The Succession, Conclusion

What is most astonishing in Garrett's narrative technique is his generosity to the narrators.  While most novelists write from a single point of view, whether their own or that of a fictional character or of liberal philosophy's impartial spectator, Garrett allows his people to speak for themselves and to justify their (often miserable and sometimes worthless) lives.  In this impartiality, he brings us back to the dawn of historical writing, to Herodotus who would repeat conflicting versions of a story and allow the readers to make up their own minds.  

The multiplicity of voices in The Succession has the effect not so much of a mosaic--lifeless fragments forced into a single pattern and reflecting, however diverse they are in hue and tone, a single light--as an Elizabethan play filled with characters who go their own way, sometimes in contempt of either the hero's destiny or the author's apparent intention (e.g. Pistol in Henry V). I don’t know what effect Pirandello had on Garrett, but I find a parallel sympathy, in the two authors, for their fictional creations.   

In reading The Succession, as we are reading the tales, hearing them in their own voice, we inevitably take the sides, successively, of the Machiavellian secretary, the committed but fearful papist priest, the hedonistic and irresponsible actor, the reckless courtier.  If, as Dr. Johnson once suggested, every man's life is worthy of a biography, then Garrett has given us a varied cast of Everymen, each one of them with something to say in his own defense. 

As a novelist of character--there is no more plot to the Succession than there is in his satiric Poison Pen--Garrett is able to write a kind of social history of Elizabethan and Jacobean Britain.  He is not, let us be careful to note, making up his material as he goes along.  His original ambition was to write a more formal kind of history, for which he read everything and took volumes, boxes, roomfuls of notes, much as Scott spent his free time roaming the border country, getting drunk every night with the farmers and shepherds, collecting the materials for his Border Minstrelsy.  (All that time, said one of his companions, he was making himself.)  But, as Garrett explained to Madison Bell in an interview, when the time came to write Death of the Fox, the task of digesting his information turned out to be insurmountable: 

 As fast as I would think I was reading everything I should know, 50 more books would come out.  Trying to know enough to do it, handling truckloads of notes got in my way....So I changed the model of my book from term paper to test....and then I just closed the trunk and wrote it off the top of my head..

On a personal note, I once brought up to Garrett my own lapses into pedantry in what should be popular essays.  He told me that he had scrupulously researched everything from dress and table cutlery to military strategy, but, when he closed the trunk, he thought to himself:  Even Raleigh would get some things wrong about his own life.  I took it to heart.

As historian, then, (and not just historical novelist), Garrett is more like Livy or Herodotus than he is like an academic historian; indeed, his work is more historical in the classical sense than any living American historian except Shelby Foote, whose Narrative History of the Civil War is a Proustian novel of reminiscence.  If Foote has written history using the techniques of the novel, Garrett has composed a novel that serves the original purposes of history.  

As Clyde Wilson, himself a prominent American historian, has pointed out, Garrett has revivified the historical novel and "brought to life Elizabethan England" as well as demonstrated "that it was still possible for a modern American writer to make contact with the pristine English language, the authentic religious belief, and the terrible immediacy of both glory and disaster that marked Shakespeare's England." 

In his profound examination into the uses and possibilities of history, Historical Consciousness, John Lukacs distinguishes the aims of fiction from those of history and sees the borders of the novel being invaded, on the one flank by poetry, and on the other by history.  For Lukacs, the truest history should be not so much an account of facts as a rendering of the consciousness of different times.  Deprecating the current state of the historical novel and skeptical of the fictional documentary, Lukacs sees history as the successor to the place of the novel.  In fact, however, George Garrett's The Succession comes closer than any recent works of fiction to realizing John Lukac's criteria for historical consciousness. 

Ancient (by which I mean pre-academic) historians wrote with a purpose in mind, a general theme to be illustrated as events unfolded.  It may be too much to say that Garrett writes with such a purpose or formula; he does, however, have a distinct view of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, a period which he finds both stranger and yet more relevant than is sometimes supposed.  Asked about the political behavior exhibited in his historical works, he told Madison Bell that the earlier age:

had more integrity in a certain way--you died for your positions.  You don't die for them now, you just deny everything and run on the other ticket.  I think you would shake a lot of guys out of American politics like rotten apples off a tree if they thought their lives were on the line.

     The most extreme case in The Succession is the priest, whose life we have come to see through his own eyes: his drunken, fox-hunting father, the timid old parish priest who, though still Catholic in his heart, has switched sides to save his skin, his fellow-renegades who are making a last-ditch effort to save England from the most cynical of reformations.  The last words of the chapter (as in the ending of Conrad Aiken's "Mr. Arcularis") belong to the government agent expressing his dismay that the priest died before revealing anything worthwile.  It is only at that point that it is brought home to the reader that all he has heard and experienced is from documents confiscated from a man who has been tortured to death.  His public epitaph is the official lie handed out by Elizabeth's servants: "It has been agreed by the physicians and the jailer that it shall be given out (to the shame of the Papists) that the priest, in fear of torture or death by execution, has hanged himself in his prison cell. 

