Book Of A Lifetime: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, By James Hogg


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The Independent Culture

When I was 16, meningitis brought me a fevered brain and a longish spell in hospital. One day a timeworn book, dog-eared and foxed, arrived in my isolation unit. It was James Hogg's 'The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner', sent from school by my brilliant young English master, who had penned a lengthy inscription to the effect that while it might delay my recovery, this visionary book would help me understand the benighted duality that is the Scottish psyche.

Sixteen was perhaps too young to appreciate the many layers of this extraordinary work, but having by that time witnessed a heap of hypocrisy and religious bigotry, I could feel its dark power even then. In the state of heightened awareness that can follow a serious illness, the book took root in my consciousness like no other. Two years later, when my revered English master died from cancer, it acquired an extra magnetism, drawing me back to its pages. It is genuinely unclassifiable: thriller, gothic horror, murder mystery tale, comic drama, fantasy, exposition of madness, and not least a blistering satire on the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

The main events of the novel are told twice, first by an "editor", then by the eponymous "sinner" in the form of a journal that takes us deep into the evil corners of his mind. Robert Wringhim, whose mother is "a burning and shining light in the community of Scottish worthies", has been brought up to follow his father's extreme brand of Presbyterianism: provided you are one of God's "chosen", your salvation is assured and you are morally beyond reproach. Filled with hatred and self-righteousness, Robert stalks the streets of Edinburgh, going about his ghastly business: what better way of serving the Lord than by killing those who are damned?

One of the most puzzling aspects of the narrative is that Robert is in thrall to a stranger, the enigmatic Gil-Martin – possibly a figment of Robert's febrile imagination. Gil-Martin appears to harness Robert's fanaticism in order to orchestrate the hideous events that follow.

Hogg was a self-educated Borders poet who published his novel anonymously in 1824 to predictably hostile reviews. Dismissed as an insult to religion, the book was largely forgotten until the late 1940s, when André Gide pronounced it a masterpiece.

Hogg was sensitive to the fractures of the human mind, and his book gave bloody birth to the psychological novel. It is also one of the earliest examples of the Doppelgänger in literature; without it there might have been no Dr Jekyll, no Norman Bates, no 'Strangers on a Train'. And though the voice and location are quintessentially Scottish, they are echoed far beyond the land of RD Laing's divided self. Above all 'Justified Sinner' is a terrifying embodiment of religious zealotry, and has sombre present-day resonances.

Jennie Erdal's novel 'The Missing Shade of Blue' is published by Abacus