Interview with James Robertson: The Testament of Gideon Mack
BooksfromScotland.com caught up with James Robertson to discuss the devil, the Scottish Presbyterianism life, and his literary influences.
James, your new novel centres on the confession of a seemingly honest man, Gideon Mack. Why did you choose to explore Presbyterianism as a central theme?
I had a pretty thorough Presbyterian upbringing myself, though not nearly as strict or formal as Gideon's as unlike him I am not a son of the manse, and although I am no longer religious the intellectual and moral discipline and structures of that background have remained with me. I think of myself as an agnostic but a Presbyterian one, and to be honest I'm very grateful for and appreciative of that inheritance. For all its faults, it has provided me with a good template for dealing with life. Scotland is still seen as a country imbued with the spirit of Calvinism and I wanted to explore that idea: how much does that matter when in little more than two generations Scotland has gone from being, at least on the surface, a thoroughly religious society to an almost completely secular one? Despite the bad press it usually gets, I am far from thinking that Calvinism has no redeeming features. Does the absence of a spiritual or moral structure such as the Kirk once provided imply a greater absence in our lives, or has that been filled by the products of rampant consumerism? You can probably guess from the way I phrase that question that I don't think materialism alone is a sufficient substitute!
Without wanting to give too much away, there are some surprises at the end of the novel which lead us to think about the power of religion, myth, and legend, to question our own experiences and how we interpret what we see and hear and witness. Was this your ultimate aim for the book?
It's a book with far more questions than answers, that's for sure. The reader who expects all the loose ends to be neatly tied up will be disappointed! Truth is a slippery substance, especially in the context of fiction, and while Gideon is clearly an unreliable narrator the epilogue demonstrates that not all the other characters in the novel are that reliable either. And yes, myth, history and legend are all inter-woven to an extent that it becomes hard to know where one ends and another begins. That's the effect I was aiming for in the book, partly because that's how these things seem to me to interact in real life.
There don't seem to be too many good or inspiring Christians in this book. Even Lorna Sprott, another minister, is something of a confused figure. Are you being completely fair to the church?
The atheists aren't that good or inspiring either! I'm not being deliberately fair or unfair to anyone. The point is that ministers and kirk elders are just as likely to have all the foibles, faults and weaknesses of any of us because they are, believe it or not, human too! I do think one of the questions in the book is, how do you reconcile Christian faith of a non-fanatical kind, such as is espoused by the mainstream Church of Scotland, with the secular, post-Christian society that Scotland has become? I don't think it's easy and it's why there is a conflict between evangelicals and liberals in the Kirk and a crisis of confidence around a falling membership in it, and in other religious denominations too. As a novelist it's not my job to provide answers to such questions, but I'm certainly interested in exploring the issues.
Some might view your work as subversive... How would you defend that?
I don't think the novel is particularly subversive. It's quite gentle in its investigation of the role of organised religion in modern Scotland and I can't imagine that any of the philosophical or theological issues it raises are new to anybody who's thought about their faith in any depth. And in any case, the Kirk is a pretty soft target. The fact that Gideon is a minister provides me with a context for exploring a whole range of ideas about life and death, but I doubt anybody is going to think the novel is threatening, revolutionary or an attack on Christianity.
Gideon says he can't say if an Agnostic will go to heaven or hell, and that this is too difficult a question to answer. Are you deliberately pointing out the flaws in the Christian argument?
It's the thing that made me lose my faith when I was in my teens. Scepticism is one of the great human virtues - it enables us to oppose repression, ignorance, bigotry and mendacity as well as to question the existence of God, heaven and hell - so if it's God-given then that's an extremely unfair, in fact unjustifiable, trick for God to have pulled. The idea that as human beings we will be judged for being human by the deity that created us, and then consigned to heaven or hell for eternity, is just not credible, nor, in the context of the teachings of Christ, ethically and theologically sustainable. It is based purely and simply upon fear of perpetual pain. Of course I don't want to suffer pain but I can't subscribe to a religion based on that idea - my human and humane instincts won't allow me to.
How influenced are you by Hogg's 'Confessions of a Justified Sinner', and is it a personal favourite?
