Justified classic - The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

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James Hogg's genius deserves to be enjoyed by a new generation, says IAN RANKIN

OK, SO THERE'S THIS GUY CALLED George. He's out with his mates, enjoying a light-hearted game of tennis and a few drinks.

But a psychotic stranger keeps getting in the way, hassling everybody and creeping them out – almost wanting them to lash out at him. This masochist follows the group everywhere, trying to make sure they don't enjoy themselves. He doesn't like it when people enjoy themselves. His principal aim, however, is to stalk George. The stalker's name is Robert, and he's George's brother, or, more accurately, his half-brother (though Robert doesn't know this). Oh, and he's a religious zealot who thinks everyone around him is an infidel. The action takes place in a country where the two political parties loathe one another.

And did I mention that Robert is a serial killer, with George as his next target?

Dear reader, I can imagine myself sitting down in the office of a film production company and pitching this to them. It would be ticking all the right boxes. Thriller – popular genre. Serial killer – good and scary. Political dimension – adds extra demographic. Psychological element – makes it more grown-up. Religious spin – plausible. The producer (Hugo Boss suit; shades; pony-tail) would be asking where it's set. And I'd have to answer truthfully: Edinburgh mostly, in the Scotland of the early 18th century … and it's not even my story. It belongs to James Hogg, who published it in 1824. It's called The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and without it there'd be no Dr Jekyll or Miss Jean Brodie. It has provided the central trope in Scottish literature, yet seems as fresh as the day it was written – and more relevant than ever.

The producer might be looking a bit baffled by now, so I'd appeal to his cultural grounding by adding that its on-screen progeny include Angel Heart and Fight Club.

All of this, and we're just beginning to scratch the surface of what makes Justified Sinner one of the true greats of world literature.

James Hogg was born in 1770 into Borders farming stock, and spent a good deal of his adult life running his own farm at Altrive in Yarrow. Aged six, he'd been forced to leave school after only a few months of education due to his father's bankruptcy, after which young James didn't read very much except the family Bible.

He was in his twenties when he started writing poetry (Walter Scott was an early champion; Hogg collected ballads for him), and he had a measure of success, though he was never good at retaining any money he made. But it was Justified Sinner, written while he was in his fifties, that would become his lasting legacy to Scottish literature. Its influence can be seen in the figure of the doppelgnger, found everywhere from Muriel Spark to Alasdair Gray, and when the eponymous hero of The Testament of Gideon Mack meets the Devil, author James Robertson surely has Hogg's novel at the back of his mind.

The doppelgnger represents the side of our nature which must be suppressed in a civilised ordering of society. When the straitlaced Presbyterian physician of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde drinks his potion, he releases the more feral and lustful part of himself. Critics have argued that Stevenson was talking about the effect of narcotics – alcohol and drugs – on the Scottish psyche. He may also have been thinking in terms of the creative impulse: all writers, after all, are divided selves, populated by multifarious characters and voices.

In Hogg's scheme of things, however, it is one particular tenet of Christianity that seems at fault. Antinomianism, according to Chambers Dictionary, is the belief that "Christians are emancipated by the gospel from the obligation to keep the moral law, faith alone being necessary". In other words, if you are one of the "chosen", one of God's elect, then by implication you can do no wrong. Whatever you do must be right and must be good. You are forever justified in your actions.

The word next to "antinomian" in the dictionary is, however, "antinomy", which means "conclusions discrepant though apparently logical". Robert Wringhim, Hogg's anti-hero, finds that as soon as he has been judged "a justified person" by his adoptive father (and, in fact, real father) Reverend Wringhim, he ventures into the world and meets a stranger who argues brilliantly that Robert is now free to do whatever he wants – up to and including murder. This stranger is referred to (albeit sparingly) as Gil-Martin, and he is a shape-shifter who by turns can imitate various people, including Robert himself, to the confusion of those around him.

As the story continues, and the two men grow closer, they begin to resemble a number of real-life serial-killer partnerships – the weaker goaded, cajoled and persuaded by the stronger.

But we're left in no doubt that Robert had the capacity for cruelty long before Gil-Martin came on the scene. As a schoolboy, he was cunning and vicious, plotting the downfall of one of his contemporaries … for the sin of being cleverer and more likeable than him.

Rev Wringhim's manservant, John Barnet, has a clear understanding of young Robert's nature, seeing him as a "conceited gowk" who pretends devotion in order to cloak a "disposition tainted with deceit". It is for this reason that Robert negotiates Barnet's downfall, too.

As early as the first page of the book, we have been warned by the "editor" (one of two narrators, Robert being the other) that we are about to encounter "hideous events", yet the story itself opens almost as comedy, with Lady Dalcastle's wedding-night prayers interrupted by the snoring of her elderly husband. Things do not go well for the newlyweds – the boorish and earthy Lord Dalcastle is not to the taste of his godly wife, who turns for succour to Rev Wringhim.

Eventually she bears two sons, George and Robert, but Lord Dalcastle doubts the paternity of the latter, so Robert is given over to the care of the Rev Robert is presented by the Editor (and presents himself to the reader) as a self-serving prig, and it is to Hogg's credit that, as Robert's misfortunes multiply, the reader begins to feel a good deal of sympathy for him.

And no sympathy at all for the Devil.

