The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
by G.B. Edwards, introduced by John Fowles
Knopf, 400 pp., $13.95
Several irrelevancies and relevancies, with related sub-irrelevancies and sub-relevancies, may be used to help a new piece of fiction with purchasers—libraries and the like—and with reviewers, and (we get to them in the end) with readers. Among them are subject and place. Another is that the novel should be “discovered,” coupling this with degrees of peculiarity and mystery about the author, who should be recently dead, and with quantum suff. of the word “classic”—a classic undoubted, which might have stayed unknown. Then publishers, frequently both helpful and timid, may like to have all or some of these considerations swung across the bow by a champagne launcher who is, as we say, an “established” author; all of which, while it makes this reviewer immediately suspicious, should make him determined to be fair.
In fairness I suppose the reader of this Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by the unknown and now dead English author Gerald Basil Edwards, should step right over an introductory poem “Sarnia Chérie,” which suggests that the novel is likely to concern itself with the charms of Guernsey (the Latin name of which was Sarnia):
Sarnia Chérie, Gem of the sea
Home of my childhood, my heart longs for Thee,
Thy voice calls me ever, forget Thee I’ll never,
Island of Beauty, Sarnia Chérie.
Then the reader should take another step or jump over an introduction by John Fowles (he can return to this when he has made his own estimate) which does rather contradict the poem by saying that The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is microcosmic rather than topographical or provincial. Here is an islander (are we going to be told “No man is an island”? We are, almost); an island man, solitary, unmarried, alienated, who describes the modern denaturing of our world. Granite quarries and tomatoes and early potatoes; but then come tourists, international companies, tax evaders, occupation by Germans, etcetera.
Next comes a map of Sarnia Chérie, like a map of Wessex in front of a novel by Thomas Hardy; this rather restores the topographic image. Then—pushing all that away, getting clear of it—you reach Chapter 1 of Part One of nearly four hundred pages of monologue, at the end of which will follow—no need to bother about them—an appendix about Guernsey English and a list of Guernsey words, both added by John Fowles.
The literal subject is the passage through life and time—our modern degenerate time—and among neighbors, of this rather simple, slightly educated quarryman’s son, this Ebenezer, this mouth of patois and old ways. But then what is the subject, when it does not work? Or when it works, or proceeds rather, only through an inadequacy of dull words? Anecdote follows anecdote. Parents, friends, relations, neighbor occur, and occur again, turned round about in new circumstances. Ebenezer is learning—”He let me pull the rudder. ‘If you pull that way, the boat will go this way,’ he’d say. ‘If you pull …