Monday, January 09, 2012

John Sutherland and James Hogg

For the past few weeks, I've been taking great delight in dipping into John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, which was published in the fall in the UK by Profile Books and will appear stateside from Yale in the spring. Here's how much fun it is: Sutherland's survey, which he acknowledges is idiosyncratic, leaves out Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, P. G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Dunnett, Donald Westlake, Rex Stout, and others of my favorites, while including such far less interesting figures as Michael Crichton, Paul Auster, Patricia Cornwell, to name just a few; Sutherland also evinces a very English casualness about grammar that sees him peppering the page with dangling and misplaced modifiers; in addition, when he approvingly quotes the best, most laugh-out-loud funny line in Lucky Jim, he misquotes it and leaves out the most important, funniest word ("the smallest glass Jim had ever been offered" rather than "the smallest drink he'd ever seriously been offered"); and on top of that he mistakenly identifies Nick Charles as the "thin man" of the title of Hammett's novel about him--yet despite all of those reasonably serious quibbles, I heartily recommend the book to any lover of literature and biography, especially Anglophiles. It's witty, it's perceptive, it's crammed full of great lines and unusual bits of information conveyed in the best telegraphic brief lives tradition. It's clear that it's a book I'll be consulting and enjoying for years to come.

Today, I'll share a tidbit from Sutherland's entry on James Hogg. Hogg, explains Sutherland, wrote his masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, "[i]n a desperate attempt to raise money for family dependants now as numerous as a small clan." Perhaps he should have chosen a more straightforward tale, something like what his friend and patron Walter Scott was retailing from nearby, for Hogg's truly strange, powerful tale of predestination and the devil at his work in rural Scotland,
failed spectacularly to hit the public taste of the time. It earned the author £2 in "profits" (miscalled) in the two years Longman kept the book in print. There were moves on their part to recover the £ advance. The few reviews the novel received concurred in finding it "trash"--and indecent. It was certainly far rawer meat than most fiction offered the circulating libraries. One strains, for example, to imagine Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland reading it together before going off to their morning session at the Bath Pump Room.
Even a century later, the book was still dividing readers: Edmund Gosse, in a piece taking up a book published in praise of Hogg, wrote,
When it first appeared, in 1824, it was received very coldly and suspiciously, but it presently found admirers, and has never completely lacked them. Those, however, who have occupied themselves with it have always done so cautiously. They have admitted its incoherence, but have insisted on its vigour and intensity. They have apologised for its faults of construction.
Goss, after actually stooping to a "whole Hogg" joke, continues,
But there are many readers who are not affected by inconsistency of handling, and are indifferent to logic if a tale amuses them. They may still find entertainment in the imbroglio of the unfortunate Colwin family, many of whose remarkable adventures are told with great vigour and picturesqueness.
Gosse does acknowledge that it is "an extraordinary book," but he closes his essay by questioning Hogg's purported literary bravery--he "was no Moliere."

It seems sadly appropriate that, after skating on the thin ice over poverty for nearly his entire career as a writer, Hogg, Sutherland tells us, "while curling, . . . fell through the ice on Duddingston Loch, below Arthur's Seat, and never fully recovered." For most of the dead, even this nonbeliever can't help but vaguely wish that they spend eternity in something approximating heaven; for Hogg, I find myself also wishing that he at least got to stop off for a bit in Hell and receive the thanks of its monarch for his unforgettable, convincing portrayal.


  1. Sutherland's a strange bird. I've enjoyed several of his books, especially the ones where he tries to solve the problems posed by mistakes in classic novels. His book on bestsellers, though, was very weird: full of quoted examples from the books he discussed, almost every single one seemed to be a rape scene--something he did not seem to have done in order to make a point; just those were the scenes he wanted to quote. Very odd.

  2. Okay, so that's really weird and a bit creepy. I've never looked at that book. I do, however, continue to be really happy with Lives of the Novelists; the entry on Sue Townsend taught me all sorts of fascinating things I'd never known about her.