Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Some mystery that mankind disna ken naething about yet - a crackpot reading of James Hogg - why, this novel is fictional!

Well, here’s what I was looking for.  Nicole is reading The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and I’m reading it, and between us we’ve come up with an idea which is either preposterous (in which case, feel free to blame me), or promising. The problem is that I would need to reread the novel, again, now, to really follow the idea.  Oh well.  Nicole can tell me if I’m nuts.

If I think of The Private Memoirs as merely a Gothic novel, I get an anonymous editor’s account of a hundred year old murder story, followed by the firsthand confessions of the murderer, which generally confirm but on some key points contradict the editor.  The murderer claims to have acted under the direction of a figure who he thinks is an incognito Czar Peter but who we recognize as the devil.  We’ll never know exactly what happened.  This is enough for a good novel.  If Hogg has stopped here, The Private Memoirs would still be a classic Gothic novel, easily worth reading.

The editor, though, is not quite done.  Once the memoir ends, the editor returns.  He suggests that the memoir might be fiction, an allegory or parable (which the memoir’s author has claimed himself).  Or not.  He tells us how he acquired the memoir, and proceeds to demolish the stability of the novel in the process.

The editor says that he read an 1823 article in Blackwood’s Magazine describing the recent discovery of a body that is associated with a number of odd legends.  The author of the letter is James Hogg.  This is an actual letter that was published in an actual magazine in the actual world by the actual James Hogg.  The letter is liberally excerpted by the editor, who says it “bears the stamp of authenticity in every line” yet may be a hoax (which, in our world, it is).  He “half form[s] the resolution of investigating these wonderful remains personally, if any such existed” (228).

He tries to attain the assistance of James Hogg, author of the article, but Hogg says he is too busy:

I hae ither matters to mind. I hae a’ thae paulies to sell, an’ a’ yon Highland stotts down on the green every ane; an’ then I hae ten scores o’ yowes to buy after, an’ if I canna first sell my ain stock, I canna buy nae ither body’s. (230)

Hogg was known as the Ettrick Shepherd so I assume all this gibberish is somehow related to sheep.

The editor finds another guide who contradicts every important claim of Hogg's.  The century-old corpse does, however, exist and when exhumed is discovered to possess a “leathern case” containing “a printed pamphlet” and some handwritten pages, one of which is visible just inside the front cover of the novel.  An assistant says:

I’ll tell you what it is, sir: I hae often wondered how it was that this man’s corpse has been miraculously preserved frae decay, a hunder times langer than ony other body’s, or than even a tanner’s.  But now I could wager a guinea, it has been for the preservation o’ that little book.  And Lord kens what may be in’t!  It will maybe reveal some mystery that mankind disna ken naething about yet. (235)

We learn in the memoir how the pamphlet was printed, and why the story has to continue in manuscript.  But aside from the oddity of the manuscript pages, there is no reason to think that the body is that of the justified sinner.  Maybe the poor fellow, just as an example, picked up the pamphlet somewhere, was driven crazy by it, and added his own ending.  Maybe the story really is fictional – I mean, fictional within the novel – but based on true events.  Like it’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Moll Flanders (1722).  The timing is right.  So the editor’s reconstruction is imperfect but “true,” and the supposedly authentic memoir is written by a compatriot of Daniel Defoe, except for the manuscript pages, which are written by someone else.

The next step would be to figure out if this idea means anything.  Who knows.  What’s clear to me, though, is that the reader is deliberately encourage to read the embedded memoir as both fiction and non-fiction, while simultaneously, of course, understanding that the whole thing is “really” fiction.  I did not do that – I assumed that the fiction was non-fiction, so to speak.  So now, I wonder.  Next time.

* All page references are to the 2002 NYRB edition of the novel.


  1. Man, you and Nicole are really working hard to bump this up my TBR queue, Amateur Reader (I picked up a remaindered NYRB copy last year but wasn't really in a hurry to read it until recently). Tantalizing post!

  2. Ooh, now we are the trouble-makers!

    The introduction by John Carey to my Oxford World's Classics edition makes the claim that Hogg (the character), in addition to refusing to help them find the body, has actively tried to prevent its being found by providing false information in his letter to Blackwood's. I'm not sure why, then, Hogg would have written the letter to begin with.

    It's funny, I was just thinking...I thought it a bit unfair of the editor to claim the memoir, if a parable, was a failure simply because people wouldn't believe in devils taking human form. But here we have both automatically read the memoir as fiction, even within the fiction of the novel. He's right!

  3. Richard - the Hogg novel, like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, is a genuine example of Postodernism Before Postmodernism. Although it's not as good as those two books!

    I love that John Carey idea. Hogg is not only too busy to help, but actively undermining his own novel! Unconvincing, but hilarious.

    Another reason the editor is wrong is that we (including his contemporary readers) are used to reading Gothic novels - accepting devils as "real" whn necessary. And we also know how to read accounts by people who really did believe in demons, witches, etc.

    Can Hogg really have meant all of this to work simultaneously?

  4. Can Hogg really have meant all of this to work simultaneously?

    That's what I keep asking myself...