99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939

| | Comments (5)

Anthony Burgess's idiosyncratic selection of the best works in English since 1939 was written in 1984-1985 and its perspective may well represent the thought of that time. However, what can one say of a book that includes the remarkable (though hardly best-in-show) Keith Roberts Pavane alongside Len Deighton's Bomber and Ian Fleming's Goldfinger. Add to that the fact that one suspects given Burgess's bent that he started the countdown in 1939 simply to include James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and you have about all the information you need regarding the book.

Nevertheless, if you're looking for something to read and want the opinion of an expert--an eccentric expert, an eclectic expert to be sure, but an expert nonetheless--this is the book for you. Fans of Catholic fiction would be pleased to hear that Burgess includes several Catholic Novelists--some represented multiples times: Evelyn Waugh with Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honor trilogy; Graham Green with The Power and the Glory and the theologically flawed, but moving Heart of the Matter; Muriel Spark with The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate; Brian Moore with The Doctor's Wife; David Lodge with How Far Can You Go?; Flannery O'Connor with Wise Blood and Walker Percy with The Last Gentleman. Once again, this list says much. Why The Mandelbaum Gate rather than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; why Wise Blood (admittedly wonderful) rather than The Violent Bear it Away (a much more powerful if more extended exercise in the same direction); why The Doctor's Wife rather than The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne or Black Robe; why The Last Gentleman rather than The Moviegoer or Love in the Ruins? Each decision could so be questioned, but Burgess rarely deals with weighing out why he chose which book, rather he boldly chooses and then gives a brief summary and analysis of the particular choice. It makes for a short punchy book and for an audience that wants to know more about why these works rather than some others.


Bookmark and Share


Wasn't Burgess a Catholic?

Dear RC,

Honestly, I don't know. It doesn't seem to come across very strongly in this book, as he tends to favor Greene and slight Waugh, and he has a rather cryptic remark in his review of Robert's Pavane that could be interpreted in many ways. I'll have to look it up.




Dear RC,

Ralph McInerny here, has this to say:

"Was Burgess a Catholic? Certainly not a practicing one. Did he disbelieve? Perhaps, but he did not have the courage of his lack of conviction."




I did some reading up on Burgess when I studied A Clockwork Orange at uni. He's a very, very interesting character: simply calling him a "lapsed cradle Catholic" wouldn't cut it. He himself has said, "I was brought up a Catholic, became an agnostic, flirted with Islam and now hold a position which may be termed Manichee. I believe the wrong God is temporarily ruling the world and that the true God has gone under."

While I was reading his autobiography, I had the sense that his faith (or lack thereof) was pulling him in one direction, while his sense of beauty, serving as the "unseen hook and invisible line," was drawing back the other way.

Take this anecdote (which I relate only from fallible memory): Long after Burgess had stopped practicing, he stopped by a church named for St. Anthony somewhere in Italy. He stayed to hear Mass, and when it was done he went on with his faithless life as it was. Yet the beauty of the liturgy and the music so moved him, he said, that he knew that he would never be able to return to that church or that part of Italy without also hearing Mass again.

It's also amazing how orthodox A Clockwork Orange is, defending the doctrine of original sin against Pelagianism. In his autobiography, he commented on the theme of this novel: "Humanity is defined by its capacity for St. Augustine's liberum arbitrium, and that moral choice cannot exist without a moral polarity." (Personally, I cannot read anything he has written without somehow being reminded of St. Augustine.)

PS -- By the way, Steven, I believe I left a comment under your Chesterton Cont. post several days ago, but it isn't there now. Did you ever receive it?

Dear Enbrethiliel,

Thank you for your comment above. I'm afraid I have no comment from you neither approved nor awaiting approval. Sometimes commenting glitches that way, u suppose. But if it had nearly the substance of this I would love to read it.

Thanks again.





About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 30, 2006 9:19 AM.

Chesterton Cont. was the previous entry in this blog.

Ontogeny in Faith--A Cause for Hope is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll