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Scotland’s Favourite Book

In a programme on BBC 1 Scotland last night the results of a poll to discover Scotland’s favourite book were announced.

These were apparently voted on from a long list of thirty books.

As usual the titles marked in bold I have read; italics are on my tbr pile.The ones marked by a strike-through I may get round to sometime.

An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell
Garnethill by Denise Mina
Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
So I Am Glad by A.L. Kennedy
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Thanks to my working through of the 100 best Scottish Books and the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books I have read nineteen of these, with two on the tbr and others maybe to consider.

I suspect that in the fullness of time some of the more modern of them will fall away from public affection.

My strike rate for the final top ten was 7/10. The list (in descending order) was:-

10. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
8. Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
7. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
6. Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling
5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
4. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
3. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
2. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
1. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I am particularly pleased that James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner made it here and the strong showing of Alasdair Gray was also welcome. Personally I don’t think The Wasp Factory is Iain Banks’s best book but only one from each author was on the long list.

Gibbon’s Sunset Song was the one I predicted to the good lady would come first. Since its publication it has been an enduring favourite with Scottish readers.

A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil

Polygon, 2011, 219 p.

 A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde cover

As a Scot I could only warm to a novel that begins – as this one does – with the sentence, “I’m in two minds.” Two minds, duality, or, as the front cover blurb here has it (medically inaccurately I would think) schizophrenia, has been a running theme in the Scottish novel from James Hogg’s brilliant Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner through Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Angus McAllister’s The Canongate Strangler and beyond. This book has not one, not two, not even three but no less than eight prefatory quotations and its Part One is entitled “The Unbearable Likeness of Being” where our protagonist is named Robert Lewis; an actor cast in the lead role – roles – in a new stage version of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, at least until a new cast member appears. He is attracted to the lead actress Juliette but her interests seem to lie elsewhere. However he has suffered an accident on his bicycle and his tale may be an hallucination – especially given Part Two, “That Small Theatre of the Brain, Lighted,” which starts with Julie’s Narrative. As she waits in the hospital where her man (a writer who suffers from depression) is fighting for his life after an accident on a bicycle, Julie writes down his tale to give her comfort. He is tended to by Nurse Stevenson. The narration flips over to the man halfway through. He has the sense of, “Everything being nested inside something bigger. Images, stories, identities,” and refers to his writing as method imagining.

An unreliable but knowing narrative then, which nevertheless gives MacNeil the opportunity to comment on the state of Scotland, “Edinburgh. Home to a national parish council, an almost powerful parliament indolently bustling with her irreconcilable flow of accurate rumours and unreliable press releases. The tiny capital of our proud-to-be-humble and fighting-to-be-fought-for nation that isn’t a nation, where our Old Testament God has cursed us with a fear of failure and blessed us with a fear of success,” on being Scottish, “I went because I expected to learn how to further extend my range of emotions, harness those joyous emotions for which we Scots are so uncelebrated,” and the national sense of incompleteness, “There is no Scotland. No Edinburgh. They exist in the plural. These are places that have not yet found their true and lasting selves.” Duality isn’t quite enough to contain all Lewis’s (or Scotland’s?) dichotomies: “I contain multitudes.”

Along the way MacNeil throws barbs at the instrumental approach to acting, “‘The greatest deception the devils of method acting ever perpetrated was the myth that method acting is anything better than actual acting,’” and the insecurities of the profession, “‘Jekyll and Hyde. Which. One. Are. You. Being. Now?’”

He also tells us, “Stevenson did not create Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. He revealed them. Him. Them. He shed the right amount of shadowy light upon that which is within us all.”

That front cover blurb says, “May well be the last, and funniest, word on Scotland’s national schizophrenia.” While I doubt it will be the last such word it certainly has its moments. I’ll be looking out for more MacNeil.

Pedant’s corner:- vocal chords (cords,) “a quickening bourne out of sudden love” (born out of makes more sense,) smartass (smartarse,) “‘The neutrons in the nerves are responding.’” (That would be neurons; but the speaker is confused,) “I have plants out back” (USian; out the back or in the back is more usual in Scotland,) “to help leverage myself up” (to help lever myself up.)

