John Fowles

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1275

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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 is to have such a richly human account of what it felt like to live through the period of the book, from about 1890 to 1970.

We are still too close to it to realize what an astounding and unprecedented change, unprecedented both in its extent and its speed, has taken place in the psyche of Western mankind during those eighty years. (pp. vii-viii)

It is almost as if in those same eighty years we left the old planet and found a new; and we are all, however brashly contemporary, however much we take modern technology for granted, still victims of that profound cultural shock. One symptom of it is the recurrent recrudescence of conservatism (and in far more than politics) in the second half of this century. We have at least realized we made a very clumsy landing on our new planet, and also left a number of things behind on the old that we might have done better to bring with us—qualities very close to that list of traditional island virtues I mentioned just now.

This inability to forget the old, this querulousness over the new, is what makes Ebenezer Le Page such a convincing portrayal of a much more universal mentality than the matter of the book might at first sight suggest. Edwards himself recognized this when he wrote that Ebenezer 'expresses from the inside out the effects of world events'. His novel is really far more about the impress of recent human history on one fallible but always honest individual than about Guernsey and its traditional manners and mores, fascinating and amusing though those often are to read.

The ubiquitous contempt for England and the English (and outsiders in general, even the sister Channel Island of Jersey) must similarly be taken in a metaphorical way. The encroachment is of infinitely more than ugly holiday bungalows and tourist dross, of greedy entrepreneurs and tax-evaders; it is essentially upon the individual mind, and therefore upon individual freedom. To those who want a homogenized world (because such worlds are easier to manipulate) Ebenezer is an eternal thorn in the side. He may seem an exceedingly unfashionable reactionary about a number of things, including woman. But his saving grace is that he is equally reactionary about anything that tries to occupy, as the Nazis did Guernsey in the last war, the island of the self. He is much more against than he is ever for, and that kind of againstness, or bloody-mindedness, however irritating it may be in some circumstances, is a very precious human (and evolutionary) commodity. Provincialism is not merely lacking city taste in arts and manners; it is also an increasingly vital antidote to all would-be central tyrannies. To give such a convincing illustration of this ubiquitous contradiction, this eternal suspicion at the less articulate base of society, is one of Edwards' major achievements.

Another seems to me a technical one, and that is the creation of such an intensely colloquial speech, with its piquant French undertones, for his hero. Even more remarkable is his almost total reliance on it—how he manages, despite the general absence of normal linear narrative, despite the way characters meander almost haphazardly in and out of his pages, despite the minute stitch of social detail, to carry us through with him, at times to the point where we no longer care how inconsequential or digressive the story becomes, as long as that voice is still speaking. I can think of very few novels where this extremely difficult device, of the prolonged reminiscence, is worked so well. (pp. viii-ix)

[Edwards defined his book's] purpose as 'humanizing'; and to that end, he realized that it had to risk things that no trend-conscious novelist today would care to risk his reputation on, just as in some ways it had to stay resolutely old-fashioned and simple-tongued. But that is precisely what I like most about it. It seems to me, beyond all its more obvious achievements and attractions, beyond its occasional lapses into cantankerousness and sentimentality, an act of courage; and of a kind that can never be old-fashioned if the novel, and the free society of which it is still the deepest artistic expression, are to survive. (p. xi)

John Fowles, "Introduction" (copyright © 1981 by J. R. Fowles Ltd.; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; in Canada by Hamish Hamilton Ltd), in The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards, Knopf, 1981, pp. vii-xiv.