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Famous for a century

BRIEF LIVES: Twentieth Century Pen Portraits from the Dictionary of National Biography. Selected by Colin Matthew Oxford #163;14.99.

Chambers Biographical Dictionary: Centenary Edition. Chambers #163;40.

Peter Sellers, Bertrand Russell, Anthony Crosland, Russell Harty - Victoria Neumark looks at the personalities of our age

Why are we so keen to know about the lives of the famous? Is it simple gawping curiosity, the kind which makes us buy Hello! magazine? Is it prurience - wanting to know all the dirt, the kind which sells the News of the World?

Is it a hangover from a classical set of beliefs: that to know the life is more fully to know the work? Or is it a remnant of a Christian tradition, the hagiography, where an improving moral can be drawn from a goodly life?

Biography flourishes, with ever more obscure figures being dug up and given the treatment, and with ever more distant acquaintances being dragged in to provide revelations: but why? At the same time, more abstract genres fall off in popularity. Surely this is to do with the predominance of visual media and the personalisation of culture; for every idea we need a face and for every face we need a history.

Belatedly, perhaps, the publishers of the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) have woken up to this trend and raided their larder for a box of goodies. At the same time, Chambers has issued a new edition of its Biographical Dictionary. Strangely, neither of these has a really contemporary feel.

The DNB's 150 "intimate" biographies of a selection of people who mostly died between 1945 and 1990 are a rum bunch. The delightful aspect about these short essays is that they are mostly written by people who either knew or are authorities on their subjects: Spike Milligan on Peter Sellers,Richard Ellmann on T S Eliot, Anthony Quinton on Bertrand Russell. Unfortunately, the competing demands of objectively having to give the chronicle of a life and a view of that life seem to have constrained the originality of the contributors. Spike Milligan, for instance, is only really recognisable in his praise for his own film starring Sellers and his mentioning the attendance of the Goons at their colleague's funeral.

A bland conformity seems to have been self-imposed by many contributors, so that, for instance, Yehudi Menuhin on Jacqueline du Pre or E T Williams on Churchill seem to have the dead hand of nil nisi bonum on them.

Some entries succeed much better than others - Maurice Shock on Clem Attlee, R G Lienhardt on E E Evans Pritchard, the anthropologist, C N Manlove on Mervyn Peake are all enlivened with personal knowledge and analysis.

There are some very odd assessments, such as Kingsley Amis's wildly over-the-top salute to the achievements of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond (parody or salute to old drinking buddy?) or Michael Denison's lavish adoration of No l Coward - but these are good fun to read. On the other hand, it is equally fascinating to read Roy Jenkins on Anthony Crosland, Philip Howard on Roald Dahl and Alan Bennett on Russell Harty: quite a few personal scores get settled in a peculiarly final way.

The DNB is often little better than an obituary without the feelings of loss. Chambers offers straight down-the-line information about a huge range of important figures, from Plato to Sylvia Plath, or from the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut to the forger Clarence Hatry. For a library reference book, it could hardly be beat. Two hundred and fifty larger panels give a bit more of the low-down on the most important figures of world history - Hitler, Beethoven, Mao, St Paul.

If not truly global, Chambers does at least contain enough non-Western figures to tip its hat to modern post-nationalist values, and among its 17,500 entries many now come with bibliographical information and a suggestion of a considered overview, as well as a seminal quote or two.

One might contrast with these respectable collections some of the biographies which have beguiled the book-buying public of late. Claire Tomalin's excavation of Dickens's mistress, which cast new light on the fertility of Dickens's genius; Paula Yates's narcissistic confessions about her silicone breast-implant; Doris Lessing's new memoir which reflected deeply on her life and times. Then to compare with, say, Foxe's Boke of Martyrs, Elizabethan propaganda for the Protestant religion, and one can doubt that there ever has been a way of telling a life which is impartial and objective. If we want to know about someone, we do want to see them "warts and all", we do want to know their secret. Even if we don't know why. Collections of short notes just whet the appetite.

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