Monday, May 03, 2010

James Hogg – ‘Altrive Tales’

Some more Scotlands, from 1832 but with settings stretching back to the 1680s. Following a format established by the 1829 ‘magnum opus’ edition of Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, which did so much to establish contemporary fiction as a serious – and collectible – form, on a par with classic poetry and drama. Altrive Tales was to be Hogg’s collected prose works, published regularly in uniform editions which would sit impressively on the shelves of discerning middle class readers. It was to include his novels, as well as his short (and not so short) stories, and it was to dispel the popular idea of him as an erratic, uncouth, untutored genius: by its bulk, scope and accomplishment. To the failure of the series, which due to the bankruptcy of the publisher did not get beyond its first instalment, Gillian Hughes (this edition’s editor) attributes the drop in popularity Hogg’s work suffered after his death in 1835. Victorian editions were censored, the ‘Justified Sinner’ became a ‘Fanatic’; without the rough edges what was the point? If an authoritative collected works had existed, she argues, this bowdlerisation might not have happened. The books published over the last 15 years by the Edinburgh University press are to some extent an attempt to realise Hogg’s own original plan for Altrive Tales.

The thing is, though, James Hogg’s genius was erratic, uncouth and untutored: that’s what makes him so thrilling and, sometimes, so frustrating. In the ‘Memoir of the Author’s Life’ which opens Altrive Tales, he freely admits to being erratic:
I cannot make out a sentence by study, without the pen in my hand to catch the ideas as they arise, and I never write two copies of the same thing. (p. 17)
This is an enormously appealing idea: inspiration and composition are inseparable, and neither involves planning. In fact they barely involve the author, at least on a conscious level: Anthony Trollope this is not. The memoir is a practical account of Hogg’s writing career, and a lot of it turns upon how hard he found it to make money. My favourite bit is this brainwave:
I took it into my head that I would collect a poem from every living author in Britain, and publish them in a neat and elegant volume, by which I calculated I might make my fortune. (p. 39)
He did get pledges from some key figures (Byron, Wordsworth), but was perplexed that his friend Walter Scott refused to contribute anything:
He remained firm in his denial, which I thought very hard; so I left him in high dudgeon, sent him a very abusive letter, and would not speak to him again for many a day. I could not even endure to see him at a distance, I felt so degraded by the refusal; and I was, at that time, more disgusted with all mankind than I had ever been before, or have ever been since. (p. 40)
Scott comes out of this episode well, attending to Hogg during an illness despite the quarrel, and refusing to allow him to mention it once they have made up. Eventually he works it out for himself:
I can account for it in no other way, than by supposing that he thought it mean in me to attempt either to acquire gain, or a name, by the efforts of other men. (p. 49)
The other long piece in Altrive Tales is ‘The Adventures of Captain John Lochy’, an infuriating novella which follows a man of uncertain (but, it is hinted, aristocratic) parentage on the military campaigns he joins in order to get out of Britain, to avoid the murderous plots of those who want to prevent him inheriting his due. It starts well: the first attempt on his life occurs when he is a baby, and he is abducted from a farmhouse during the night and hurled by the ankle into a loch. He is rescued by his dog, Cowlan, who behaves in an appropriately doggy way:
he had me at his side, trailing by the night-gown; and though he could not then bark aloud, he was still making a constant attempt at it with his mouth shut. (p. 82)
When he joined the army, though, I started to lose interest. There is fighting and looting and Charles XII of Sweden vs. Peter the Great, and plenty of Jacobitism (Wikipedia thinks people are still trying to restore the Stuarts to the English throne?!), and it all gets a bit this-happened-then-that-happened and maybe this is my anti-history prejudice but it did seem as though the pacing was shot. The character Finlayson ‘had not one virtue but an inviolable attachment to me’ (p. 100), and is a less evil reprise of the Justified Sinner’s Gil-Martin, complete with a shifting identity that in this case is achieved by dressing up. Not to knock dressing up, but it is a less interesting fictional device than a Calvinism-inspired descent into madness and terror.

The collection ends with two great short stories, one featuring the abduction of a child by orang-utans (or ‘pongos’) who, when they realise they aren’t going to be able to teach him to speak, go back and abduct his mother to help out. The other, ‘Marion’s Jock’ (which also appears in The Three Perils of Man) is the only tale here told in Scots dialect. Marion is tired of her son Jock lazing around all day eating, and gets him a job as a shepherd at a nearby farm. Unfortunately, Jock is much hungrier than this lowly position allows for (they feed him oatcakes and hard cheese), and there’s a massive side of bacon hanging in the kitchen, and he’s got a knife, and they put him in charge of a flock of sheep… It gets messy. Unlike the longer ‘John Lochy’ story, ‘Marion’s Jock’ is tightly controlled and about as perfect a murder ballad on the theme of greed as one could wish for.

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