Anthony Burgess’ Ninety-Nine Novels – What’s Missing?

One of the main reasons that Anthony Burgess’ Ninety-Nine Novels, his selection of the best novels in English between 1939 and 1983, is as interesting today as it was when it was first published almost forty years ago, is that he neither aimed nor cared to be definitive. It is very much a personal selection, albeit by someone who was famously well-read. In adding to it I have not attempted to nit-pick which novel is a writer’s best, but only chosen writers who do not feature at all. Some he may not have rated, others he may not have read, but as he says in his introduction, “If you disagree violently with some of my choices I shall be pleased.”

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor (1947)

Elizabeth Taylor is perhaps one of the most striking omissions from Anthony Burgess’ Ninety-Nine Novels as she published in almost every decade that his selection covers. Whatever fame she accumulated in her lifetime (that Kingsley Amis described her as “one of the best English novelists born in this century” suggests that there was some), Sam Jordison felt she was ripe for rediscovery as recently as 2012. So reliably did she write that choosing one of her dozen novels is difficult. Robert McCrum elected Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont for his 100 Best Books in English in 2015, which was also shortlisted for the Booker, but I have decided on the much earlier A View of the Harbour in which setting and characters seem so perfectly aligned.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutola (1952)

Burgess praises Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker as “remarkable not only for its language, but for its creation of a whole set of rituals, myths and poems,” a comment that might equally apply to Amos Tutola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard were it not for that tricky word ‘creation’. Hoban’s future world was clearly fictional, but Tutola’s style was dismissed by some critics as ‘accidental’ and therefore ‘primitive’. But, as James Kelman has pointed out, “His achievement was masterful for he succeeded in what for many is a contradiction in terms, he remained a tradition-bearer in a language that by all accounts can have been little other than alien.” It is for this reason that the novel remains as vibrant and thrilling as it was on publication.

A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelly (1962)

William Melvin Kelly’s A Different Drummer was much praised on its publication in 1962, but by 1984 it was largely forgotten. Such side-lining of black writers, both British and American, goes some way to explaining why there are so few in Burgess’ selection. Kelly’s novel also refuses to bow to expectations – beginning with a black farmer throwing salt onto his land, shooting his livestock and burning down his house, but told in the voices of the town’s white inhabitants. It is an astoundingly assured debut – as Kathryn Schulz wrote in 2018 when the novel was rediscovered, “Kelley was already a strikingly confident writer… although his story has the emotional proportions of a myth, his sentences reliably feel like real life.” Sixty years after its initial publication, the novel’s power remains undiminished.

Berg by Ann Quin (1964)

Ann Quinn’s Berg is another astonishing debut novel. Set in a very English seaside town, its seedy, down-at-heel setting assaults all the senses. Thoughts of murder (Berg believes he must kill his father to be free) sit alongside moments of slapstick in a style that is a combination of oblique detail and baroque language. Even today the novel feels quite unlike any other novel – in Lee Rourke’s words, Quinn created “a mode of fiction that slices straight into its reader’s psyche like a scalpel into the heart.” Recently revived by And Other Stories Press, Quin deserves her place among the novelists of the sixties.

Ice by Anna Kavan (1967)

Far from being Anna Kavan’s debut, Ice was the last novel she published while alive in a writing career which began in 1929. Technically a science fiction novel, set in a world where the climate in deteriorating into a new ice age, it is also (superficially at least) a love story. But the narrator’s quest to rescue the woman he loves is never entirely convincing – does she really need rescuing? It is often read as an allegory of her addiction to heroin; “I see her need for the drug mirrored in the narrator’s desperation to reach the ice maiden,” Hannah Freeman wrote in 2011. The novel’s strength resides in its ability to be deeply personally on a global stage.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (1968)

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah, is one of the great novels of post-independence Africa. The focus of the novel is the corruption that its nameless protagonist attempts to resist despite the visibly affluent lifestyle of his old friend, Koomson, now a government minister. Koomson is later ousted in a coup and must turn to his poorer compatriot for help. The novel is filled with descriptions of waste and rot as if the country’s corruption had manifested physically. Recently included in the Big Jubilee Read, it should probably have also been on Burgess’ list.

House Mother Normal by B S Johnson (1971)

Like much – or perhaps all – of B S Johnson’s work, House Mother Normal is an experiment which doesn’t quite work, but Johnson’s daring is enough to demand his inclusion in some form. Set in a nursing home, each chapter reveals the consciousness of one of the patients, progressively older and less coherent. Both funny and moving (or “corrosive and elegiac” as James Marcus put it), it will not be to everyone’s taste (“frankly tedious” according to D J Taylor), but a selection of the best novels in English without Johnson seems incomplete.

The Wars by Timothy Findley (1977)

Canadian writers are represented in Burgess’ Ninety-Nine Novels by Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler. Timothy Findley was of the same generation as Richler but, when his first novel was published in 1967, his compatriot had already written five. The Wars was Findley’s third novel, the story of a Robert Ross, a nineteen-year-old who enlists in World War One as a form of escape from guilt and grief. His story is told from more than one point of view as pieced together by a historian. Described by Guy Vanderhaeghe as “the finest historical novel ever written by a Canadian” it makes a strong case to be included.

The Plains by Gerald Murnane (1982)

It seems likely that Gerald Murnane would have been entirely unknown in the UK when Burgess made his selection (though I can’t help but feel he would have like A Lifetime on Clouds). As he points out in his introduction, it only features one Australian novel – at least one more would seem reasonable, and The Plains is eligible by a couple of years. Its central character is a film maker whose narration has been described by Paul Genoni as “a quasi-philosophical disquisition on the nature of landscape, time, place, creation, heraldry, patronage, libraries, unattainable women and deferred speech, in which he attempts to reconcile the contours of his own image-laden imagination with the immense physical landscape of the plains.” With Murnane now mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner, his inclusion seems justified.

Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee (1983)

J M Coetzee is, of course, a Nobel Prize winner. While Burgess was not to know this lay in the future, Life & Times of Michael K had won the 1983 Booker Prize, and certainly seems a much better representative of that year than Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Michael’s attempt to cross a country in the midst of civil war to reach his mother is, of course, as relevant as ever. In his belief that “a man must live so that he leaves no trace of his living,” Coetzee faces head on the question of how we should live our lives – one he has continued to tackle in his work in such novel as Disgrace (which brought him a second Booker Prize) and his Jesus trilogy. It would have made a fitting conclusion to Burgess’ selection.


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4 Responses to “Anthony Burgess’ Ninety-Nine Novels – What’s Missing?”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Some interesting choices there, Grant, and I’m definitely with you on Kavan and Taylor – particularly the title you picked from the latter. Although everyone raves about Mrs. Palfrey it’s really not my favourite of hers!

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    Pleased, of course, to see The Plains there, and also Life and Times, but the book that (almost literally) knocked me off my feet was Findlay’s The Wars. I was in Paris for the first time, and the night before our last day I started The Wars (which I had brought with me from home). The Spouse has never forgiven me for refusing to go with him to explore the markets etc that day, because I lay on the hotel bed all day, reading The Wars.

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