IN July 1990, the journalist and author Alan Taylor had an appointment in the Tuscan town of Arezzo to interview Muriel Spark. They met in the Piazza Guido Monaco along with Spark’s friend the sculptor Penelope Jardine. Taylor recollects a mutual acquaintance saying: “Penny provides Muriel with emotional security,” and notes that during this, his first meeting with them, Muriel was evidently emotionally secure enough at the age of seventy-two to be flirting with “that dishy waiter” and asking about Taylor’s hairdresser. While Spark interrogates the waiter, Taylor “took the opportunity to study” her: “She looked at least ten years younger than her age. Her hair, touched up or not, was red, as it was when she was a girl growing up in Edinburgh and before it was bleached under Rhodesian skies when she was in her early twenties.”

That last sentence gives some sense of this book’s method: from immediate encounter to observation and recollection, but also retrospective assessment, both of Spark’s historical biography and her presence and character. Sharply observant, Taylor’s cautious, respectful, sincere and measured prose sustains what’s at the core of the whole book: affection. A sense of liking runs through it. And from the moment of their first meeting, Spark seems to have recognised the affection, critical sensibility and genuineness of Taylor’s respect. When Taylor tells her how much he admires her latest book, she lights up with pleasure. Remarkably, there isn’t a trace of either sycophantic adulation from him or mere self-satisfaction from her.

Anyone who has tried to describe a friendship of this kind knows how difficult it is. Stylistically, Taylor gets the tone right and the language accurate to a degree his mentor would approve. Structurally, the book is a diary of encounters designed around locations situated clearly in history. Places are described and their character informs each chapter. Each relates to an encounter between Taylor and Spark over the years between their first meeting and her death in 2004. Each also relates to a period in Spark’s earlier life, so that biographical passages are interwoven with the unfolding story of their friendship. At 170 pages or so the whole book could be read at one sitting yet it has the method, the sensitivity to moments, the delicacy and strength, the senses of both vulnerability and durability, of one of Spark’s favourites, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

After the first meeting, Taylor and his first wife and their children are invited back to the big house Spark and Jardine were living in in Tuscany, to spend a summer there while the two women are on holiday, touring by car, Penny driving. It’s a happy domestic situation, mainly, for both Taylor and his family and the two women. The account given, though, also reveals aspects of Spark’s character one might not have seen so clearly. When Taylor’s son gets stuck down a well and Muriel is the only adult around who can help, she gets him out by calmly and precisely telling him how to climb back up, placing hands and feet in exactly the places they were in as he went down. The success of the operation precludes telling the boy that his sister had seen a snake in the well not far from him. Cruelty is at hand but cool prevails. Spark’s method is stable, maintained with steely determination; yet a sense of humour is never far away. The anecdote is trivial in one sense, but also illuminating and unobtrusively helpful. Taylor avoids the special-status appeal and his modesty of style allows the affection credibility, balanced by literary objectivity.

SO we start in Arezzo but quickly go back to Edinburgh, with a chapter recollecting that city in the 1930s and the prime of Jean Brodie, but then we move on to Europe in its broader sense, then New York and Manhattan, the question of Jewish identity. Finally the last chapter, “Through this Evening and Into Tonight” brings us to Muriel’s death and Taylor’s first hearing of it, and his return to the big house in a poignant “Envoi”.

Time, place and identity are the core themes. Affection, respect and literary quality are the core methods. The book is pertinent, when meanings of Scottish and European identity are so commonly in question. Spark described herself as “altogether a European” and Scottish “by formation”. When asked about her achievement she replied: “I have achieved myself. I have expressed something I brought into the world with me...”

Spark is distinctive among her Scottish contemporaries. Taylor notes that she may never have read Hugh MacDiarmid and regrets that he never managed to arrange for her to meet Norman MacCaig. When Robin Jenkins dared to ask how Scottish she was if she hardly ever wrote about Scotland, she dismissed him instantly and comprehensively. All of which is cautionary to anyone who would seek to group them all as “simply” Scottish but is also salutary for anyone trying to understand that diversity in Scottish literature is not necessarily mutually supportive or even respectful.

Yet the most important quality of Spark’s literary identity, which she insisted on herself, is that underlying all her work are the Border Ballads. They share the senses both of cruelty and humour (what MacCaig called “the homicidal hilarity of a laugh in a ballad”), vulnerability, human resilience, cheek and impudence, the urge to self-destruction, defiance in the face of crazy odds, self-sustaining care and carefulness and a lean quality of perception, nothing fat, and with nothing of the circus. It’s appropriate that on her tombstone are lines chosen by Penny and translated into Italian from Muriel’s poem, “Canaan”: “Not a leaf / Repeats itself, we only repeat the word.” And beneath her name, one further word: “Poeta.” That is sufficient.

Appointment in Arezzo: A friendship with Muriel Spark by Alan Taylor is published by Polygon, priced £12.99