Saturday, 9 April 2016

99 novels

Anthony Burgess was a looming and beneficent cultural presence throughout my adolescence, and the first serious modern novelist I read in quantity. He was the kind of public intellectual we don't see much any more - always smoking slender cheroots, sporting a combover that would make Donald Trump's cloudy pompadour look lifelike and talking ten to the dozen about everything under the sun, in several languages, often simultaneously. Polymath essayist, critic, cultural pundit, screenwriter, eloquent champion of Joyce and other highbrow modernist authors, composer (which he perversely insisted was his true vocation) and much else besides. He was a one-man cohort. I note that February 2017 will be the centenary of his birth and I expect there are big plans to mark the occasion, although I don't imagine the Post Office is about to issue a set of stamps.

Is he read much these days? I suspect not. He's too clever, too wide-ranging and impersonal, too erudite. He expects a lot from his readers, and even meeting him half way can be an effort. He would have benefitted from tougher editing - the later books became baggier and he was prone to repeat himself (hardly unexpected, given his prodigious output). The Roger Lewis biography in 2002 both nailed and skewered him and I wonder whether his reputation will ever fully recover. Lewis developed a bilious loathing for his quondam literary hero and the biography was a spiteful 500-page hatchet job, the Prologue alone describing the subject as lubricious, sentimental, callous, superficial, crapulous, arcane, laborious, sanctimonious and "essentially a fake". Perhaps we should stick to the books and ignore the messy life.

In March 1985 Burgess published a little firework of a pot-boiler (if such a thing is possible) entitled Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939. His highly subjective but critically generous choice appears in full below.

There are not a few omissions, not least of some fine novels by Burgess himself (Nothing Like the Sun is a brilliant biography of Shakespeare written in Elizabethan vernacular; A Clockwork Orange used to be the book we all read, an equivalent to Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird). He restricts himself to works published first in English, which explains the lack of novels in translation. Fair enough - and I'll follow this self-imposed constraint when I blog more about this tomorrow.

Below is the full Burgess list. In an access of candour I've highlighted the 45 I haven't read (and in some cases, I'm ashamed to say, never even heard of). I find I've read 54 of the 99 (if Anthony Powell 's 12-volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time counts as one, which it surely shouldn't) This is not particularly impressive for somebody who aims to earn a crust as a reviewer, but then you can't read everything (unless you're D. J. Taylor). Ready? 

1939 – Henry Green Party Going 
1939 – Aldous Huxley  After Many a Summer 
1939 – James Joyce  Finnegans Wake 
1939 – Flann O'Brien  At Swim-Two-Birds

1940 – Graham Greene  The Power and the Glory
1940 – Ernest Hemingway For Whom the Bell Tolls
1940 – C. P. Snow  Strangers and Brothers
1941 – Rex Warner  The Aerodrome
1944 – Joyce Cary  The Horse's Mouth 
1944 – W. Somerset Maugham The Razor's Edge
1945 – Evelyn Waugh  Brideshead Revisited
1946 – Mervyn Peake Titus Groan
1947 – Saul Bellow The Victim
1947 – Malcolm Lowry Under the Volcano
1949 – Elizabeth Bowen  The Heat of the Day 
1948 – Graham Greene  The Heart of the Matter
1948 – Aldous Huxley  Ape and Essence
1948 – Nevil Shute  No Highway
1948 – Norman Mailer The Naked and the Dead
1949 – George Orwell  Nineteen Eighty-Four 
1949 – William Sansom  The Body

1950 – William Cooper  Scenes from Provincial Life 
1950 – Budd Schulberg  The Disenchanted 
1951 – Anthony Powell  A Dance to the Music of Time 
1951 – J. D. Salinger  The Catcher in the Rye
1951 – Henry Williamson  A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight
1951 – Herman Wouk  The Caine Mutiny
1952 – Ralph Ellison  Invisible Man
1952 – Ernest Hemingway  The Old Man and the Sea
1952 – Mary McCarthy  The Groves of Academe
1952 – Flannery O'Connor  Wise Blood
1952 – Evelyn Waugh  Sword of Honour
1953 – Raymond Chandler The Long Goodbye
1954 – Kingsley Amis  Lucky Jim 
1957 – John Braine  Room at the Top
1957 – Lawrence Durrell  The Alexandria Quartet 
1957 – Colin MacInnes  The London Novels
1957 – Bernard Malamud  The Assistant 
1958 – Iris Murdoch  The Bell
1958 – Alan Sillitoe Saturday Night and Sunday Morning 
1958 – T. H. White  The Once and Future King
1959 – William Faulkner  The Mansion
1959 – Ian Fleming  Goldfinger 

