Author pens a modern classic - or an expensive doorstop

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A NOVEL which has taken 25 years to write, and a decade to edit, finally landed with a heavy thud on the desks of British publishers last week.

The Book of Kings, rejected 10 years ago by a dozen publishers, has already become something of a legend in recent decades for the boasts and feuds which have surrounded it.

Now the 800-page book is likely to be the subject of a bidding war among London's top publishers, in an auction which will run until 9 February and could result in a telephone number advance for its author.

"It could be that I am the next Homer," James Thackara has said, before offering William Faulkner as another comparison. Others have suggested that the ambitious work, with its Old Testament title, is the "War and Peace of the 20th Century".

The Book of Kings has been signed up before, by Bantam Press for pounds 105,000, but Thackara fell out with his then editor, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, and the deal was quietly shelved.

An air of mystery surrounds Thackara. An only child born in California, he was brought up in Europe, but returned to the US to attend Harvard. With a reputation as an austere academic, he now lives in Camden, north London.

"I have known him since the Seventies, when I would run into him at parties", says his agent, Ed Victor. "Back then he was a very preppy-looking guy who looked as though he had just stepped off the Harvard campus. But now, though, he's got this mature beard and long hair - he looks like a writer." The image of the learned recluse was further fuelled a year ago by a lengthy profile in the New Yorker magazine.

The book is certainly lofty. It traces Europe's downward spiral towards Nazism and the Holocaust from 1932 through the lives of four students at the Sorbonne. Those who have read it say it is a dense text, with many allusions and symbolic set pieces. But it has had to be drastically cut down to size. Tracey Carns, responsible for editing the final manuscript, admits "it deals with very complex issues". She has shaved about 100 pages off during the editing process. The magnum opus will be published in America in April by Overlook Press, and the rights are now being offered to British publishers.

The difficulty for publishers is to know whether a book which has been around the block more times than an old 2CV is really a weighty masterpiece or just a product of the publishing world's hype machine.

Simon Prosser, publisher at Hamish Hamilton, who received the proofs last week, said: "Because it clearly tends towards a larger canvas, that's part of the way it's going to be published. It will be a `make your mind up' moment: decide if this is a work of genius or not." Ed Victor accepts that the jury will be divided: "There will probably be big lightning bolts in both directions," he says.

Thackara published two novels in the Eighties: America's Children and Ahab's Daughter. The critical response then was quite cool. One critic objected to lines like "some memberance more sacred than a hymen had been ruptured..." and spoke of Thackara's "buckets and buckets of guilt and disillusion".

According to Nick Clee, deputy editor of The Bookseller: "There has got to be some nervousness about taking on a work of that size and ambition, because you know you're going to be challenging people's attention spans.

"But the bestseller lists of the last few years show that there is a real appetite for big books, from Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy to Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. If you've got a book which is in the public consciousness and is considered a `hit', book-buyers remain undaunted by length."