BOOK REVIEW / Over the border in search of lost ghosts: 'Rebecca's Vest' - Karl Miller: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99 pounds

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KARL MILLER is best known as founder editor of the London Review of Books, the fortnightly with which he parted company 12 months ago after 13 years. Before that he edited the now defunct Listener in its golden afternoon. For 18 years he was a professor of English literature at London University; and he is the author of one of the best Scottish biographies of the century, Cockburn's Millennium (1975), an original and wide- ranging study of the memorialist and judge Henry Cockburn, ancestor of Miller's long-standing tease, Auberon Waugh.

Miller's complex and reflective memoir of his own life is quite as oblique and as fascinating. He was the child of an English artist father whom he hardly knew and a Scottish mother whom he hardly saw. He was brought up by his mother's mother in a village outside Edinburgh. Without the conventional consolations of childhood, he took to his books in an old-fashioned, notably Scottish manner. Only in Scotland, which remains, unlike its southron neighbour, almost as small a place as it was in Cockburn's time, with as clear a sense of cultural identity and as unabashed a respect for old ghosts, could a precocious boy of the Thirties and Forties fall so far overboard into the bookish past. His local heroes were Scott and Stevenson, his later heroes James Hogg, the shepherd, poet and author of Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and another Miller, Hugh, the writer and stonemason of Cromarty on whose remarkable memoir, My Schools and Schoolmasters, Miller admittedly models his own.

Rebecca's Vest manages only a testy glance at the London career of the Edinburgh child. The book is a ghost story, by no means straight autobiography. Eight years ago Miller entitled another book Doubles: now it is his own double he is after, his own shadow that he chases. Scotland, he wrote in Cockburn's Millennium, has made a corner in 'double lives and second selves'. The 'quasi-orphan', who is now an orphan, wrestles with the ambiguities of his beginnings; the father of three struggles to identify the deserted child whose real life, dream life and book life were all one. While there is an element of all this in the task of every autobiography, it is rare for the author to be so lucid in deconstructing the process.

The young Miller's Scotland was always a literary place. His Edinburgh was that, he says, of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and he went to the Royal High School, the old school of Scott and Drummond of Hawthornden, a hero who commands an entire chapter. Its great 20th-century alumni include the poet Norman MacCaig, of whom Miller became a protege, while his own Brodie, one Hector MacIver, was a friend of Hugh MacDiarmid.

These figures exist or existed. But for Miller the characters of fiction ranked equally with them. The Rebecca of his title is the Jewish beauty of Scott's Ivanhoe, a heroine of childhood whom the later, worldly Miller cannot face so lightly. His other icon was Jeanie Deans, the heroine of The Heart of Midlothian who was so real to Scott's readers that many of them named their daughters after her. In a tale of intricate Scottish morality, her sister Effie gives birth to an illegitimate child, and is condemned to death for its murder; Jeanie refuses to perjure herself for Effie, but instead walks all the way to London to plead her cause with the Queen. Jeanie and Effie reminded Miller of the two aunts who shared his grandmother's house; while London was where, almost unattainably, his father lived.

Scott based Jeanie on a real woman - called Walker. Miller relishes the surname - a further muddle of realities. When he finally makes his own journey south, to university, it is to the Cambridge of Mark Boxer (not a boxer, so far as one knows) and a third Miller (not a miller either), Jonathan. Karl and Jonathan marry two sisters, and so become - sort of - brothers. And at the point at which Karl Miller's career becomes English and public, when bookishness resolves itself into literary editing, he appears to lose interest in his narrative.