A WEEK IN BOOKS

In their bare-fanged heyday, the Thatcherites used to claim that competition - however stiff - would always have a tonic, not a toxic, impact on rival traders. Does the same apply to books? Within a matter of weeks, the massed biographers of Jane Austen will learn the hard truth as Maggie McKernan, David Nokes and Claire Tomalin all add their new lives of Jane to the pile begun a few months ago by Valerie Grosvenor Myer. This triple whammy only goes to show that, for all the doomy talk about hard-faced hatchet-persons in power suits, there's still a lot more sensibility than sense in publishing today.

Biographies - especially of writers - seem peculiarly prone to this bus- stop effect. You wait for a couple of decades, and then two, three or (in George Eliot's case) four all come along more or less at once. Why should this happen? On one side, TV and film adaptations, expanding reprint lists and the ever-grinding education industry do successfully carry the classics to fresh cohorts of readers. On the other, older "standard" works start to feel musty and remote as the culture changes - most notably, in the direction of sexual frankness - and research unearths the sort of evidence to turn yesterday's angel into tomorrow's demon (or even vice versa). And, of course, death loosens the tongues of foe as well as friend - although Samuel Beckett emerged as lovable as ever from James Knowlson's and Antony Cronin's recent lives.

If biographers must cluster, better to tread rapidly on one another's toes, as the Janeites will. That at least permits a fair comparison. When one life steals a march on its peers, it becomes almost impossible for the straggler(s) to capture the same territory on review pages and bookstore tables. There's little wrong with Stephen Coote's and Keith Alldritt's assured new biographies of WB Yeats (from Hodder and John Murray respectively) beyond the cruel fact that the first part of Roy Foster's epic authorised version broke the tape back in January.

In the spring, we reviewed (at some length) Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che Guevara, shot in the Bolivian jungle 30 years ago. This autumn, should Jorge Castaneda's equally substantial tome - which draws on a broader spread of sceptical and hostile sources - command the same level of coverage for the bushy icon? If not, what about Henry Ryan's study of the urbane guerrilla, due in early 1998? When exactly should we draw a line and say "That's Enough Che (Ed)"?

These snarl-ups and tailbacks do prove that publishers often have precious little grasp of one another's plans. This is not (yet) a planned economy. For the moment, literary sleuths will go on shadowing their rivals' paths like characters from some opaque yarn by Henry James.

Two distinguished contributors to these pages are working on lives of the same revered figure in post-war European literature. They have visited the same sites, consulted the same archives, sought memories from the same frail relatives. They haunt each other as their tragic and heroic quarry haunts them. Yet, so far, they have never met. And probably they never will, until their jackets touch on bookshop shelves.

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