Into the whirlwind with Sam, Muriel, Redmond and Annie

The publishers' autumn lists are crammed with delights. John Walsh, Literary Editor, makes a personal selection
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The Independent Culture
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the eye of the publishing storm. The beginning of September traditionally marks the official moment when the gentle drizzle of late spring and the paperback squalls of midsummer give way to the most tremendous show of weather, the spouts and hurricanoes of autumn, as the nation's publishing houses bring out their best and biggest titles in the run-up, first to the Booker Prize and then to Christmas. For literary editors, it's the time when scores of thousands of books seem to arrive in every post, and perch malevolently on every available surface and the Independent books cupboard looks like a scene from Twister. So what should you be looking out for?

Biography, the British public's favourite non-fiction category, is strongly represented this autumn. Scandal-hounds will flock to Roger Lewis's biography of Laurence Olivier (Century, pounds 25) to see if the great actor gets the same treatment as Peter Sellers received at the hands of Lewis's hyperactive imagination. Art completists will be relieved to see that John Richardson's slow, magisterial life of Picasso has successfully reached Volume II (Cape, pounds 30), taking the story all the way to 1917 (only another 56 years to go). Beatles sentimentalists will revel in the authorised Paul McCartney biography, Many Years From Now (Secker, pounds 17.99) by Barry Miles, whose credentials as former biographer of Allen Ginsberg is a kind of non-hagiography guarantee. Music fans of a gentler stripe will lap up A Genius in the Family (Heinemann, pounds 16.99), Piers and Hilary Du Pre's tender account of life with Jacqueline, the brilliant cellist who died of multiple sclerosis.

For people who still take literature seriously, however, the hot subject of the autumn is Samuel Beckett, who died five years ago, aged 85, leaving a legacy of "stains upon the silence" and a certain degree of bafflement about his private life. Mortifyingly shy of interviews during his life, he agreed at its end to talk to his friend James Knowlson, director of the Beckett Archive at Reading University. The result is the enormously detailed and wholly unmissable Damned to Fame: the life of Samuel Beckett (Bloomsbury, pounds 25); it's followed hotfoot by Anthony Cronin's rival life, The Last Modernist (HarperCollins, pounds 20). Elsewhere on the Parnassian heights, Virginia Woolf fans are already squabbling about whether Hermione Lee's new life of the clairaudient queen of the Hogarth Press (Chatto, pounds 20) is better, shrewder or more sympathetic than Quentin Bell's biography from 1972. One of the autumn's most massive undertakings is Christopher Isherwood's American diaries, over 1,000 pages of waspish observation of Californian mores from the beginnings of wear to the Sixties, collected under the title The Emigre (Methuen, pounds 25). Susanna Clapp's memoir of her friend, A Portrait of Bruce Chatwin (Cape, pounds 14.99) is the first of three promised quasi-biographies of the nomadic polymath. Sir Alec Guinness will publish My Name Escapes Me (Hamish Hamilton pounds 17), his "diary of a retiring actor" alongside Blessings in Disguise (HHamilton pounds 18), an updating of his theatrical memories. But for sheer curiosity value, I predict a rush of punters anxious to get their hands on Full Disclosure (Macmillan, pounds 16.99), Andrew Neil's record of his years at the Sunday Times. They were the years when everything fell - the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, Mrs Thatcher, the Stock Market, house prices, Pamela Bordes's underwear - and Neil was around to monitor it all with his gruff, but oddly likeable, sod-the-establishment insouciance.

A superior autumn for fiction kicks off with the rare sighting of a Muriel Spark novel, Reality and Dreams (Constable, pounds 14.95) and the deep joy of a major work from Margaret Atwood who has been saddled with the insultingly limited soubriquet of "the world's best female novelist": Alias Grace (Bloomsbury pounds 15.99) is a disturbingly intense unlocking of the mind of an Irish servant girl who murdered her employer in 1843. Colm Tibn's The Story of the Night (Picador, pounds 16.99) is one of the season's most talked- about novels, from the strikingly talented author of The South and The Heather Blazing. The author of the Pulitzer- winning The Shipping News, E Annie Proulx, is back with a major work called Accordion Crimes (Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99), which follows the various owners of the titular squeeze-box (rather in the spirit of The Yellow Rolls-Royce) and thereby evokes the spirit of a nation struggling to be born.

Clive James's latest, The Silver Castle (Cape, pounds 14) is a satire on the pretensions of the Indian "Bollywood" film industry (since his last, Brmm Brmm, was a jocular look at a young Japanese innocent in London, one must assume he's trying to annoy the world's major civilisations, one by one) and Mario (The Godfather) Puzo makes a late attempt to clamber back into the limelight in The Last Don (Heinemann, pounds 15.99). New thrillers from Scott Turow (The Laws of our Fathers, Viking, pounds 16), Philip Kerr (Esau, Chatto, pounds 15.99), Elmore Leonard (Out of Sight, Viking pounds 16) and Colin Dexter (Death is Now My Neighbour, Macmillan pounds 15.99) will delight aficionados, while I cannot wait to read a new collection from the finest short story writer of the century (and that's not excluding Joyce) - William Trevor's After Rain (Viking pounds 16) is out in October.

The most popular subject for large-scale historical analysis is Europe, its shifting contours, wars and problematic "harmonisation" comprehensively explored in Norman Davies's vast, Napoleonically ambitious study Europe: A History (Oxford, pounds 30)) and, at half the length but with no less penetration, by Prof J M Roberts in A History of Europe (Helicon, pounds 25). Prof Roberts is, of course, the distinguished author of A History of the World; it is interesting to see him narrowing his academic focus like this.

What else? The travel book of the autumn will be Redmond O'Hanlon's Congo Journey (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 18), his long-awaited (ie ludicrously late- arriving) follow-up to Into the Heart of Borneo and In Trouble Again, informed by his extraordinary combination of bear-like intrepidity, twinkly humour and vertiginous erudition. Christopher Silvester's The Literary Companion to Parliament (Sinclair Stevenson, pounds 20) will be the book most reviewed by Roy Hattersley, Roy Jenkins, Anthony Howard, Matthew Parris et al.The most dementedly talented cartoonist of his generation, Martin Rowson, brings out his wholly crazoid interpretation of Tristram Shandy (Picador pounds 15) in October. And at the time of writing, the much-discussed succes de scandale of the autumn, Amanda Craig's A Vicious Circle, due in November, has been suspended, pending lawyers' enquiries into some flimsily disguised portraits of real people. For the moment, you can't read this shocking exposure of corrupt London literary life. Why it's almost as if we arranged for it to disappear....