Guy Davenport

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

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)

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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 observed, seemingly trivial events, and leaves it to us to chart the course of the river and realize its shape, its gesture, on a map of which Ebenezer is necessarily unaware. Like Proust, Edwards can make us feel the passage of time as a tragic force. Like Proust, he has a surprise for us that can only be convincingly revealed in the fullness of time. For this is a novel you must read every word of, or miss the deeply human meaning altogether.

Ebenezer's insignificant, homebody life moves toward a bitter, disappointed old age: such is the red herring carefully laid down for us. He has had one miraculous night of love in all his life, curled beside his friend Jim when they were teen-agers stranded on a peninsula by high tide. This event returns in one unrecognizable ghostly form after another, skillfully disguised by Edwards, until, like time itself, it has undergone metamorphosis enough to emerge as a great happiness, at last understood, at last integrated into a sensibility that has failed to recognize it time and again.

I know of no description of happiness in modern literature equal to the one that ends this novel. The preparation for it has been so cleverly plotted and yet is so psychologically accurate that we wonder if the novel itself is not here returning to its old tricks….

Edwards's understanding of the heart comes, most certainly, from a lifetime of observation, but it is helpful to imagine that he is working out a disarmingly simple remark of Proust's: That a homosexual is a man who wants to be a soldier's best friend. Ebenezer Le Page lives his life wanting to be the best friend of someone like his Jim, whose spirit was killed by a mean and jealous wife before a German bayonet dispatched him for real.

When Ebenezer becomes someone's best friend again, he is old and without illusions, but the friendship happens, and is golden; and we realize that the fable we have been told is a fable of the rarity of selfless love in a world that has degraded everything….

Ebenezer Le Page writes his life in an easy, gossipy, supple English that grows on you as you get the hang of it…. Ebenezer does beautifully what most writers would do well to avoid: He writes spoken English, keeping its agility of preposition and adverb, its purity of idiom, its fussy particularity as to what's what.

Technically two writers are at work in first-person narrative….

Ebenezer and Edwards work together without stepping on each other's toes; Ebenezer never gives a thought to the shape of his outpoured memories. Edwards never obtrudes his literary concerns into Ebenezer's restless sorting out of the past.

This is the first novel of a projected trilogy, which will now never exist, but which might have been completed if even one publisher had been perceptive enough to recognize what a masterpiece he was rejecting. (p. 22)

Guy Davenport, "A Novel of Life in a Small World." in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 19, 1981, pp. 1, 22.

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