Anthony Burgess: The Ninety Nine Novels podcast

Photo from Karel Reisk collection at BFI.

Anthony Burgess (25 February 1917 – 22 November 1993) was a prolific writer who produced poetry, plays and broadcasts while also building his reputation as a literary critic and linguist. He came pretty late to fiction, turning 39 when Time for a Tiger was published in 1956. Thirty or so novels later, he is best known for his dystopian satire, A Clockwork Orange, which would gain cult status when Stanley Kubrick adapted it for the screen in 1971. This seems a bit reductive, particularly given that he composed over 250 musical works over 60 years. These varied in genre and style and included symphonies, concertos and opera.

Burgess came from a musical family. His mother was a Music Hall singer and dancer and his father played piano. He once wrote: ‘I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side’. In this blog I am going to do neither and instead turn to a very specific piece of his non-fiction published in 1984.

Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 — A Personal Choice is a pretty self-explanatory title and covers a 44-year span between 1939 and 1983, starting with James Joyce and finishing with Norman Mailer. Some authors get two mentions whereas Aldous Huxley pulls off a hat trick with After Many a Summer (1939), Ape and Essence (1948), and Island (1962).

Burgess was a vociferous reader who famously reviewed 350 novels in just over two years at the Yorkshire Post. Presumably he didn’t sleep or eat during that time. His background in journalism and broad knowledge of literature led him to pen Ninety-Nine novels in two weeks. Like all reading lists, it’s intended to provoke discussion and debate – hence the absence of the hundredth novel. ‘If you disagree violently with some of my choices I shall be pleased. We arrive at values only through dialectic’ he writes.

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester are currently running a podcast series, with each episode dedicated to a book on the list. I was invited to talk about Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). The book was the first Pan paperback to sell a million copies, and like A Clockwork Orange, would forever become synonymous with the author.

In his introduction to Ninety-Nine Novels, Burgess says, ‘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 is certainly true of Arthur Seaton, the charismatic anti-hero of Sillitoe’s debut novel who craves pleasure at every opportunity, no matter who he hurts along the way: “I’m me and nobody else, and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.”

‘As novels are about the ways in which human beings behave,’ writes Burgess ‘they tend to imply a judgement of behaviour’. What makes Saturday Night and Sunday Morning so authentic is the complete lack of authorial judgement. Sillitoe describes everything as it is. There’s no pandering to sensibilities or fear of moral outrage. This is why publishers originally turned the book down – because they felt the working classes needed a more edifying narrative than the violent environment Sillitoe portrayed. To put this into context, John Braine’s Room at the Top is on Burgess’s list, which Peter Green described as like a ‘vicar’s tea party’ in comparison.

Burgess isn’t completely effusive, describing Sillitoe’s writing as ‘verbose and sprawling, undisciplined’. Although I partly agree with this, I don’t see it as a fault. Sillitoe was a self-taught writer. He didn’t go to university or enrol on a creative writing course. He figured things out for himself. It’s this that gives his writing the rough edges and authenticity.

Some writers are so obsessed with form that you become aware that you’re reading a very well written book. With Sillitoe it’s different. You’re not reading a book. You’re stood at the lathe. You can smell the factory. You can hear people gossiping about you. It’s a different kind of verisimilitude that’s only possible when you write with your ear.

The podcast is hosted by Graham Foster who is the former editor of Transmission. He was one of the first people to publish one of my short stories (The Loneliness of the Dartford Toll Operator) – about a woman who touches 1000’s of hands a day as money is exchanged yet never gets to know anyone on a meaningful level. You can tell it’s an old story (from the mid Noughties) because now there are no toll operators. You have to pay in advance and register your number plate. I found out the hard way last year when I was fined. But that’s another story.

You can listen to the  Ninety-Nine Novels podcast on Soundcloud

International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Engine House, Chorlton Mill, 3 Cambridge Street, Manchester. M1 5BY

This blog was originally published on the Nottingham City of Literature website on 27 June 2022.

Mrs Bull and the Importance of Gossip

This is the first of three blogs originally published on the City Arts website for Words for Wisdom, a project which aims to bring older and young people together through literature. During my commission we explored Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Here’s how we decided on the project title of ‘Cheap Gossip for Retail Later’. 

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a book of two halves. The first 75% is Saturday night “the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year.” Here we follow Raleigh worker Arthur Seaton as he tests the elastic capacity of his guts by necking seven gins and 11 pints down his local before getting it on with women, he shouldn’t be getting it on with.

The last 25% is Sunday morning, when Arthur goes fishing and accepts “Everyone in the world was caught, somehow, one way or another, and those that weren’t were always on the way to it”. He has to settle down and get married because “If you went through life refusing all the bait dangled in front of you, that would be no life at all”.

Any analysis of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning rightly focuses on the wonderfully quotable antics of Arthur Seaton, the charismatic anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel, published in 1958. But for the Words of Wisdom project I wanted to switch focus to Seaton’s nemesis Mrs. Bull.

Mrs. Bull may not slug her guts out at the lathe, but she certainly puts in a shift at the yard. For twenty two years she has observed people coming and going, earning the nickname of the ‘Loudspeaker’ and ‘News of the World’. We are told that “her malicious gossip travelled like electricity through a circuit, from one power point to another, and the surprising thing was that a fuse was so rarely blown”.

Sillitoe’s descriptions of “Fat Mrs. Bull the gossiper” are wonderfully evocative, albeit derogatory, and led to some heated debates in the writing workshops that we held at the Meadows and Central library, Radford Care Group and the Marcus Garvey Centre. She is described as a “tight-fisted defender of her tribe” and as “queen of the yard” and so is not someone you want to provoke. But neither is Seaton. When he finds himself the subject of her tongue he shoots her in the cheek in the book (later toned down to the backside for the 1960 film adaptation), suggesting she is a real threat to his freedom, though given his behavior (sleeping with a pair of married sisters, one of whom he gets off with while the other is having a ‘gin bath’) it is no wonder he is the subject of gossip.

This led to some interesting conversations in our workshops. Had anyone ever been the subject of gossip and how did this feel? Was anyone in the group a self-confessed gossip? Was gossip a positive or negative thing?

It also opened up debates around the origin of the word gossip which led us to Silvia Federici’s Witches, Witch Hunting, and Women where she argues “Tracing the history of the words frequently used to define and degrade women is a necessary step if we are to understand how gender oppression functions and reproduces itself”. It turns out that gossip referred to “companions in childbirth not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women friends, with no necessary derogatory connotations. In either case, it had strong emotional connotations.” The digested read: It’s good to talk.

Based on this, we decided to call our project ‘Choice Gossip for Retail Later’ as this is essentially what we had been doing in the workshops: we were gleaning gossip from each other, sharing stories, finding commonality through words. That choice gossip has taken the form of a series of illustrations with audio recordings which will be released bit by bit over the coming months. You can decide for yourself if this gossip is worthy of retail on 12 November.

Words of Wisdom: Choice Gossip for Retail Later, 12 November (6pm-8pm), City Arts, 11-13 Hockley, Nottingham. NG1 1FH   

Book tickets from Eventbrite here