Those of you with artistic inclinations and
I'd agree with that brisk, laudatory analysis. Yet the book suffers, I think, from a familiar range of buyer's prejudices. The puffy title sometimes puts people off. Or negative book cover associations strike, despite popular proverbs, if publishers make daft and unimaginative choices. Certainly that was my first feeling when I drew down a copy from the shelf several years ago and saw the tweedy, rustic figure of James Hogg on the cover, gazing politely and middle-agedly back, looking mustardy and drab. Ordered to absorb it for school, I didn’t appreciate it on the first go. I had to grow up and grow into it. Indeed, not until I'd lived in Edinburgh for a reasonable period, furnishing me with the gentrified, smoky skeleton of Hogg's setting, that my imagination could set the scene and Robert Wringham and Gil-martin could walk this ideational Edinburgh with confidence. I recently bought a copy for my father, published by Penguin Classics, covered by a groaning, sweaty, tormented scene springing from the mind and brush of Goya.
Given the febrile suffering and existential angst which the Confessions are shot through with, this is a far more apt and more tone setting visual cue. Give some horror like George Elliot's Silas Marner your typical “Classic text” alienating frontpiece to remind the reader that he or she must brace for boredom – for Hogg, Goya’s clammy horror is ideal. Sometimes when you see dramatisations of some of these 18th Century “classics” on telly, you wonder how the present generation is even possible with these artificially unfornicating, unfleshy souls as our progenitors.
Equally, when pressed for a compressed notion of the book’s themes – frequently the (somewhat) alienating response of the “Calvinistic doctrine of predeterminism” will be mentioned. Quite right too, but not, perhaps, the way to coax the uncertain into opening Hogg’s pages, casting their eyes across his words and giving him a chance to relate his story of the human consequences and the diabolical agency which lends religious fanaticism in a weak man its potential horror. While sometimes claims for “contemporary relevance” of literary voices from alternative ages and societies can seem a bit forced, not so to my mind of the Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Indeed, it’s a hideous shame that, given its resonances, its crystallising of plausible but also wildly vivid characters, its frisson of the supernatural – even its ironic humour – that so few people will have heard of it, never mind read it, both inside and outside of
Written in English with characteristic forays into the vernacular, I defy any careful and sympathetic reader not to be drawn into its web of themes and its spidery, inky substance. A novelist to be cherished – and read – is James Hogg. If I’ve managed to tempt you or to alert you to his presence, do please consider acquiring a copy or seeing the play. Never to bring it to mind and to thoughtlessly erase Hogg’s genius from our literary life is to deny ourselves a creative and alternative Gothic history of