The structure of The Testament of Gideon Mack - an editor's prologue, the narrative of the protagonist, and an editor's epilogue - is modelled on Hogg's masterpiece, and there are echoes of that book throughout, even the odd phrase lifted directly from it, but I didn't want to be enslaved by another text. I do think the Confessions is a wonderful book, which, no matter how often you read it, never reveals itself in full, and always throws up new doubts and confusion. That is certainly an influence, but so are other Scottish classics, such as Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, and Barrie's Farewell Miss Julie Logan.
Why does no one accompany Gideon to see the Stone?
Circumstances, and the plot, didn't allow it! There are intentions to do so but they are never carried out. And then after a while Gideon becomes quite proprietorial about the Stone, and wants to keep it to himself. The Devil says that it wasn't there specifically for Gideon, it was for anyone to see it who wished to do so, but only Gideon did - but would you trust the Devil on this matter?
Never getting the girl, and settling for second best; not falling in love with your wife... Gideon doesn't have a lot of luck in love, does he? Does he have to be so doomed from the outset?
He acknowledges right at the start that there is a cold place right at the heart of him. It has handicapped him for life and for love. That coldness came from his austere childhood but in a way I don't think he could have been anybody other than the man he became. He quite likes being this emotionless facade. Is that to be doomed or is it self-inflicted? I don't know.
Gideon likes the sanctity of Sundays. He thinks it's good to have one day free of shopping, noise and he's all for keeping it calm and chilled. Is that a personal belief of yours too?
You can't enforce these things any more, as was once the case, but I do sometimes think we'd all be better off for a day when nothing much happened. The pace of life is so intense now that it might be immensely therapeutic for the whole of society to have a communal day of rest every week. Certainly as I get older I prefer peace and quiet to noise and confusion, the countryside to the city, but that could be just a sign of aging. Silence is a wonderful commodity, especially if it is broken intermittently by birdsong, but some people can't cope with it at all. It panics rather than soothes them.
Gideon suffers terribly through this story. He is, as the movie producers would say, put high up in a tree, and then has rocks chucked at him. And the climax point is mortifying on a grand scale... Did this character just come to you or was he inspired by a number of things?
He didn't arrive fully formed. He began as a schoolteacher and then metamorphosed into a minister. It seemed necessary to construct his working life around religion because what happens to him is a kind of reverse crisis of faith: from being a convinced atheist disguised as a clergyman he is suddenly confronted by the awful doubt that there might just be something - God or the Devil - out there, and just possibly something else - life - after death. His character grew out of these ideas, and things like his ability at and pleasure in cross-country running developed as expressions of them: a man running through life, present within the landscape but also disengaged from it. All my characters tend to grow in this way - they are expressions of ideas or attitudes.
The scene in the cave has, of course, many literary echoes, and it is an entertaining, challenging and you have a lot of fun with it at times. What do you think happened?
It really isn't for me to say, even if I knew the answer. In my novel The Fanatic, there's a mysterious librarian called MacDonald who might or might not be an impostor or a figment of the imagination of Andrew Carlin. People sometimes ask me, was he real or not? How do I know? It's the same with Gideon Mack and the scene in the cave.
Gideon says: 'What is the history of Christianity in this dark wee country but a history of doubts and fears, graspings at metaphysics from hard stone and wet bog. .. There are plenty of holy wobblers and switherers making up the numbers. I only know that in this life I have lived behind a mask, adapting my disguise as circumstances required. For nearly forty years I have let the world assume that I believed in God when I did not.’.' This is a desperately sad story. Did you set out to explore what happens to those whose lives are dominated by Scottish Presbyterianism?
I set out to look at the role of the Kirk in contemporary Scotland but very soon realised that it was much less about that and much more about one man's personal crisis of faith or unfaith. It's interesting that you should say it's a desperately sad story. Other readers have found it very funny. In fact, there seem to be as many different responses to it as readers. But yes, ultimately Gideon is a pretty sad man and the saddest thing about him is that he never really grabs life and lives it: he is hamstrung by those inherited doubts and fears he mentions and they stop him from experiencing the sheer joy of being alive.
What's next for you and your writing?
I've started the next book, which occupies a similar time-frame to Gideon Mack - the period from 1945 to 1999. It's a big social, political, cultural novel about Scotland in this period and the vast changes that have occurred, with the story of the long struggle to achieve a Scottish Parliament being a main thread running through it. More than that I cannot say, as I'm still very much at the preliminary stages of thinking, reading and researching.
James Robertson, thank you