The Book of Ebenezer Le Page

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The excitement of reading The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is comparable to that of reading a novel by Margaret Drabble, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Cary, or Evelyn Waugh before there were “industries” of scholarship, film, and even the author’s own industry in writing more novels.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, this is both a first novel and a posthumous novel, not to be claimed as any nation’s “official” literature, and wildly unfilmable. If G. B. Edwards finds his way into academia at all, it will be as a maverick such as B. Traven, Stella Gibbons, Ambrose Bierce, or Ronald Firbank.

Beyond its fresh excitement and maverick nature, this novel has important structural resemblances to such works as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), and Catch-22 (1961) and has the effrontery to evidence some technical deftness that those important works lack. It pushes the boundaries of state-of-the art in first-person narration by a windy regional crank. If anyone wants to make a case that fiction has made progress since Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953) considered Virginia Woolf and James Joyce the last word, this novel is better evidence than any of the post-Joycean or crypto-well-made novels of the past forty years.

The Introduction by John Fowles is informative on the life and works of Edwards and enhances appreciation of the novel, whether read before or after, but in one important respect the Introduction is misleading. Fowles makes an issue of Edwards’ misogyny, and Ebenezer Le Page is so blatantly misogynistic in the first few chapters that some readers may see the novel as a “guilty pleasure” or “man’s novel” in these liberated days. What Fowles overlooks is that Ebenezer’s views change in the course of his relationship with Liza Queripil, a heroine reminiscent of Sue Bridehead and other Thomas Hardy heroines. If Ebenezer’s addiction to bachelorhood and adoration of his mother and sister to the denigration of other women is diluted only by his attitude toward Liza, it is a rather ocean-size dilution.

Crank and hack-writer though he may have been, Edwards establishes a wonderfully crafted aesthetic distance between himself and his protagonist. Edwards spent his youth on Guernsey, like Ebenezer, and the early chapters have the ring of autobiographical authenticity. Ebenezer spends his whole eighty years on Guernsey, however, as Edwards could not and did not, yet the autobiographical authenticity does not diminish. Further, even though the convention of the novel as Ebenezer’s journal works on one level, on another, it is patently clear that, unlike Ebenezer, Edwards has read more books than Robinson Crusoe.

Many authors have written about their youthful regional haunts, but none comes to mind who has written from the viewpoint of an unsophisticated contemporary who has never left that region. The achievement is comparable to Thomas Hardy writing a first-person novel from the viewpoint of one of the incidental elderly eccentrics of his novels or Twain giving his readers the adulthood and old age of Huck Finn.

Edwards himself provides an afterword on the languages of Guernsey, which Fowles and a linguist “correct” and expand. The vocabulary and syntax of Guernsey combine French and English in patois and “Guernsey English.” The syntax adds style and charm to Ebenezer’s narration and no difficulty whatsoever. The vocabulary anglicizes French in a manner comparable to dialects of Louisiana and Quebec. For example, the names “Bordeaux” and “Birdo” are both used on Guernsey with “Bordeaux” given French and...

(The entire section is 1509 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVII, April, 1981, p. 124.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, March 25, 1981, p. 17.

Library Journal. CVI, February 15, 1981, p. 469.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, November 5, 1981, p. 43.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, April 19, 1981, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LVII, June 1, 1981, p. 146.

Newsweek. XCVIII, August 3, 1981, p. 70.

Saturday Review. VIII, March, 1981, p. 74.

The Sewanee Review. LXXXIX, July, 1981, p. R74.

Times Literary Supplement. March 27, 1981, p. 334.