The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
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 this way, the boat will go that.’ I got the idea.” Ebenezer is going to school, Ebenezer goes fishing, Ebenezer is going to the fair, Ebenezer is going after girls (and men eventually), Ebenezer is going round on his bike. Empty clothes instead of people surround Ebenezer who is an emptiness, or a ragbag of the not very consequential.
Subject not being substance, what is encountered, I would judge, is no more than an emptiness all round, which soon becomes the rule of this book. There is war. Ebenezer recalls, Ebenezer quotes:
Mademoiselle from Armentières
Hasn’t been fucked for forty years.
Ebenezer quotes again:
Good-bye-ee, don’t sigh-ee, don’t cry-ee
Wipe the tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee.
Church, or chapel, occurs. Ebenezer recalls, Ebenezer quotes “Jesu, Lover of my soul.” Ebenezer gets on, and if only as he gets on he could be allowed to quote something, let’s say, as unboringly and characteristically and genuinely English (and Sarnian, no doubt) as
The Working Class can kiss my arse,
I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.
No. He quotes the very obvious, only, always. Sex occurs, but lukewarmly. Generosity occurs—well, those Germans on the island, in the second war, they weren’t all so bad after all.
Particularity of place occurs, rough rocks, black seaweed, rowlocks, fish, shellfish, and Ebenezer acquaints us—in how dull a way—with ormers, garfish, spider crabs, lady crabs, congers; and with interminable particularity of language—how flatly, how much with a turning on and off of a speech faucet, in patois, and in tricks—no doubt Sarnian tricks—of syntax and grammar and the like. Adverbs lose adverbial endings—“She went to chapel regular.” Plural subjects have singular verbs. Subjects are repeated—so many times—at the end of sentences—“I liked the foot ball, me.”
In sum, philosophy, Ebenezer’s philosophy or life–wisdom, recurs: “Ah well, I was born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards. I earned my bread by the sweat of my brow.” Or “It is hard to know what to do for the best in this world; for whatever you do have a way of turning out different from how you thought.”
Where the writing should convey its meaning, its message ought in fact to be the substance; and here for substance a curious fumble, a curious uncertainty and intermittency are substituted. Under the patter and the patois, or alongside them, in continuation, the run becomes that of the most uncompelling, the most impersonal or weakly personal ordinariness, as in any other bad novel of less pretension or in any trite extent of journalism. All the time, in the four hundred or so pages, it is this amateurism which shows up, or shows through, clearly. “Let’s go and see”—after a mention of Tennyson and Browning—“what’s in the crab pots.”
In the other ways I have mentioned, how else is such a consistency of the commonplace put across, such a consistency of the never persuasive, the never interesting, in its literary nature the never “real”?
In the crab pots of introducer and publisher you find those very authorial circumstances, that seductive intimation of authorial mystery. Here—brief note, no more surviving—is an author married once who never sees his children for thirty years. Here is an author whose ashes were thrown into the sea off Weymouth as recently as 1976, Weymouth being the port for his native Sarnia from which he had exiled himself in 1926, which he could never afford to revisit, and where he could never afford to settle again.
No one knows about him save an obscure acquaintance or two in Dorset. He lives alone in Dorset, in one small sparse room, kept clean and tidy. Here in old age he writes this one book of his intended trilogy. Here this self-concealer destroys his papers, making impossible any easy investigation of himself. We learn, all the same, such being the mysterious contradictions and surprises and bonus of heredity or genetics, that this author of genius descends from Devonian and Sarnian quarrymen, and had managed (no details) to find his uncertain way to a university. Publisher after publisher (play the strings of the Wickedly Foolishly Impercipient Publisher, the black Cormorant on the Tree of Life within the confines of Paradise) refuses this so nearly unpublished masterpiece, so nearly lost forever to mankind (and English literature).
From John Fowles we learn that Edwards had once known Tagore and Annie Besant—“quite well.” Also that “at some point he got to know Middleton Murry and through him met Frieda Lawrence.” Those acquaintanceships are hardly warrants to the proclaimed possession or to the proclaimed display of genius, or to an asseveration that the The Book of Ebenezer Le Page “must surely become a classic” of his island, making up for Guernsey’s literary neglect since Victor Hugo’s exile there in Hauteville House. Mark, though, how the publisher’s jacketeer improves on John Fowles’s modest statement about Edwards having known Murry and Frieda Lawrence. The author, he says, of this “masterpiece of English fiction” was once, yes, “a friend of D.H. Lawrence.” Good, good. There is a bait for reviewer and for reader. However not another word is proffered about any friendship with Lawrence, and I see no reason to believe that there ever was such a friendship. Nor do I believe that this tiresome novel is “undoubtedly a classic of its kind” as well as a classic of Guernsey.
But then what is “its kind”? John Fowles declares, accurately, that “its voice and method are so unusual that it belongs nowhere on our conventional literary maps.” Also, unlike the jacketeer, I don’t find this novel “reminiscent in its fullness, its nobility of character, its grand simplicity, of the pastoral sagas of Thomas Hardy, and of his literary descendant, John Fowles himself.” That is fudge. And I read further that in one newspaper the writer of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page has been compared to Proust; which is also fudge again, and stickier fudge. I wait now to see who after all will now be fooled, in the publishing community, and then in the reviewing community, of the country of G.B. Edwards.