Anthony Burgess Names the 99 Best Novels in English Between 1939 & 1983: Orwell, Nabokov, Huxley & More


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In 1983, Antho­ny Burgess took up a com­mis­sion from a Niger­ian pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny and, in two weeks, deliv­ered to them the man­u­script for Nine­ty-Nine Nov­els: The Best in Eng­lish since 1939 — A Per­son­al Choice. Pub­lished the fol­low­ing year, the book deliv­ers exact­ly what its title, sub­ti­tle, and sub-sub­ti­tle promis­es: the finest nov­els Eng­lish-lan­guage writ­ers pro­duced between the years 1939 and 1983, accord­ing to the pref­er­ences of the writer of more than a few nov­els him­self, includ­ing A Clock­work OrangeEarth­ly Pow­ers, and 1985.

Burgess wrote that last one, so its own title may sug­gest, as a trib­ute to George Orwell’s 1984, one of those 99 nov­els. “Nine­teen eighty four has arrived, but George Orwell’s glum prophe­cy has not been ful­filled,” Burgess declared in a New York Times piece pub­lished as that year began. Yet “for 35 years a mere nov­el, an arti­fact meant pri­mar­i­ly for diver­sion, has been scar­ing the pants off us all. Evi­dent­ly the nov­el is a pow­er­ful lit­er­ary form which is capa­ble of reach­ing out into the real world and mod­i­fy­ing it. It is a form which even the non­lit­er­ary had bet­ter take seri­ous­ly.”

Pro­lif­ic in his lit­er­ary con­sump­tion as well as pro­duc­tion, Burgess got plen­ty of prac­tice tak­ing the nov­el seri­ous­ly in his capac­i­ty as a book review­er. “It was clear that cer­tain nov­els had to be reviewed whether I wished to review them or not,” he writes. “A new Gra­ham Greene or Eve­lyn Waugh — this was the known brand-name which would grant an expect­ed sat­is­fac­tion. But the unknown had to be con­sid­ered as well. After all, both Greene and Waugh pro­duced first nov­els. V. S. Naipaul’s first nov­el went total­ly unre­viewed.” Greene appears among the 99 for The Pow­er and the Glo­ry and The Heart of the Mat­ter, Waugh for Brideshead Revis­it­ed and Sword of Hon­or, and Naipaul for A Bend in the Riv­er.

What makes these nov­els, and Burgess’ oth­er 93 picks, so good? “The pri­ma­ry sub­stance I have con­sid­ered in mak­ing my selec­tion is human char­ac­ter,” mean­ing that their authors have cre­at­ed “human beings whom we accept as liv­ing crea­tures filled with com­plex­i­ties and armed with free will” — and who thus, to a great extent, shape the sto­ry inde­pen­dent­ly of autho­r­i­al inten­tion. “At best there will be a com­pro­mise between the nar­ra­tive line you have dreamed up and the course of action pre­ferred by the char­ac­ters,” writes Burgess, as if address­ing his col­leagues in the enter­prise of pre­sent­ing “the pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of real human beings through invent­ed ones.”

You can see Burgess’ full list of 99 nov­els below, which includes such oth­er favorite writ­ers here at Open Cul­ture as J.G. Bal­lard, Aldous Hux­ley (who scores three hits), James Joyce, and Vladimir Nabokov, all of whom, beyond their duty to char­ac­ter, “have man­aged lan­guage well, have clar­i­fied the moti­va­tions of action, and have some­times expand­ed the bounds of imag­i­na­tion. And they enter­tain or divert, which means to turn our faces away from the repet­i­tive pat­terns of dai­ly life and look at human­i­ty and the world with a new inter­est and even joy.” Only one ques­tion remains: why exact­ly 99? “The read­er can decide on his own 100th,” Burgess replies. “He may even choose one of my own nov­els.”

Note: you can pur­chase online used copies of Nine­ty-Nine Nov­els: The Best in Eng­lish since 1939 — A Per­son­al Choice. It runs about 160 pages. Now here’s the basic list.

Achebe, Chin­ua — A Man of the Peo­ple — (1966)

Ald­iss, Bri­an — Life in the West (1980)

Amis, Kings­ley — Lucky Jim (1954)

Amis, Kings­ley — The Anti-Death League (1966)

Bald­win, James — Anoth­er Coun­try (1962)

Bal­lard, J.G. — The Unlim­it­ed Dream Com­pa­ny (1979)

Barth, John — Giles Goat-Boy (1966)

Bel­low, Saul — The Vic­tim (1947)

Bel­low, Saul — Hum­boldt’s Gift (1975)

Bowen, Eliz­a­beth — The Heat of the Day (1949)

Brad­bury, Mal­colm — The His­to­ry Man (1975)

Braine, John — Room at the Top (1957)

Cary, Joyce — The Horse’s Mouth (1944)

Chan­dler, Ray­mond — The Long Good­bye (1953)

Comp­ton-Bur­nett, Ivy — The Mighty and Their Fall (1961)

Coop­er, William — Scenes from Provin­cial Life (1950)

Davies, Robert­son — The Rebel Angels (1982)

Deighton, Len — Bomber (1970)

Dur­rell, Lawrence — The Alexan­dria Quar­tet (1957)

Elli­son, Ralph — Invis­i­ble Man (1952)

Faulkn­er, William — The Man­sion (1959)