Some critics have argued that Gil-Martin only exists in Robert's head, yet we are presented with plenty of testimony to the contrary by other characters in the story. People see Robert walking with "a friend", or riding in a carriage with him. When Robert eventually tries to flee Gil-Martin, Gil-Martin himself scours the countryside for him, stopping farmhands and shepherds and asking questions of them. He is therefore corporeal. On the other hand, who are we to trust? The novel comprises two narratives, with the Editor's contributions sandwiching Robert's lengthy confession. Yet how can the Editor know as much as he does? And how much of Robert's "memoir" is an attempt at self-justification? We are presented with different interpretations of events and multiple points of view. When Robert confronts his brother atop Arthur's Seat, intending to kill him, only two people really know what happened – and in place of George's testimony, we are given the Editor's version.

This is one more reason why Confessions of a Justified Sinner burrows its way into the reader's consciousness like few other books. It is a demanding read, and opaque with it – we are never entirely sure what transpired on Arthur's Seat, but must add our own layer of interpretation to the others in the story. I'm reminded of a number of Muriel Spark novels where the same thing occurs – The Driver's Seat, The Public Image, The Ballad of Peckham Rye. This last seems to owe most to Hogg, featuring a young Scottish man in a London suburb. He sports bumps on his forehead which he says are where his horns were sawn off, and causes all manner of devilment. The reader is never entirely sure if he is merely mischievous or has the whiff of sulphur about him. The "hero" of Spark's novel is called Dougal Douglas, and during an early scene the reader is told that "he changed his shape and became a professor". Shape-changers belong to the world of folktales and ballads, and Spark was a great lover of Scottish ballads – just as Hogg avidly collected them for his friend Sir Walter Scott. In Justified Sinner Hogg even includes a lengthy anecdote relating to the appearance of Satan in the Fife town of Auchtermuchty. Masquerading as a preacher, Auld Nick is unmasked when someone lifts his vestments to reveal cloven feet beneath. When the Devil appears to Man, it is usually in some beguiling disguise.

Gil-Martin certainly beguiles Robert Wringhim. So much so that Robert's first murder is of a preacher, Mr Blanchard. His second, however, is more telling still – his own brother, George. Robert has become an Exterminating Angel, and defends himself by stating to the reader: "I am the sword of the Lord, and Famine and Pestilence are my sisters. Woe then to the wicked of this land, for they must fall down dead together, that the church may be purified." The notion of purification has, down the ages, led to ethnic cleansing on a mass scale, culminating in the Nazi death-camps. Fervour for a cause can lead the zealot to commit just about any act of barbarity. To this day, there are plenty of believers out there who think the world will only be healed when it is rid of the apostate, the sinner and those who dare not practice the believers' specific creed.

This makes Justified Sinner a book of not only continuing but urgent relevance. Along the way, we are given insights into the religious and political turmoil of the eighteenth century. Hogg shows just how easily an Edinburgh mob could be raised and roused – as happened oftentimes throughout the city's history. Scotland, for all its religious learning, is shown also to be a country rife with superstition, but Hogg can be playful, too. Towards the book's end, he has fun trying to persuade the reader that the events recorded within are fact rather than fancy, going so far as to print a (real) letter to Blackwood's Magazine from a certain James Hogg (the novel itself was originally published anonymously). He also has Robert change clothes with a shepherd – a nice in-joke from the man known widely as "the Ettrick Shepherd".

By the close of the "confession", however, there is precious little to smile about. Robert is a broken man. Time has begun to fragment for him as he spends "a season in utter oblivion". Despite shunning Gil-Martin, he is accused of killing both his mother and a young woman he had seduced. He hires and fires staff without remembering any of it, and decides that "either I had a second self, who transacted business in my likeness, or else my body was at times possessed by a spirit over which it had no control, and of whose actions my own soul was wholly unconscious". He seems closer to poor Henry Jekyll than ever, and our sympathy for him is at its height. One curiosity remains: as Robert's fortunes wane, so does the physical presence of Gil-Martin. The fiend's features become grotesque and his body enfeebled. If he were Satan, one might expect the reverse to be true. Like any cancer, spiritual or corporeal, he withers along with his host. There is little sense that Robert's "other" self might consume him completely. He is not about to become a version of Hyde. He has visions of damnation, and lays down his pen for the last time just as Gil-Martin once more approaches, "his stern face blackened with horrid despair". The reader senses that the Devil has somehow lost this particular game – a small triumph of the human spirit, but a triumph all the same.

Hogg's enduring masterpiece is a triumph, too, and deserves to be read, enjoyed and discussed by a new generation.

Here come the opening credits ...

&#149 This is an extract from Ian Rankin's preface to Canongate's Complete Edition of James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published this week, priced 6.99.

Critical responses to 'A Justified Sinner' …

"One of the great works on that sinister border between the supernatural and the psychological. Its atmosphere is unique, its penetration is shocking, and the truthfulness of its account of religious mania is both timeless and timely."

– Philip Pullman

"A work so moving, so funny, so impassioned, so exact and so mysterious that its long history of neglect came as a surprise which has yet to lose its resonance."

– Karl Miller, Times Literary Supplement

"A strange, disturbing obsession of a book, and a key text of Scottish literarture."

– James Robertson