The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong

A pilgrim's progress

Knowing that appointment times at my local hospital bear little relation to reality, I took Karen Armstrong's new memoir to allay the boredom of waiting. An attractive woman on the next bench asked if she could look, because she had known the author well at Oxford and had appeared in Armstrong's first volume of autobiography under the pseudonym of Charlotte.

We had a lively chat about Oxford EngLit in the 1960s, when I too had suffered from a surfeit of Beowulf. She had just told me the name of the tutor who scandalously sabotaged Armstrong's PhD on Tennyson when she was called for her appointment, and our blossoming relationship ended.

That's how life unfolds, haphazardly, contingently, with chance encounters. And that is why I resist most autobiographies, which with the benefit of hindsight pretend to impose an orderly sequence on random events. Only Arthur Miller with Timebends and John Osborne in his two superb volumes of vituperative recollection have avoided this trap of presenting life as a preordained journey from A to Z, although as Wittgenstein pointed out, we don't know the future precisely in order that we can maintain our illusion of free will.

Armstrong employs this conventional technique of making a linear narrative of her development since leaving a convent in 1969. None the less, she has written an honest and affecting book. And "Charlotte" duly appears in it, as does the odious tutor, suitably disguised.

Apart from a constant sense of inadequacy, rejection and failure, Armstrong has had to battle against epilepsy. She was originally drawn to a religious vocation, but left after seven years. A Congratulatory First beckoned her towards an academic career, scuppered by he-who-is-not-named. The drudgery of teaching in an a girls' school under a volatile headmistress followed.

Friends urged her to write creatively, and "Charlotte" provided the introduction. Recognition came with a TV series and popular books on religious subjects, before the success of A History of God. I found several dubious propositions in it, and know that knowledgeable Christians and Muslims felt similarly, but Armstrong admits she is an autodidact, with a tendency to be in love with the cleverness of her teacher. Works on Jerusalem, Islam and Buddhism followed. Today, Armstrong is an essential participant in inter-faith colloquia, although perhaps in danger of spreading herself too thinly.

An anchorite by inclination, she is ruefully amusing about her unsatisfactory sexual liaisons. She takes comfort from the metaphor of T S Eliot's spiral staircase in Ash-Wednesday, ascending alone towards the light of spiritual illumination. But I do hope that the real Karen and the pseudonymous Charlotte might read this review and renew contact.

David J Goldberg was formerly rabbi of the North London Liberal Synagogue