Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Burgess' 99 Novels

Usually the buah tangan you take along to a party is something edible or drinkable, or maybe some flowers.  All such niceys are gratefully received.  But the friend I like best is the one who always brings me the gift of some second-hand books, things he's picked up a various flea-markets. 

On Saturday night we had a little get-together for friends, and he turned up with his customary bag of books that he felt sure I'd like, and one of the books he brought was a total winner as far as I was concerned -  99 novels : The Best in English since 1939 by Anthony Burgess, written in 1984.  I love books about books, full of  reading suggestions, and Burgess, of course, feels like an old friend.

You can find the whole list here. And the fascinating introduction to the book is here.  Here's what Burgess says about what the novel should be :
I believe that the primary substance I have considered in making my selection is human character. It is the godlike task of the novelist to create human beings whom we accept as living creatures filled with complexities and armed with free will. This free will causes trouble for the novelist who sees himself as a kind of small God of the Calvinists, able to predict what is going to happen on the final page. No novelist who has created a credible personage can ever be quite sure what that personage will do. Create your characters, give them a time and place to exist in, and leave the plot to them; the imposing of action on them is very difficult, since action must spring out of the temperament with which you have endowed them. At best there will be a compromise between the narrative line you have dreamed up and the course of action preferred by the characters. Finally, though, it must seem that action is there to illustrate character; it is character that counts.

The time and space a fictional character inhabits ought to be exactly realized. This does not mean that an art novelist need, in the manner of the pop novelist, get all his details right. Frederick Forsyth would not dream of making the Milan Airport out of his skull, but Brian Moore, in his recent ''Cold Heaven,'' equips Nice Airport with a security check system that it does not possess. This is not a grave fault, since the rest of the C^ote d'Azur is realized aromatically enough. Many novelists rightly consider human probability more important than background exactitude. It often happens that a created background, like Graham Greene's West Africa in ''The Heart of the Matter,'' is more magical than the real thing. It is the spatio-temporal extension of character that is more important than public time and location - the hair on the legs, the aching eyetooth, the phlegm in the voice. It is not enough for a novelist to fabricate a human soul: There must be a body as well, and an immediate space-time continuum for that body to rest or move in.

The management of dialogue is important. There is a certain skill in making speech lifelike without its being a mere transcription from a tape recorder. Such a transcription never reads like fictional speech, which is artful and more economical than it appears. One could forgive Dennis Wheatley, who wrote well-researched novels of the occult, a good deal if only his characters sounded like people. There is too much, in the novels of Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace, of the pouring out of information cribbed directly from an encyclopedia as a substitute for real speech. The better novelists write with their ears.

A good novel ought to have a shape. Pop novelists never fail to gather their strands of action into a climax: They are helped in this by the comparative inertness of their characters. The characters of an art novel resist the structure which their creators try to impose on them; they want to go their own way. They do not even want the book to come to an end and so they have, sometimes arbitrarily, as in E. M. Forster, to be killed off. A good novel contrives, nevertheless, somehow to trace a parabola. It is not merely a slice of life. It is life delicately molded into a shape. A picture has a frame and a novel ends where it has to - in some kind of resolution of thought or action which satisfies as the end of a symphony satisfies.

I now tread dangerous ground. A novel ought to leave in the reader's mind a sort of philosophical residue. A view of life has been indirectly propounded that seems new, even surprising. The novelist has not preached. The didactic has no place in good fiction. But he has clarified some aspect of private or public morality that was never so clear before. As novels are about the ways in which human beings behave, they tend to imply a judgment of behavior, which means that the novel is what the symphony or painting or sculpture is not - namely, a form steeped in morality.
Because one always measures oneself against lists : I've read and enjoyed just 22 of the titles Burgess suggests, so there are still big gaps to fill.

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