Saturday, May 30, 2020

List: Best 99 Novels in English Since 1939 (to 1984), According to Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess made a list of the Best 99 Novels in English. At least, they were the Best 99 Novels in English between 1939 and 1984, according to him.

Burgess was entitled to offer an opinion with some authority. Burgess was a British author who wrote 33 novels as well as poetry, biography, criticism, and other works. He was also a journalist, linguist, and music composer. He died in 1993. He is best known for his dystopian satire, A Clockwork Orange, an excellent book I put off reading for too long because the movie was so disturbing.

In 1984, Burgess published a book he called 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (reviewed here). The time span of 1939 to 1984 is described as "a period that encompasses the start of a world war and ends with the nonfulfillment of Orwell's nightmare."

His book included mini-reviews of the 99 novels (some are sets or series), which he chose on the basis of personal preference. Burgess described his process and his choices like this:

In my time, I have read a lot of novels in the way of duty; I have read a great number for pleasure as well. The 99 novels I have chosen, I have chosen with some, though not with total, confidence. I have concentrated on works which have brought something new – in technique or view of the world – to the form.

If there is a great deal of known excellence not represented here, that is because 99 is a comparatively low number. The reader can decide on his own hundredth. He may even choose one of my own novels.

The Anthony Burgess list of 99 Best Novels and Erica Jong's list of Top 20th Century Novels by Women are my go to lists when I'm looking for something good to read. There is some crossover with other Must Read lists, but a lot of originality. There are many authors I tried and books I read only because they were on the Anthony Burgess list and they are now all-time favorites.

Also, I would include Burgess's Earthly Powers book as the 100th. I think it deserves a spot on a top 100 midcentury novel list.

The books I have read are in red. Those on my TBR shelf are in blue.

Here is the list, in the same chronological order by publication date that Burgess lists them in his book:

Party Going, Henry Green

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Aldous Huxley

Finnegans Wake, James Joyce (discussed here)

At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

Strangers and Brothers, C. P. Snow (an 11-novel series A Time of Hope, reviewed here; George Passant, reviewed here; The Light and the Dark; The Consciousness of the Rich)

The Aerodrome, Rex Warner

The Horse's Mouth, Joyce Cary

The Razor's Edge, Somerset Maugham (reviewed here)

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake (reviewed here)

The Victim, Saul Bellow

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene

Ape and Essence, Aldous Huxley

The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer (reviewed here)

No Highway, Nevil Shute

The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

The Body, William Sansom

Scenes from Provincial Life, William Cooper

The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg

A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell (a 12-novel series; my desert island pick; discussed here)

The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, Henry Williamson (a 15-book series, not easy to find, and only gets Burgess's halfhearted endorsement)

The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy (one of my favorite books ever; reviewed here)

Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor

Sword of Honour, Evelyn Waugh (a trilogy)

The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis (I love this one)

Room at the Top, John Braine

The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell

The London Novels, Colin MacInnes (a trilogy)

The Assistant, Bernard Malamud (reviewed here)

The Bell, Iris Murdoch

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alan Sillitoe (I was supposed to read it in college but was hungover - the irony)

The Once and Future King, T. H. White

The Mansion, William Faulkner

Goldfinger, Ian Fleming

Facial Justice, L. P. Hartley

The Balkans Trilogy, Olivia Manning

The Mighty and Their Fall, Ivy Compton-Burnett

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

The Fox in the Attic, Richard Hughes

Riders in the Chariot, Patrick White

The Old Men at the Zoo, Angus Wilson (my favorite unknown novel)

Another Country, James Baldwin

Error of Judgment, Pamela Hansford Johnson

Island, Aldous Huxley

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (brilliant)

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark (my favorite Spark)

The Spire, William Golding

Heartland, Wilson Harris

A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood (reviewed here)

Defense, Vladimir Nabokov (also called The Luzhin Defense)

Late Call, Angus Wilson

The Lockwood Concern, John O'Hara

The Mandelbaum Gate, Muriel Spark (reviewed here)

A Man of the People, Chinua Achebe

The Anti-Death League, Kingsley Amis (reviewed here)

Giles Goat-Boy, John Barth

The Late Bourgeois World, Nadine Gordimer

The Last Gentleman, Walker Percy

The Vendor of Sweets, R. K. Narayan

Image Men, J. B. Priestley (two volumes)

Cocksure, Mordecai Richler

Pavane, Keith Roberts

The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles

Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth

Bomber, Len Deighton

Sweet Dreams, Michael Frayn

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

Humboldt's Gift, Saul Bellow

The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury

The Doctor's Wife, Brian Moore

Falstaff, Robert Nye

How to Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong (reviewed here; I love all the Isadora Wing books)

Farewell Companions, James Plunkett

Staying On, Paul Scott (Booker Prize winner)

The Coup, John Updike

The Unlimited Dream Company, J. G. Ballard

Dubin's Lives, Bernard Malamud

A Bend in the River, V. S. Naipaul

Sophie's Choice, William Stryon (reviewed here)

Life in the West, Brian Aldiss

Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban

How Far Can You Go?, David Lodge (reviewed here) (one of my favorites)

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

Lanark, Alasdair Gray

Darconville's Cat, Alexander Theroux

The Mosquito Coast, Paul Theroux

Creation, Gore Vidal

The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies (reviewed here; my love of Davies started with this one)

Ancient Evenings, Norman Mailer


So far, I've finished 47 of the books on this list. There are a few I will most likely never read.

Updated December 11, 2020.


  1. I haven't read many of them at all.

    1. There's a lot of variety on the list, which is why I like it. Funny books, adventure books, fine literature, historical fiction - something for everyone.

  2. I've always thought this was a pretty interesting list. I bought the first volume of Williamson's Ancient Sunlight series just because it was on this list (but haven't yet read it...)

    I agree Earthly Powers ought to be on the list!

    1. Nice to find another fan of Earthly Powers! It's such a rich story.

      The Ancient Sunlight series is the one Burgess gives a halfhearted endorsement to. He likes the first half of the series, when the narrator is young. But he acknowledges that Williamson's demonstrable pro-Nazi sympathies weaken the appeal of the second half of the 15-volume series. Uh, yeah, that would understandably make the books unpopular and probably explain why they are out of print and hard to find.


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