IMAGINE A WEEKEND spent in deep conversation with a superb old man, a crusty, intelligent passionate and individualistic character at the peak of his powers as a raconteur, and you will have a very good idea of the impact of The Book of Ebenezer Page. The narrative thrust of this extraordinary novel depends much less on the conventional strategies of fiction than it does on the compelling nature of the voice of its narrator, Ebenezer himself, a man of the Channel Islands, whose life traverses the first three quarters of this century.
This is Ebenezer's story, from childhood to old age; from the time of the Boer War, in which Ebenezer's father dies, through World War I, in which Ebenezer's best friend, Jim Mahy, is killed, and World War II, during which Ebenezer's homeland, the island of Guernsey, is occupied by German troops, to the days of the proliferation of television, which Ebenezer deplores, and mass tourism. It is Ebenezer's story and it is the story of Guernsey, which lies 30 miles west of the Normandy coast and is best known for its cattle and its market gardening and, more recently, along with the island of Jersey, as a popular vacation resort.
Ebenezer Le Page is a Guernseyman first and foremost:
"Guernsey, Guernseyman first and foremost:
"Guernsey, Guernsey, Garnsai, Sarnia; so they say. Well, I don't know, I'm sure. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I don't know nothing, me. I am the oldest on the island, I think. Liza Queripel from Pleinmont says she is older; but I reckon she is putting it on."
These are the novel's first five sentences and they give us a taste of what is to follow: the continuing emphasis on locale, the quirky, near hypnotic rhythms of Ebenezer's speech, and the high level of attitude that is present in all that Ebenezer tells us. It also gives us Liza Queripel, the woman with whom Ebenezer enjoys and suffers a lifelong on-again-off-again love affair that runs as much on conflict and contradiction as it does on attraction and devotion.
The story of Liza and Ebenezer is one of the very many threads stitched into the fabric of this novel; there is the story of Ebenezer's aunts, La Prissy and La Hetty, who marry the Martel brothers, Harold and Percy, and the story of Ebenezer's cousins, Horace and Raymond and of the latter's marriage to Jim Mahy's cousin, Christine; there is the story of Jim Mahy and his unhappy marriage to unctuous Phoebe and of Jim's death in the Great War; there is the story of Ebenezer's sister, Tabitha, and her marriage to the ill-fated Jean; and there are many others; but it is Ebenezer's voice, more than the stories themselves, that sustains our interest so thoroughly. Ebenezer's voice presides over all and its creation is a tremendous achievement. It allows the novel's form (prolonged reminiscence) to work perfectly; it amuses, it entertains, it moves us; it can shift from pain to bawdy humor and back again, effortlessly, as convincing in its tones and shifts as the voice of a worldly, cunning and soulful old blues singer. It enables us to know Ebenezer Le Page so well that he becomes a universal figure and his story becomes the story of our century and our response to his story puts us in touch with our collective past.
The publishers of The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page have announced it as, "a lost masterwork of English fiction," and this might well be true. Very little is known of its author, G. B. Edwards, a Guernseyman himself, who died in England at the age of 80 in 1976. We know that he was very much a recluse; that he lectured at a working-man's college in Chelsea and became friendly with Frieda and D. H. Lawrence; and that The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, his first and only novel, was discovered among his papers after his death. He had spent most of his adult life working on the manuscript, apparently. The novel is "a remarkable achievement," as John Fowles claims in his introduction to it.
Certainly, the discovery of Edwards and this work is the most significant event of this kind in English fiction since Jean Rhys emerged from two decades of oblivion with Wild Sargasso Sea in the mid-1960s, when everyone who had known of her had assumed she was long since dead. Unfortunately, we shall never know whether G. B. Edwards was simply the author of an eccentric masterpiece of autobiographical fiction or, potentially, at least, the possessor of a genius for creating fictional voice. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page was intended to form the first part of a trilogy; the second and third parts were to be called The Puppet: The Book of Philip the Amputated and Dthe Grandmother of the Cemetery: The Book of John the Sluggard. If even a significant fragment of one of these had come into being, we would be better equipped to evaluate the full weight of Edwards' impact.
It is a pity, too, that we shall never have the pleasure of reading the other two books. Actually, John Fowles would be the perfect candidate to pick up the trilogy where Edwards left it. Fowles studied French at Oxford, so he would be capable of dealing with the patois peculiar to Guernsey that adds spice to so much of the narrative (there is a glossary of terms at the end of the text). Fowles is familiar with the use of an island as a general fictional metaphor: he used it himself in The Magus. The relationships between men and women in Edwards' book are as complicated and as full of conflict as are the relationships between men and women in all Fowles' novels. Fowles is experienced in the field of researched, historical fiction: he gave us The French Lieutenant's Woman. And Fowles' public persona has been as salty at times as Ebenezer Le Page's fictional one: "I lived in Greece for a long time and grew to hate it, that interminable sunshine," he stated (for example) in an interview in 1976. Fowles has a predilection for placing his characters in situations where their actions are very much determined by the force of history, too, and this is also a prominent factor in G. B. Edwards' work.
This unique coincidence of literary concerns and tendencies makes John Fowles an appropriate heir to the Edwards legacy: Fowles could have written The Book of Ebenezer Le Page himself. If he isn't too busy revising one of his own earlier works, perhaps he could bring Philip the Amputated and John the Sluggard to life for us. It would make for a fascinating literary ploy on his part.