In the annals of the 20th century literary pantheon, few figures can match the audacity and intellectual dexterity of the late, great Anthony Burgess. With his eloquent prose, razor-sharp wit, and unflinching exploration of human nature, Burgess left an indelible mark on literature and pop culture alike.
Born in England in 1917, Burgess studied at the University of Manchester before serving in World War II. It was during this time that he began writing in earnest, eventually producing a body of work that ranged from darkly satirical novels like A Clockwork Orange to intricately layered historical fictions such as Earthly Powers.
Beyond his literary achievements, Burgess was also an accomplished musician, composing over 250 musical works, including symphonies, operas, and chamber music. He was also a noted critic and essayist, known for his outspoken views on politics, religion, and culture, and often wrote about the challenges of identity and cultural assimilation in a rapidly changing world.
A prolific reader, Burgess gathered some of his favorite works of fiction in the 1984 essay collection Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939. Covering the 44-year span between 1939 and 1983, Burgess’ list includes innovative work by Chinua Achebe, Raymond Chandler, Ralph Ellison, Erica Jong, and Gore Vidal alongside five definitive works of dystopian fiction. With excerpts provided by The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, explore his favorites of the genre below.
Anthony Burgess’ Reading List
“The futility of war is well presented. The island to be captured has no strategic importance. The spirit of revolt among the men is stirred by an accident: the patrol stumbles into a hornets’ nest and runs away, dropping weapons and equipment, the naked leaving the dead behind them. An impulse can contain seeds of human choice: we have not yet been turned entirely into machines. Mailer’s pessimism was to come later — in The Deer Park and Barbary Shore and An American Dream — but here, with men granting themselves the power to opt out of the collective suicide of war, there is a heartening vision of hope. This is an astonishingly mature book for a twenty-five-year-old novelist. It remains Mailer’s best, and certainly the best war novel to emerge from the United States.” -AB
“This is one of the few dystopian or cacotopian visions which have changed our habits of thought. It is possible to say that the ghastly future Orwell foretold has not come about simply because he foretold it: we were warned in time. On the other hand, it is possible to think of this novel as less a prophecy than the comic joining together of two disparate things — an image of England as it was in the immediate post-war era, a land of gloom and shortages, and the bizarrely impossible notion of British intellectuals taking over the government of the country (and, for that matter, the whole of the English-speaking world).” -AB
Facial Justice by L.P. Hartley
“Jael 97 is facially overprivileged: her beauty must be reduced to a drab norm. But, like the heroes and heroines of all cacotopian novels, she is an eccentric. Seeing for the first time the west tower of Ely Cathedral, one of the few lofty structures left unflattened by the war, she experiences a transport of ecstasy and wishes to cherish her beauty. Her revolt against the regime results in no brutal reimposition of conformity — only in the persuasions of sweet reason. This is no Orwellian future. It is a world incapable of the dynamic of tyranny. Even the weather is always cool and grey, with no room for either fire or ice. The state motto is ‘Every valley shall be exalted.’ This is a brilliant projection of tendencies already apparent in the post-war British welfare state but, because the book lacks the expected horrors of cacotopian fiction, it has met less appreciation than Nineteen Eighty-Four.” -AB
Island by Aldous Huxley
“Nobody is scientifically conditioned to be happy: this new world is really brave. It has learned a great deal from Eastern religion and philosophy, but it is prepared to take the best of Western science, technology and art. The people themselves are a sort of ideal Eurasian race, equipped with fine bodies and Huxleyan brains, and they have read all the books that Huxley has read. All this sounds like an intellectual game, a hopeless dream in a foundering world, but Huxley was always enough of a realist to know that there is a place for optimism. Indeed, no teacher can be a pessimist, and Huxley was essentially a teacher. In Island, the good life is eventually destroyed by a brutal, stupid, materialistic young raja who wants to exploit the island’s mineral resources.” -AB
“England… after nuclear war, is trying to organize tribal culture after the total destruction of a centralized industrial civilization. The past has been forgotten, and even the art of making fire has to be relearned. The novel is remarkable not only for its language but for its creation of a whole set of rituals, myths and poems. Hoban has built a whole world from scratch.” -AB
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