G(erald) B(asil) Edwards 1899–1976
Edwards's only novel, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, was published posthumously due to the enthusiastic support of John Fowles, who wrote its introduction. The book is a fictional reminiscence of an elderly bachelor similar to Edwards himself. Set in the Channel Island of Guernsey, it spans nearly eighty years of the twentieth century and details the cultural changes experienced by an island folk accustomed to being isolated. In his "eccentric" voice, Edwards pays tribute to the past, to a place, and to human dignity.
There may have been stranger recent literary events than [The Book of Ebenezer Le Page],… but I rather doubt it. It is first of all posthumous, since the author, born a year older than the century, died in 1976. Then it is an only novel, seemingly not begun until he was in his late sixties. Even without those oddities, its voice and method are so unusual that it belongs nowhere on our conventional literary maps. (p. vii)
So far as we know it was not until 1974 that Edwards made … any attempt to have The Book of Ebenezer Le Page published. He bore the rejections it then received with an at least outward patient obstinacy…. If I cannot think much of the judgement of the various eminent London publishers who turned the typeścript down in the mid 1970s, at least I can understand why they all seem to have had trouble explaining the rejection. What had landed in their nets was a very strange fish—and one, I suspect, that on a quick reading it was only too easy to place in a wrong literary species, that of the provincial novel.
I think myself that it is no more properly classifiable so than Flora Thompson's famous trilogy, Lark Rise to Candleford. Of course any book whose ground is the close observation of a small community risks this damning label of 'provincial'. Yet even if Edwards' account of the life and times of one Channel Islander had to be thus valued, it would still seem to me a remarkable achievement. If Gurnsey feels that it has, since Victor Hugo's famous fifteen years of exile there, been rather left out in the literary cold, it need worry no more. It now has a portrait and memorial that must surely become a classic of the island.
But what Edwards does, as readers will soon realize, is to extend the empire of the book well beyond the confines of one particular island. All small islands conform their inhabitants in markedly similar ways, both socially and psychologically. On the credit side there is the fierce independence, the toughness of spirit, the patience and courage, the ability to cope and make do; on the debit, the dourness, the incest, the backwardness, the suspicion of non-islanders … all that we mean by insularity. None of these qualities and defects is special to islands. One might argue that the 'island syndrome' occurs with increasing frequency in many of our embattled inner cities, and very much in the context of what finally becomes the major theme of this book—that is, the impact of new values on old ones, of ineluctable social evolution on individual man.
Edwards' own view is made very clear through his fictional alter ego. For him the new values—in local terms, all that has turned Guernsey into tourist resort and international tax haven—are anathema. They have destroyed nearly everything on the island—and by implication everywhere else—that he cherished and celebrates so well and elegiacally, beneath the plain language, in the first half of the novel. Whether Edwards was right or wrong to see more ashes than hope in progress is not, I think, what matters. What does...
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A reader need not know of the Channel Islands to enjoy this remarkable book ["The Book of Ebenezer Le Page"]…. But only a true Guernseyman can feel all its reverberations, and here am I, two generations removed, attempting to share some of them….
Edwards's only book [is] unquestionably unique.
It is a story to be savored carefully, gently, its pervasive wisdom absorbed like the warmth of a jeweled island in the sun. The narrative has no conventional plot or structure. People and names flow in and out like the tides, as they are remembered.
The three copybooks in which Edwards painstakingly crafted the life story of Le Page and from which the novel is made were rendered in the island's quaint, colloquial English, which makes the sorrows and joys of his story cut deeper.
"The Book of Ebenezer Le Page" can be read as a many-layered love story. It records the passionate attachment of islanders to their island: the regard a community can have for one another beyond petty hatreds; Ebenezer's poignant, bittersweet enduring love for Liza, a woman he never possessed; and an instinctive longing to understand the underlying truth about the relationship of man to God, which Ebenezer and a few others try to see in the untidy world around them.
What makes the story shine is the treasure of arcane wisdom it contains, spoken offhandedly, or not spoken at all but only implied...
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[The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is] the work of a self-exile, magnetically drawn to and held from his homeland, like Joyce Dublin, like a large molecule against a membrane.
Ebenezer's book is the roughly chronological, only incidentally historical or autobiographical recollections of an octogenerian bachelor curmudgeon….
Edwards's great success is in the forging of a character and a diction idiosyncratic in the extreme, but flexible enough for a variety of effects, and so easy on the ear that we don't mind too much what he is saying, or how he goes on (though we do a bit). Ebenezer's speech is a tidied version of Guernsey English, with a few words—too few really—of the Norman-French patois whose use, like that of much that is small and homely and good, has diminished during the period of the book….
There is lots of local colour, but the Chapel and the picturesque drunks and the clogs and the praise of local cuisine … should not make us see the novel as the kind of Sea-Green was my Valley; though admittedly Edwards's tone resembles Richard Llewellyn's with a gruff intertidal rumble instead of the ingratiating South-Walian lilt. Certainly he memorializes a time past and a place vanished; but he has metropolitan virtues and anxieties….
There are enough quarrels over inheritance and marriage contracts to remind us that Normandy is on the horizon. There is only...
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The general shape of [The Book of Ebenezer Le Page] is plain enough. Le Page, a cantankerous old bachelor who has lived all his life on Guernsey, writes his autobiography, which is full of local details, trivia, anecdotes, Guernsey jokes (incomprehensible to an off-islander), family squabbles, characters who drift in and out to no purpose, and episodes that accomplish nothing. Against all reason these matters become intensely interesting, partly because Edwards had the true storyteller's power to command interest, and partly because the reader soon discovers that what looks like a minor character in a haphazard event can prove, some years and pages later, to be of major importance. In a place as small as Guernsey, where everyone knows everyone else's business and scandals linger for generations, the slightest gestures can be significant and are therefore carefully observed. The reader becomes a Guernsey native, constantly and warily on the lookout. All the rambling minutiae of daily life has, in the end, an application that reaches far beyond the island. Edwards is balancing the value of man's personal independence against the cost of maintaining it despite the inroads of twentieth-century society and female intransigence. (pp. 124, 126)
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Short Reviews: 'The Book of Ebenezer Le Page'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1981, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 247, No. 4, April, 1981, pp. 124, 126.
The passage of time always involves a metamorphosis, and any richly detailed account of a life that spans our paradoxical century of continual advances in technology and savage regressions into violence must, as Edwards so subtly does [in "The Book of Ebenezer Le Page"], draw a tragic distortion of the human spirit. (p. 1)
A classic bachelor, Ebenezer becomes (without realising it) the classic ironic observer of his constrained, ingrown little society: that is, he becomes a novelist. As if by instinct he buys in old age a blank book and records his life.
The parallel with Proust is suggestive. This is a Proustian work in two senses. It conceals its major theme in a river of sharply...
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Despite the bleakness of his theme—or perhaps because of it—G. B. Edwards ends his extraordinary novel [The Book of Ebenezer Le Page] so happily that the reader, long accustomed to conclusions of bereavement, paucity, and unforgiving despair, might find himself resisting a gift providing so much pleasure. That one can be suspicious of such generosity may indicate just how far the novel has departed from its origins as the genre of forgiveness and reconciliation. And it may even explain why Mr. Edwards could not find a publisher before his death in 1976 for this his only novel. Like John Kennedy Toole's The Confederacy of Dunces, which was also published posthumously after a number of rejections with...
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The literal subject [of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page] is the passage through life and time—our modern degenerate time—and among neighbors, of [a] 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…. 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...
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