Book Review: The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner by James Hogg

Jean-Paul’s rating : 2/5 stars

I have a work friend who occasionally recommends a book to me.  These books are invariably bad.  Many times I just ignore his recommendations, but this time the book was on Project Gutenberg so I figured what the heck.  I am happy to report his 100% crappy book recommendation streak is still going strong.  After talking to him, he claimed to like it because it was a difficult read, which it was, and because it had an ending that he wasn’t able to predict.  I pointed out that there wasn’t really anything to predict and his inferences into what occurred were only inferences and never explicitly stated in the book.

I should point out that the actual title of the book is actually “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself:  With a Detail of Curious Traditionary Facts and Other Evidence by the Author”.  This is certainly the longest title for a book I’ve ever read but it’s also fairly appropriate.  The book is split up into three parts.

The first part of the book is a relation of facts as seen by the editor surrounding the life of brothers George and Robert Cowlan.  It quickly relates events from their parents’ marriage and divorce, through their younger years growing up, George with the carefree father and Robert with the strictly Calvinist mother and Reverend who may or may not be Robert’s actual father.  It then describes their young adult years in which Robert torments George by following him around and being a complete douche.  It ends with the apparent murder of George by Robert and his inheritance of all of Roberts lands and his eventual flight from justice.  This part is somewhat interesting, but there are no establishing points to go from.  A lot of the motivations from the first part are fleshed out in the second part, but it doesn’t exactly make for an exciting read when split apart like this.  What you get out of it is that George is the good brother and Robert is the bad brother.

Part two is the actual memoir referred to in the title which belongs to Robert and was found after his death.  It tells the exact same story as part one only from Robert’s point of view and in excruciating detail.  We get more into George’s strict Calvinist upbringing and his attempts to prove his predestination into heaven, the Reverend’s acceptance of Robert’s predestination, Robert’s falling in with a person (who is obviously the devil) that convinces Robert to help him purge humanity of unworthy souls, and Robert’s real or imagined descent into madness as he is haunted by demons wherever he goes.  So yeah, Robert actually thinks he’s doing good and George is the evil one.  Perceptions of good versus evil, the wackiness of Calvinism and religion in general, blah, blah, blah.  So see, there are actual themes in this book, but you have long past even pretended to care about them because it took hundreds of pages to tie them together.

Part three is fairly useless, but does leave a lot of parts one and two open to interpretation which is kind of cool.  The editor of part one is back and he’s talking about how they found the manuscript on the body of a person who hanged himself.  So Robert actually killed himself.  This is kind of cool only because you end up having to question everything Robert did.  Was the devil even real or was this all in his imagination?  It’s very Fight Clubby.  Only without any satisfying resolution.

Another weird thing about the book that really bothered me was the Scottish brogue.  Your upper-class Scots speak proper English while the servant class speaks like a much more unintelligible version of a bad Mike Myers Scottish character.  This makes it very difficult to read, which is fine; reading accents can be quite interesting.  What bothers me is how Hogg goes in and out of it sometimes for the same character.  Maybe this is on purpose and was meant as a hint into the madness of Robert.  It is very disconcerting, though, to be reading this pages and pages long soliloquy by one of Robert’s servants written all in brogue that magically transforms into standard English.

Yep, this book can be skipped.  What little entertainment there is is not nearly worth the effort of sloughing through the rest of the book.  Although it is on Project Gutenberg so at least you can get it for free.

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