Saturday, October 11, 2003

Readings more random

The only book I have been reading with any kind of regularity recently is James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (written by himself, with a detail of curious traditionary facts, and other evidence, by the editor). I have been reading it at random, picking it up and beginning where the page falls open. The introduction, by John Wain, is half-missing, so all I know is that James Hogg was referred to Blackwood's Magazine in the 1800s as the "the Ettrick Shepherd", from his being born in Ettrick in 1770. However, all the bits Hogg is responsible for, as "editor" of the book, are there, and so I have read them all, completely out of order, some maybe four or five times, and all of it at least twice. Consequently some parts of the narrative, where the book falls open more often, are as it were more coloured in than others, but it has all arranged itself in chronological order in my mind, which shows that some patterning is demanded in the mind, if not in habits. The book itself is a blackly funny satire on Calvinistic self righteousness, the hero, being of a rabid theological bent, having long conversations with a charismatic and terrifying friend who is clearly Satan. Having been convinced by the concept of predestination that he is one of the saved and so can do nothing wrong, being fated only to serve God, he succeeds in murdering his brother, his mother, the poor woman who is the object of his lust, and sundry other priests and so on, before fleeing pursued by various manners of demons, on the way writing his memoirs (here presented by the editor) and at last killing himself by improbably hanging himself on a hayrick with a rope of a kind that "not one in a thousand will hang a colley dog". He is buried at a cross roads, as the editor informs us afterwards, and then dug up again by educated men, creating a sensation by the amazing preservation of his clothing and his body, and bits of him are sent with chatty letters all over Scotland, to be kept on the desks of the literati as curios.

I have no idea why I keep reading this book, nor in such a way. Maybe I find it kind of restful, in its spirited negative argument for human decency and foible. More restful anyway than Barry MacSweeney, the paragon of human foible raised to a tragic music, whom I am also reading in as disorganised a fashion, which is maybe permissible with poems, but don't feel up to discussing.

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