The Lament: A Scottish Tradition.

I mentioned recently in my review of Christopher Rush’s A Twelvemonth and a Day that it fell into that long list of laments with which the Scottish novel is liberally bestowed – going back at least as far as the poem on the state of the nation written on King Alexander III’s death after falling from a cliff in Fife in 1286, but which may well be an oral tradition older still.

This sense of things lost seems to be an itch which Scottish letters is unable not to scratch.

Many of the books on the 100 best Scottish Books list fall into this tradition; of the ones I have read not only the Rush but also Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place, William McIlvanney’s Docherty, George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, Neil M Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song certainly qualify. Arguably Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes also fits the bill; its title certainly does.

Whether this dwelling on things gone by is due to a sense of lost nationhood or not is a matter for debate but the itch is played out not just in Scottish literature, the lament is a major strand in bagpiping and has a long history in song (eg The Flowers o’ the Forest.) The Proclaimers’ Letter From America – “Bathgate no more” etc – is merely a modern take on the form.

Another important strand in the Scottish novel is that of the döppelganger/the supernatural. Here James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can certainly be seen as a reflection on the duality of the Scots psyche after the Treaty of Union as well as an illustration of Scottish literature’s fascination with the Devil, is the prototypical – and arguably the finest – example though Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is perhaps better known furth of Scotland.

On thinking about all this I realised that, despite being Science Fiction, my own novel A Son of the Rock was also such a lament (though it eschews any truck with the supernatural.) The book was certainly conceived in part as an allegory of the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde which had occurred in my early lifetime but I had not consciously been aware of any wider resonances while I was writing it. I did though somewhat impertinently consider it as a “condition of Scotland” novel.

Perhaps Scotland’s condition has always been in decline, its writers always noticing what has been, is being, lost. I note here that Andrew Grieg’s Fair Helen is a retrospective lament for the loss of “wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness” in the Reformation.

A Short Survey of Classic Scottish Writing by Alasdair Gray

Canongate Pocket Classics, 2001, 159 p

Short History Scottish Fiction cover

The book is diminutive in size (16 cm tall, 11 wide) but not content. It rattles through the history of writing in and by Scots from Anglo-Saxon times till the early 20th century. It focuses on what Gray – and most other commentators – consider to be the best in the tradition; hence classic in the book’s title. More recent Scottish writing is deliberately excluded as being too close for a proper perspective.

Several of the works mentioned in the survey were of course overlooked or even derided on first publication and it is only with time their merits have come to be recognised. Overall, though, the literary output from this small nation is shown fit to stand comparison with any.

Tales of Love and Mystery by James Hogg; edited by David Groves

Canongate, 1985. 216 p.

Hogg

Hogg is the author what is perhaps the prototypical novel of Scottish identity, or lack thereof, The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner. Its themes of Calvinism, doppelgängers and identity have rung down the decades in Scottish fiction.

Astonishingly given that book’s importance and considering Hogg was writing in the 19th century, the collection of stories and poems in Tales of Love and Mystery was not brought together until 1985. Some of the stories and poems within it had not been in an accessible form since their first airing nearly 200 years ago. Partly this is due to the disparagement and Bowdlerisation Hogg underwent in the majority of the intervening years.

Hogg wrote in Scots and English with equal facility. For those who require it a helpful glossary of Scots words is appended, though there are some omissions within it.

There is an introduction by David Groves which is better left until the book itself is read as it contains spoilers.

As is to be expected with Hogg, religion and the supernatural are to the fore – as are relationships between the sexes. There is a wonderful use of “burke” as a verb (Hogg was writing in the 1820s and 30s.)

None of the stories speaks to the modern reader quite as strongly as Justified Sinner does but the two poems are as relevant as ever. As reminders of a time and a culture long gone, though, Tales Of Love And Mystery is worth a look – but perhaps only for those with an interest in Scottish fiction.

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