't, no matter how popular or obscure the book might be.  Most of the time.  He was flat out wrong about Steve Erickson.  But that's an editorial for another day....

Burgess' selections for Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939, A Personal Choice (published in 1984), are often whimsical and just plain odd, eccentric picks indeed, perhaps included for sentimental as much as artistically warranted reasons?  Like when he chose ... Goldfinger? (1959) by Ian Fleming; or ... Bomber? (1970) by Len Deighton, to stand side-by-side with the gods Nabokov, Murdoch, Joyce?....

Burgess admitted as much in his introduction, where he offered persuasive rationale that was probably still too much of a stretch for snobs who must've been incredulous (if not outright incensed -- oooh that scoundrel, Anthony Burgess!) seeing when they opened their copy of Ninety-Nine Novels that ... James Bond? ... one-upped Lolita? ... poor precocious pre-teen child (hadn't she been abused enough already, Sir Anthony?), whose iconic novel named after her was inexplicably excluded from Ninety-Nine Novels.  Why oh why, Sir Anthony, did the Gormenghast novels and The Once and Future King make your arbitrary ("personal") list, but not ... The Lord of the Rings?

Nevertheless, I happen to like the oftentimes mystifying, idiosyncratic mix, the intermingling of breezy thrillers -- pure blasts to read -- with such serious lit'rachuh, and wish other critics could be just as quick to meld the proletariat masses of the genre-classes with the most respected of literature's elected on their lists -- much as FM disc-jockeys did with their playlists in FMs heyday, back before the Amazon-like mega-conglomerates seized control and segregated the airwaves, back when you could still hear the delicate sitar strumming of a Ravi Shankar segue beautifully and bizarrely into the metallic moan of "I.  Am.  Iron-man."

But on the flip side, before I read Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939, A Personal Choice, I'd never heard of at least half of the wonderful writers Burgess included, and have since heeded his stellar advice and "discovered" their work for myself, and so owe the late great Anthony Burgess, even though his picks often peeve me, a deep debt of gratitude.

Thank you, Sir Anthony, for revealing to me C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers, a twelve novel sequence begun in 1940 and completed in 1970 that reads like a blue-collar Proust ...

Thank you, Sir Anthony, for Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy, 1960-65....

For Angus Wilson's largely forgotten novels as well (so forgotten why bother mentioning them here by name?), and for Wilson's introductory book of criticism on Emile Zola, published at a time in 1952 when Zola was still being snubbed by Great Britain....

Thank you, Sir Anthony, as I hope to one day "discover" even still the nearly completely unknown writer (excepting his YA novel, Tarka the Otter), Henry Williamson, and his fifteen volume opus, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, (1951-1969), that's potentially pricey to obtain, but worth wheeling and dealing for, sounds like....

Thank you yet again, Sir Anthony (¡muchos gracias, mi amigo!) for the day I hope is soon that I'll finally "discover" Ivy Compton-Burnett, whom I've heard raved about beyond just you....

Good grief, I could go on foaming at this keyboard forever, Sir Anthony, thanks to you.  Thanking you for unveiling to larger audiences, Alexander Theroux's Darconville's Cat; Henry Green's Loving; Muriel Spark's The Mandelbaum Gate; Robert Nye's Falstaff; William's Sansom's The Body, but I'll stop.

For those interested in reading a complete itemization of the books listed in Anthony Burgess' Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939, A Personal Choice, and a lively discussion on nearly all of the books included, go here to a thread on a site that wasn't then, and still isn't now, majority-owned by Amazon.


Séamus Duggan said…
I have come across some great novels because of this as well, but have many more to read. I particularly like Angus Wilson's The Old Men at the Zoo which I loved when I read it. It also includes Riddley Walker, which I reread every five years or so. You've made me want to pull it down off the shelves and read a few of the pieces.
Burgess' work as a freelance reviewer is probably at the heart of his democratic view of literature. I remember reading about the number of books he read and being blown away.
EnriqueFreeque said…
Séamus! Riddley Walker. How'd I forget to mention that one? I'm intrigued by Angus Wilson. He also wrote a wonderful biography of Charles Dickens, an oversized, almost coffee table volume, with drawings and illustrations that really brought Victorian England alive off the page. Do pull the book down. I see something different every time I do. Like Keith Robert's Pavane, which I guess is now considered one of the earliest works of steampunk. Have you ready any of William Sansom? I found an original Penguin edition of The Body solely because of Burgess. Sansom also wrote an excellent introduction to Proust, nicely illustrated as well.
Séamus Duggan said…
I've read neither Kith Roberts nor William Sansom. I paid a visit to Librarything via the link and it seems like an interesting group.

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