"ONE DAY in the middle of the twentieth century," it begins. A successful novelist, Fleur Talbot, is writing her memoirs; Loitering With Intent is a fictional autobiography. The narrator, Fluer Talbot, is remembering the days when she lived in a seedy bedsitter in west London, "on the grubby edge of the literary world." The aspiring young writer takes a job as secretary to the snobbish, fastidious Sir Quentin Oliver, president of the Autobiographical Association. Fleur is happy to work for this odd organization since "I had a novel, my first, in larva," and she finds that real life, day by day, provided her with the situations, images and phrases that she needed for her novel, while Sir Quentin's conversation "had already become part of my memoirs." Art and life are confused from the outset.

The Autobiographical Association consists of 10 people working on their own memoirs, to be lodged in a safe place for 70 years. Sir Quentin insists on "total frankness," but the results are, paradoxically, so boring that he encourages Fleur to falsify them. The group, which includes a defrocked priest, is very weird; weirdest of all is Sir Quentin's ancient mother, Lady Edwina, an incontinent, bedizened old crone who speaks inconvenient truths. It has to be said that Lady Edwina is the only one who seems to have life; the rest of the group seems like token Spark eccentrics, devised to illustrate a method rather than to embody it. Eccentricity of appearance and behavior is taken to exorbitant, baroque lengths; Fleur (or is it Muriel Spark speaking?) says: "I was aware of a daemon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever they were, and more, and more."

Meanwhile Fleur is putting all these peculiar people in her own novel. But they were there already. Life imitates art. Fleur says: "Sometimes I don't actually meet a character I have created until some time after the novel has been published." She insists that the people in her early novel in progress were "only words." The "real" Sir Quentin however seems unreal to her, invented, as though he were based on the character in her novel and not vice versa. (And of course Sir Quentin is not "real" -- he is a character in Muriel Spark's novel. The mirrors reflect back and forth into infinity.)

Muriel Spark has always been an elliptic writer, not given to background and explanations. The skill with which she nevertheless imparts essential information is worth looking at. For example: when Mrs. Tims, Sir Quentin's simpering assistant, is introduced, Fleur recognizes her as an "English Rose" type that she particularly loathes, very like "the wife of a man I knew." A few pages later, Fleur thinks: "She really was very like my lover's awful wife." (Ah. So fleur had a lover.) And a little further on she is reminded, looking at Mrs. Tims, of the shocked look" on the face of my lover's wife, Dottie," on the occasion when Dottie confronted Fleur with her knowledge of the affair. Thus, without ever having been directly told, we now know quite a lot about Fleur's private life. This is, in the old sense of the word "nice," a very nice piece of technique.

Loitering With Intent is a novel about writing autobiography, an autobiography about writng novels, and a witty commentary on both. Two key sentences in this subtle and ticklish book are "Complete frankness is not a quality that favours art" and "I see no reason to keep silent about the enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work." There are in fact so many key sentences in Loitering With Intent that what they chiefly conjure up is an unending visa of locked doors. Yet this book, with its incomplete frankness and its art, is possibly the nearest thing we will ever have to Muriel Spark's own memoirs.

If the book were by a writer of less significant achievement it would be less interesting in itself; it would be merely intriguing. The reader who is familiar with her work is interested here in Muriel Spark, Fleur's creator, rather than in Fleur herself or in the fate of the manuscript of her novel, stolen by the wicked Sir Quentin. The author, who doesn't miss a trick, knows this perfectly well. Fleur observes that "anecdotes and memoirs are only valuable if they are extremely unusual in themselves or if they attach to an interesting end-product" such as Newman or Michel Angelo -- or such as Muriel Spark, who does not presume so far, clouding herself artfully with layers of fiction. She is disarming in a similar way when she makes Fleur observe that the autobiographical efforts of Sir Quentin's group all have in common three factors -- nostalgia, paranoia, and a "transparent craving" to appear likeable. Fleur's own memoirs, i.e., this book, share these same qualities, though Fleur herself does not acknowledge the fact.

"Enjoyment of the sound of my own voice" is maybe what gives Muriel Spark's writing its peculiar vitality. This novel is written, as Fleur describes hers, "with a light and heartless hand, as in my way when I have to give a serious account of things." The relation between life and the imagination, and a writer's attitude to his work, are serious matters. But the words "enjoy," "rejoice" and "rejoicing" recur many times. Fleur, looking back on her complicated but successful life, thinks: "What a wonderful thing it was to be a woman and an artist in the twentieth century." It seems to me that Loitering With Intent is an unassuming and provocative celebration of this wonder.