There is a book which has arguably influenced modern Scottish literature more than any other, and it’s not the one you’re thinking of. James Hogg’s 1824 ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ has come to be many writers’ favourite Scottish novel, but few wear their hearts on the page like James Robertson.
His third, and some say best, novel, ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’, is a conscious homage to Hogg’s magnificent text, but ‘Justified Sinner’s influence can also be felt in his first novel; ‘The Fanatic’.
Like Hogg’s novel, ‘The Fanatic’ is concerned with doubling, so much so that the text itself is divided, split between events in 1997 and 1677. In the present day Andrew Carlin is given a job as a guide on a ‘Haunted Edinburgh’ tour, and has to dress as the ghost of the infamous covenanter Major Thomas Weir, also known as The Wizard of the West Bow. Carlin throws himself into his new role and researches Weir so that he can give a ‘realistic’ performance. This leads him to become fascinated with another historical figure, and friend of Weir’s, James Mitchell, the ‘fanatic’ of the title, who was tortured then hung for the attempted murder of the Archbishop of St Andrews. Carlin becomes unhealthily obsessed with Mitchell’s story and it is that which makes up the historical sections of the novel.
Andrew Carlin is a fantastic central character. Unashamedly odd, apparently unsettling to those he comes into contact with, but charismatic and appealing to the reader. It’s a difficult trick to pull off. The novel is about impressions and perception and the reader gets to see the side of Carlin that he seems unable to convey to others. But that in itself is just another layer of perception. Carlin’s grip on reality is slight, and his conversations that he has with himself in the mirror echo not only ‘Justified Sinner’, but are reminiscent of another famous loner and fanatic; ‘Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.
Carlin’s mirrored conversations are the most fantastical aspect of the contemporary storyline, or the most disturbing depending on your reading. Although they essentially are there to ask questions about Carlin’s state of mind, or insinuate the presence of an evil ‘other’, they also allow the author to comment upon Scotland and how its history and literature, at least how it is popularly contextualised, has shaped the way that the country is encouraged to consider itself. The mirror image of Carlin, who is much fonder of an expletive than the ‘real’ thing, rants: “…The last thing we need’s anither split fuckin personality. We’ve got mair than enough o them. Fuckin Scottish history and Scottish fuckin literature, that’s all there fuckin is, split fuckin personalities. We don’t need mair doubles, oor haill fuckin culture’s littered wi them….” (p25) Valid points all, and to place them in a novel that is so concerned with these questions is not only playful, but also challenging. ‘The Fanatic’ can make your head spin at times.
The historical passages are the ones that owe most to ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, particularly in terms of tone. Carlin discovers a ‘lost’ memoir about James Mitchell at the library and the story it tells touches on the themes of good versus evil, religious obsession and predestination. If there is a downside to having two stories running through the novel it is one of comparison. Carlin’s life is that of a loner and his sections, at least to begin with, don’t have the dramatic punch of Mitchell’s tale. Although this balance is redressed as the novel progresses, for the first half I found myself looking forward to the 1677 passages more eagerly. This is partly because they are crammed with dreadful behaviour such as murder, claims of bestiality and witchcraft. The influence of Satan looms large. Present day Edinburgh couldn’t hope to compete.
It’s a bit of a struggle to come up with a relevant video to accompany this film, so I’ve decided to go route one. From the underrated early 80’s movie ‘Valley Girl’ this is Felony with ‘The Fanatic’:
Like Hogg’s ‘Justified Sinner’ ‘The Fanatic’ deliberately confuses the reader. We are never sure if what Carlin experiences are real or the result of his imagination and often fevered mind. Like the earlier novel, ‘The Fanatic’ can be read as a supernatural text or a psychological one, but, in the end, it doesn’t overly matter. The two stories bleed in to one another and the gothic sensibilities span the centuries. Whichever way you view both the lives of Carlin and Mitchell this is a terrific example of how to spin a tale. It is this ability that separates Robertson from many other critically acclaimed novelists. He never forgets that while it is a great thing to educate a writer should never forget to entertain.
James Robertson is a man who is comfortable in the past and the 1677 sections of this novel are historical fiction of a similar type to Allan Massie. He manages to find the drama in the events of the past and avoids the dry writing that can be the style of many historical novelists. In a review of the book in ‘The Scotland on Sunday’ it was said: ‘Robertson takes not just history but the notion of history; not just the question of what truth is but the act of questioning itself…’. However, like Massie, Robertson cannot be simply called a historical novelist. This is a writer who is passionate about the social and political state of Scotland, and he uses the historical passages to help comment on the present day. ‘The Fanatic’ is not only a gothic tale but one that makes cultural comment about modern Scotland.
Robertson is rightly seen as one of Scotland’s greatest living, and most celebrated, writers. As well as being a successful novelist he is an intriguing poet, a political commentator and, along with fellow writer Mathew Fitt, a publisher of children’s books through their company ‘Itchy Coo’. He has just had his latest novel, ‘And the Land Lay Still’, published which I have yet to read but is described as ‘Scotland’s epic social novel’, to which I can only say that it’s about time. If it is as good as what he has written previously I’m in for a treat. My hopes are high as Robertson is one of those rare writers who appear incapable of writing a bad sentence.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next month’s novel: Most of the novels in this series have been debuts, but next month’s title is the most recent James Kelman novel Kieron Smith, boy and I’ve chosen it because I think it may just be his best.
Kelman is one of those writers that splits the critics into a love/hate divide. He is seen as a ‘difficult’ writer, but, on the whole, I find that an unjust summation. However, his reputation precedes him and I think it puts a lot of people off reading him. What he does do is to capture the way people speak, and think, better than almost any Scottish writer around, and he understands the political importance of language, how we use it and how it is used by others to repress.
Next 5 books:
1. James Kelman Kieron Smith, boy (Dec)
2. Suhayl Saadi Psychoraag (Jan)
3. Ron Butlin The Sound of My Voice (Feb)
4. Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)
5. Kevin MacNeil The Stornoway Way (Apr)
* I have a copy of February’s novel The Sound of My Voice to give away. I think the easiest way of choosing who to give it to would be to use my Facebook follower indicator as a sort of randomiser. If you want to be included in this draw then head on over to Scots Whay Hae’s Facebook home and click ‘Like’. On the 1st of December at 5pm (Glasgow time) I’ll click refresh on the page and the first person that appears in the top left of my followers gets the book.