Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, The
by James Hogg (1824)
For being written in 1824 (and one of the oldest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read), this was not only surprisingly readable but also damn entertaining. It has a self-limiting scope, being primarily fashioned as a critique of Calvinist predestination — a religious doctrine that you don’t see much of anymore, therefore relegating the novel’s premise to something of a quaint curio. If anything it had me thinking back to a wise quote from the close of the introduction, which also happened to remind me of the excellent dystopian sci-fi I just finished, We:
Everyone unfortunate enough to have experience of oppression knows that it is better to fall into the hands of a wicked man who understands that he is wicked than into the hands of one who conceives himself to be serving a Higher Purpose. The merely wicked oppressor, be his motive cruelty, greed or the lust for power, may one day tire of his wickedness and turn to better ways. But the oppressor who thinks of himself as serving God, or History, or the Party, will never reform because his impulses of human decency appear to him as temptations to be resisted.
This serves to remind you just how scary the self-righteous can become given the right circumstances
But luckily Sinner also works as a creepy Gothic tale somewhat in the vein of Poe. Maybe its best feature is the highly original take Hogg has on Satan, who is not the overt Mephistophelian servant of evil but rather a true Prince of Lies who takes pleasure in corrupting the incorruptible in ways that are detectable to all but the corrupted. Robert’s gradual enchantment was wonderfully, organically drawn, such that you couldn’t help but pity him by the end, and this despite his utterly contemptible depiction throughout the first half of the book.
In sum, I would not necessarily call this an important book except for scholars and connoisseurs of Ye Olde British Literature or arcane religious controversies. Nor is it maybe the most logical rebuttal to Calvinism (wouldn’t that be charges of encouraging apathy — i.e. if you “know” you’re one of the elect, why do anything at all?), though it is a satisfying critique of pride and hypocrisy in general. But if you like Poe or other Gothic writers, you could do far worse than this novel if you’re looking for a short, relatively light read.