Monday, July 19, 2010

"The Private Confessions and Memoirs of a Justified Sinner" by James Hogg

In case you have not guessed, I read this book for classic book club.

This 1830 novel is one of many 19th century novels that are hailed as a forerunner to the modern novel. It gives us such modernist delights as a split narrative, an unreliable narrator, a profoundly dislikeable protagonist, and a plot that retains ambiguity right to the end. For all that, the book is also of its time in its gothic nature and sense of religious doom. The book purports to contain the memoirs of one Robert Wringham, a man born in late 17th century Scotland, together with an introduction and commentary by an unnamed editor. The editor begins by telling us some facts about the life of Mr Wringham that can be objectively determined, with Wringham's own narrative casting these events in an entirely new light.

The book hangs heavily on the Calvinist idea of predestination. In the most hard-line version of this doctrine, God chose a small minority of people for salvation, not on the basis that they were righteous and morally upright, but more or less at random. These Elect – the chosen of God – are predestined for Heaven, while the rest of us are damned. Nothing anyone does can change their destiny – no matter how righteously one chosen for damnation behaves, he is still doomed to the fiery pit of Hell, while the Elect will sit at God's right hand no matter what sins they commit.

The editor's narrative reveals Wringham to have been brought up believing in this doctrine by his mother. Convinced that he is one of the Elect, he seems capable of any action as nothing he does can stop him from entering heaven. He murders his brother, and is later overheard plotting the death of his mother.

Wringham's own narrative, though, is where it really kicks off. Although a committed believer in predestination from the off, and a thoroughly nasty piece of work, it is only when he makes friends with an odd individual calling himself Gil-Martin that starts following the doctrine to its extreme conclusions. Gil-Martin persuades him that as he is one of the Elect, he can do anything without compromising his own salvation. Wringham embarks on a series of ever more ghastly crimes.

Gil-Martin's nature is ambiguous, with his precise status arguably being the key to the book. It is easy to see him as the Devil, using scripture and the reformed church's doctrine to lead Wringham to damnation. His seeming ability to change his shape supports the idea of him as some kind of supernatural agent. Yet he seems also to be a projection of Wringham's will, or of the dark side of his nature. Given how much of Wringham's narrative is fragmentary and semi-delusional, one could slip into seeing Gil-Martin as a product of his imagination, a hallucination conjured up to voice his own dark thoughts. Yet that does not fully work, as the editor's narrative has Wringham's familiar seen with him on two occasions (in different form each time).

As the book continues, Wringham's sense of himself starts to break down. At one point, he describes feeling like he has two selves, but that neither of these are his real self. Later on again, he starts suffering from lapses in memory, with terrible crimes (rape, more murder, matricide) having apparently been committed by him during these blackouts. The reader is again at something of a loss as to what exactly is going on here. Is Wringham committing these crimes and then forgetting them? Is he lying to us when he says he cannot remember them? Is he under some kind of demonic possession? Is Gil-Martin taking on Wringham's form to have him take the blame for terrible acts he has not committed? Hogg leaves these and many other questions open.

In its unwillingness to tie up all the loose ends and explain everything clearly, this book reminds me of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's In A Glass Darkly. Like this book, the stories in Sheridan Le Fanu's volume purport to be papers relating to the investigation of actual events. The inconsistencies and things that remain unresolved resemble the untidy descriptions we get of real events, enhancing the power of the works.

Anyway, this is a most enjoyable book, one that has got me thinking about reading some more gothic novels. Melmoth, The Monk, Vathek, The Saragossa Manuscript, The Castle of Otranto - that lot. You will be relieved to hear that if I ever indulge my desires in this area it will probably be away from Classic Book Club.

Have you read The Private Confessions and Memoirs of a Justified Sinner? What did you think of it?

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