Roll up for Rushdie and Seth prize-fight

SALMAN RUSHDIE and Vikram Seth are to be pitched against each other in the contest for this year's Booker Prize, in a continuation of the literary world's passionate affair with the Anglo-Indian novel.

Their long-awaited books - which explore remarkably similar stories and themes - go on sale within days of each other next month, and are already being touted as the main contenders for Britain's most prestigious literary award.

Hardback print-runs for Rushdie's novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and Seth's An Equal Music are already expected to exceed 50,000 copies. Given the success of their previous novels, each are believed to have received advances of more than pounds 500,000.

Their publishing houses, Jonathan Cape and Phoenix House, are planning costly international marketing campaigns, and bookshops are already clamouring to secure personal appearances from both authors.

The last Anglo-Indian novelist to win the Booker Prize was Arundhati Roy, who took the prize in 1997 with The God of Small Things.

Rushdie has a unique distinction among Booker winners for Midnight's Children, which in 1993 was judged to be the best novel to have won the prize in 25 years.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which retells the Orpheus myth, is his first novel since 1995. Its central character is a coloratura rock singer who dies in an earthquake and whose lover sets out to "find" her again.

Seth's novel follows a similar theme. The hero is a depressed violinist in a string quartet who is still mourning a relationship which ended 10 years previously. Then, one day, he thinks he sees his former lover on the top deck of a bus.

The author, who has been hailed as "the new Tolstoy", was little-known before he first attracted attention in 1993 with the weighty A Suitable Boy.

The longest one-volume novel in the English language, A Suitable Boy took Seth eight years to write and, at nearly 800,000 words, is longer than War and Peace. Nine British publishing houses vied for the book before Phoenix House won the auction with a pounds 250,000 advance, a figure unheard of for a virtually unknown writer.

However, it failed to make the Booker shortlist because the judges considered it too long and too hyped to be included.

This year, Gerald Kaufman MP is the chairman of the Booker panel. He is on record as having described A Suitable Boy as his "book of the century".

As well as being nearly 1,000 pages shorter, An Equal Music differs from A Suitable Boy in that it has no Indian characters, is set in London not India, and focuses on just three people.

A high-achiever, Seth is used to success. He comes from a wealthy Calcutta family, and was educated in India and at Tonbridge School before getting a first in PPE at Oxford.

Roger Katz, general manager of booksellers Hatchards of Piccadilly, is so impressed with An Equal Music that he says he will ensure "every customer walks out of the store with a copy".

"I've already read an awful lot of books this year, but in my mind there are going to be two big books - An Equal Music and The Ground Beneath Her Feet," he said. "I'd be very surprised if they were not on the Booker shortlist and it will herald a return to the excitement of the early days of the prize." The reaction from the agents and publishing houses representing the two authors was one of practised nonchalance. Andrew Wylie, Mr Rushdie's literary agent, was deliberately vague - even about the publication date: "I think it's next month but I can't remember. There is nothing I can say - the novel speaks for itself." Jonathan Cape, the book's publisher, refused to confirm the size of the print-run, but did say that the book had attracted huge interest from booksellers.

Seth's camp was more loquacious. Rachael Kerr, his publicist, was moved to tears reading the book and described his writing as "peerless". "We are launching an advertising campaign," she added. "But I bridle at the idea of hype because the interest is justified and it's not about money. He is in demand but we are trying to strike a balance because last time he ended up losing his voice."

TALE OF TWO NOVELS

Vikram Seth

Title 'An Equal Music'

Theme love and music

Advance at least pounds 500,000

Pages 320

Price pounds 16.99

Publisher Phoenix House

Publication date 8 April

What they say "This is an amazing book from a multi-talented author. An extraordinary story."

Salman Rushdie

Title 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet'

Theme love and music

Advance at least pounds 500,000

Pages 465

Price pounds 18

Publisher Jonathan Cape

Publication date 13 April

What they say "Rushdie at his absolute, almost insolently global best. Completely seductive."

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