1960 – L. P. Hartley  Facial Justice
1960 – Olivia Manning  The Balkan Trilogy 
1961 – Ivy Compton-Burnett  The Mighty and Their Fall
1961 – Joseph Heller  Catch-22
1961 – Richard Hughes  The Fox in the Attic
1961 – Patrick White Riders in the Chariot
1961 – Angus Wilson  The Old Men at the Zoo 
1962 – James Baldwin  Another Country
1962 – Aldous Huxley  Island
1962 – Pamela Hansford Johnson  An Error of Judgement
1962 – Doris Lessing  The Golden Notebook
1962 – Vladimir Nabokov  Pale Fire
1963 – Muriel Spark  The Girls of Slender Means
1964 – William Golding  The Spire
1964 – Wilson Harris  Heartland
1964 – Christopher Isherwood  A Single Man
1964 – Vladimir Nabokov  The Defense
1964 – Angus Wilson  Late Call
1965 – John O'Hara  The Lockwood Concern
1965 – Muriel Spark  The Mandelbaum Gate
1966 – Chinua Achebe  A Man of the People
1966 – Kingsley Amis  The Anti-Death League
1966 – John Barth  Giles Goat-Boy
1966 – Nadine Gordimer  The Late Bourgeois World
1966 – Walker Percy  The Last Gentleman
1967 – R. K. Narayan  The Vendor of Sweets 
1968 – J. B. Priestley  The Image Men
1968 – Mordecai Richler  Cocksure
1968 – Keith Roberts  Pavane
1969 – John Fowles  The French Lieutenant's Woman 
1969 – Philip Roth  Portnoy's Complaint

1970 – Len Deighton  Bomber
1973 – Michael Frayn  Sweet Dreams
1973 – Thomas Pynchon  Gravity's Rainbow
1975 – Saul Bellow Humboldt's Gift 
1975 – Malcolm Bradbury  The History Man
1976 – Robert Nye  Falstaff 
1977 – Erica Jong  How to Save Your Own Life
1977 – James Plunkett  Farewell Companions
1977 – Paul Mark Scott  Staying On
1978 – John Updike  The Coup
1979 – J. G. Ballard  The Unlimited Dream Company 
1979 – Bernard Malamud  Dubin's Lives 
1979 – Brian Moore  The Doctor's Wife
1979 – V. S. Naipaul  A Bend in the River
1979 – William Styron  Sophie's Choice 

1980 – Brian Aldiss  Life in the West
1980 – Russell Hoban  Riddley Walker 
1980 – David Lodge  How Far Can You Go?
1980 – John Kennedy Toole  A Confederacy of Dunces 
1981 – Alasdair Gray  Lanark
1981 – Alexander Theroux  Darconville's Cat 
1981 – Paul Theroux  The Mosquito Coast
1981 – Gore Vidal  Creation
1982 – Robertson Davies  The Rebel Angels 
1983 – Norman Mailer Ancient Evenings

The Burgess list ends here, with a flurry of titles that continue to evade my interest or repel my attention. Lanark and Riddley Walker aside (both of which I've re-read several times with increasing admiration), I'm not missing anything much, am I?.

Odd that Burgess includes Nabokov's novel Defence (first published in Russian in 1930 as Zashchita Luzhina) but not Lolita (1955). But let's not quibble over omissions, for now. Let's not even mention in passing the startling absence of Vonnegut, say, and Pynchon.

I'm struck by how few of Burgess's choice of novels from the 1970s I've read. Admittedly I was a schoolboy and later an undergraduate throughout the decade, with very little time for serious reading, or at least very little time for reading contemporary fiction. But it's not a compelling list, is it? The first half of the 1980s isn't much better, although it does feature one of the great novels of my lifetime, Alasdair Gray's magnificent Lanark. But things improve dramatically in the second half of the decade. Invited (by myself) to choose a further 33 novels covering the three decades since 1983, I gladly accepted the challenge. It turned out to be much harder than I though it would. You can see the shocking results tomorrow.

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