Flem­ing, Ian — Goldfin­ger (1959)

Fowles, John — The French Lieu­tenan­t’s Woman (1969)

Frayn, Michael — Sweet Dreams (1973)

Gold­ing, William — The Spire (1964)

Gordimer, Nadine — The Late Bour­geois World (1966)

Gray, Alas­dair — Lanark (1981)

Green, Hen­ry — Par­ty Going (1939)

Greene, Gra­ham — The Pow­er and the Glo­ry (1940)

Greene, Gra­ham — The Heart of the Mat­ter (1948)

Har­ris, Wil­son — Heart­land (1964)

Hart­ley, L.P. — Facial Jus­tice (1960)

Heller, Joseph — Catch-22 (1961)

Hem­ing­way, Ernest — For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)

Hem­ing­way, Ernest — Old Man and the Sea (1952)

Hoban, Rus­sell — Rid­dley Walk­er (1980)

Hugh­es, Richard — The Fox in the Attic (1961)

Hux­ley, Aldous — After Many a Sum­mer (1939)

Hux­ley, Aldous — Ape and Essence (1948)

Hux­ley, Aldous — Island (1962)

Ish­er­wood, Christo­pher — A Sin­gle Man (1964)

John­son, Pamela Hans­ford — An Error of Judge­ment (1962)

Jong, Eri­ca — How to Save Your Own Life (1977)

Joyce, James — Finnegans Wake (1939)

Less­ing, Doris — The Gold­en Note­book (1962)

Lodge, David — How Far Can You Go? (1980)

Lowry, Mal­colm — Under the Vol­cano (1947)

MacInnes, Col­in — The Lon­don Nov­els (1957)

Mail­er, Nor­man — The Naked and the Dead (1948)

Mail­er, Nor­man — Ancient Evenings (1983)

Mala­mud, Bernard - The Assis­tant (1957)

Mala­mud, Bernard — Dubin’s Lives (1979)

Man­ning, Olivia — The Balka­ns Tril­o­gy (1960)

Maugh­am, Som­er­set — The Razor’s Edge (1944)

McCarthy, Mary — The Groves of Acad­eme (1952)

Moore, Bri­an — The Doc­tor’s Wife (1976)

Mur­doch, Iris — The Bell (1958)

Nabokov, Vladimir — Pale Fire (1962)

Nabokov, Vladimir — The Defence (1964)

Naipaul, V.S. — A Bend in the Riv­er (1979)

Narayan, R.K. — The Ven­dor of Sweets (1967)

Nye, Robert — Fal­staff (1976)

O’Brien, Flann — At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

O’Con­nor, Flan­nery — Wise Blood (1952)

O’Hara, John — The Lock­wood Con­cern (1965)

Orwell, George — Nine­teen Eighty-Four (1949)

Peake, Mervyn — Titus Groan (1946)

Per­cy, Walk­er — The Last Gen­tle­man (1966)

Plun­kett, James — Farewell Com­pan­ions (1977)

Pow­ell, Antho­ny — A Dance to the Music of Time (1951)

Priest­ley, J.B. — The Image Men (1968)

Pyn­chon, Thomas — Grav­i­ty’s Rain­bow (1973)

Rich­ler, Morde­cai — Cock­sure (1968)

Roberts, Kei­th — Pavane (1968)

Roth, Phillip — Port­noy’s Com­plaint (1969)

Salinger, J.D. — The Catch­er in the Rye (1951)

San­som, William — The Body (1949)

Schul­berg, Budd — The Dis­en­chant­ed (1950)

Scott, Paul — Stay­ing On (1977)

Shute, Nevil — No High­way (1948)

Sil­li­toe, Alan — Sat­ur­day Night and Sun­day Morn­ing (1958)

Snow, C.P. - Strangers and Broth­ers (1940)

Spark, Muriel — The Girls of Slen­der Means (1963)

Spark, Muriel — The Man­del­baum Gate (1965)

Sty­ron, William — Sophie’s Choice (1979)

Ther­oux, Alexan­der — Dar­conville’s Cat (1981)

Ther­oux, Paul — The Mos­qui­to Coast (1981)

Toole, John Kennedy — A Con­fed­er­a­cy of Dunces (1980)

Updike, John — The Coup (1978)

Vidal, Gore — Cre­ation (1981)

Warn­er, Rex — The Aero­drome (1941)

Waugh, Eve­lyn — Brideshead Revis­it­ed (1945)

Waugh, Eve­lyn — Sword of Hon­or (1952)

White, T.H. — The Once and Future King (1958)

White, Patrick — Rid­ers in the Char­i­ot (1961)

Williamson, Hen­ry — A Chron­i­cle of Ancient Sun­light (1951)

Wil­son, Angus — The Old Men at the Zoo (1961)

Wil­son, Angus — Late Call (1964)

Wouk, Her­man — The Caine Mutiny (1951)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Clock­work Orange Author Antho­ny Burgess Lists His Five Favorite Dystopi­an Nov­els: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Island & More

Antho­ny Burgess’ Lost Intro­duc­tion to Joyce’s Dublin­ers Now Online

Vladimir Nabokov Names the Great­est (and Most Over­rat­ed) Nov­els of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

The 100 Best Nov­els: A Lit­er­ary Crit­ic Cre­ates a List in 1898

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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