But the other actors play equally dangerous games: Buccleuch in rescuing Kinmont Willie, the actor in joining Essex' household (and conspiracy) and, even while serving as double-agent, maintaining a sentimental loyalty.  Even the Cecils, both Machiavels who knew how to play all parts, stayed loyal to their royal mistress and to their country (at least to their own view of their country).  The later days of Elizabeth were not, however, by any stretch of the neck or the imagination, Merry Old England.  The religious and political wars had infected the English character with a self-serving cynicism that is poison to simplicity.  The messenger, whose periodic appearancs serve the function of a tragic chorus, spends an evening drinking in the North with an old captain, who has received some favors from Cecil, but who has never been asked "to do anything that might be misconstrued as disloyal to the Percys."  The captain might be corruptible, but--who knows?--his loyalty "might turn out to be true and deep."

The reign of Elizabeth is interesting, precisely because it is the threshold between the old world of violent honor and the newer world of treacherous statecraft.  The messenger permits himself a nostalgic longing for an Old England, before the time when he realized that "there is no one--no servant, no ally, kith or kin--who cannot sooner or later be sold off like a sheep."  However, Garrett's 16th century sellers and fleecers all know what they are doing and display more than a little courage, even in their policy and their treachery.  

More than one reader of The Succession have told me they found the messenger the most sympathetic character, the nearest thing to a hero in the book: a man too weak to be anything other than what he is--a spy for Cecil--and too honest and courageous to lie about anyone including himself.  Old enough to remember a better England (or at least to think he does) but unflinching in his determination to make the best of his admittedly disappointing life.  

If history can be useful, it is not as a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected in a different time, and it is not as a set of universal archetypes that reduces all ages and all men down to a few simple principles (as in the ideological criticisms of Leo Strauss and his followers); history is more like a love poem written by a stranger, in which we can hear our own experiences, true, but in different accents, with different names, and even with surprisingly different attitudes.  Garrett's company of Elizabethan players are men and women, with most of our own desires and frailties, but they play their games with conviction and courage, and it has been some time since those qualities could be attributed to Americans.     

In his satiric works, (most recently in The King of Babylon), George Garrett reveals himself as one of the sharpest social critics writing fiction.  What is not always so well understood is that his historical works, in their depiction of an England that belongs as much to modern Americans as to the English, offer a social criticism of American life that is no less savage for its implicitness.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    “I think you would shake a lot of guys out of American politics like rotten apples off a tree if they thought their lives were on the line.” Well put! I read Poison Pen at the recommendation of one of the podcasts and enjoyed it immensely.I will be putting this one on the list too. If I’m not mistaken, I believe I’ve heard that there is more literature on this period than any other of English/British history, so a good suggestion is well appreciated.

  2. Brent says:

    By coincidence, about a week before the two parts of this review were posted, I pulled from my shelves an anthology, given me for Christmas thirty years ago, entitled, “America’s Best Short Stories.” I was scanning the Table of Contents to see what authors made the cut and was very pleased to see George Garrett’s name. The short story was “The Old Army Game” and what a delight to read! Many of the features in The Succession that you highlight are in play––the masterful delineation of character (the opening description of the drill sergeant is up there with the best Tom Wolfe), the winks to the reader about the narrator’s limited perspective, praise of other writers (Faulkner and Wouk are mentioned), and, above all, the joy taken in merely telling the story.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    George G loved his army days and liked to talk about them. He resented missing the Big One and was a good friend of James Jones, who chronicled it. We used to talk a lot about Pisa, a town I am fond of, since he was stationed in an American camp near by. One of my last exchanges with him was funny in a dark way. I knew he had been suffering from a severe neurological disorder that had put him in a quasi coma for months, and I asked how he was doing. He wrote back that he had slept for six months only to wake up and find himself dying of cancer. Yuk yuk. Some people thought of GG as something of a literary operator. He was, and played the game well, but he was perfectly happy to make enemies of powerful forces, if they had done wrong, and most of his maneuvering was to help younger writers. He was truly a fine man. One of the many things I admired in him was his insistence on dressing like the Princeton man he was instead of like an artist. Blue blazer, oxford cloth shirt, rep tie, gray or khaki trousers. People would mistake him for a banker (of fifty years earlier) on holiday. My friendship with GG is one of many things I owe to Clyde Wilson, since my introduction came by way of a meeting to kick off a book project that became “Why the South Will Survive.” Garret’s collection of short stories, “An Evening’s Performance” may be one of the finest collection of short collection in 20th century American fiction.

  4. Ken Rosenberger says:

    I enjoyed reading anything George wrote, but mostly his fiction. You are right about An Evening Performance, a good desert island candidate: long, varied, multi-voiced, funny, sad, exciting, etc., just as satisfying a collection of short stories as one man can produce. His collection of novels was much the same way. To think that a man who could pull off the Elizabethan Trilogy could write Poison Pen too. A literary range like that, well it just boggles the mind. A Nobel laureate in a right-side-up world, but then I suppose that was the whole point of the Ingersoll Prizes, eh?

    He wasn’t by chance stationed in Pisa at the same time Ezra Pound was locked in a cage, furiously scribbling the Pisan Cantos, was he? The idea of GG sharing airspace with Uncle Ezra seems like the germ of a good story idea. Sounds like George had maybe a touch (if just a touch) of the same fine madness that ol’ Ez possessed, though I must say I’ve spent evenings kicking back with both An Evening Performance and The Cantos, and the former, all in all, makes for a much more enjoyable experience.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yeah, the Ingersoll Prizes. Nothing gold can stay. Sometimes I have dreams in which I recall being polite to people like, let us say, members of my board. Purgatory is here and now for me≥