Ninety-Nine Novels: Falstaff by Robert Nye
In 1984, Anthony Burgess published Ninety-Nine Novels, a selection of his favourite novels in English since 1939. The list is typically idiosyncratic, and shows the breadth of Burgess’s interest in fiction. This podcast, by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, explores the novels on Burgess’s list with the help of writers, critics and other special guests.
In this episode, we’re discussing the bawdy, gluttonous and flatulent Falstaff by Robert Nye, with writer and academic, Rob Spence.
Falstaff is a masterpiece of obscene excess. Telling the story of the medieval knight Sir John Fastolf, reportedly the model for Shakespeare’s famous rake Falstaff, Nye’s novel is split into 100 chapters, and goes from Fastolf’s conception on the penis of the Cerne Abbas Giant to his death at the age of 81. But this is no simple life story. The chapters are not ordered in a linear fashion, digressions are frequent, and Fastolf opines on everything from his relationship with Prince Hal and his ostracization from the Royal Court, to his dubious heroics on the battlefield at Agincourt. Along the way he has time to give lengthy essays on his own penis, his possibly incestuous sexual exploits, and the different types of flatulence. The story is frequently distracted by descriptions of lavish feasts and copious amounts of booze. It’s a novel Burgess calls Rabelaisian, saying it is a ‘bold venture and an indication of what the novel can do when it frees itself from the constraints of the Jamesian tradition.’
Robert Nye was an award-winning poet, novelist and critic, whose work was often inspired by his deep knowledge and love of literature. As a novelist, he is best known for writing postmodern retellings of historical and mythological stories, particularly the life and work of Shakespeare. Other subjects for his fiction include Merlin, Faust, Lord Byron, and the companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais. Born in London, he settled in Cork, Ireland, where he died in 2016.
Rob Spence is a retired academic. He has published on a range of modern and contemporary authors, including Anthony Burgess, Robert Nye, Ford Madox Ford, Louis de Bernieres, Wyndham Lewis and Penelope Fitzgerald.
Books mentioned in this episode
By Robert Nye:
- Beowulf: A New Telling (1968)
- Merlin (1978)
- Faust (1980)
- The Memoirs of Lord Byron (1989)
- The Life and Death of My Lord Gilles de Rais (1990)
- Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (c. 1592)
- Henry IV (Parts One and Two) by William Shakespeare (c. 1597-99)
- Henry V by William Shakespeare (c. 1599)
- The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare (1602)
- The Tempest by William Shakespeare (c. 1610)
- Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)
- The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759-67)
- Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton (1941)
- The Great Tradition by F.R. Leavis (1948)
- The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth (1960)
- Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess (1964)
- Beyond the Words: Eleven Writers in Search of a New Fiction, ed. by Giles Gordon (1975)
- A Long Trip to Tea Time by Anthony Burgess (1976)
- Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess (1980)
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)
- A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess (1993)
- Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon (1997)
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In Series One and Two of Ninety-Nine Novels, we learnt about authors including James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Iris Murdoch, Ian Fleming and William Golding, among others. These episodes are available at your favourite place to get podcasts.
You can join the conversation and tell us which 100th book you would add to Burgess’s list by using the hashtag #99Novels on Twitter.
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The theme music for the Ninety-Nine Novels podcast is Anthony Burgess’s Concerto for Flute, Strings and Piano in D Minor, performed by No Dice Collective.