Reading with No Clothes on

Michael Hofmann

  • The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards
    NYRB, 400 pp, £10.99, July 2007, ISBN 978 1 59017 233 9

With the slush pile now going the way of the ice-cap, G.B. Edwards’s miraculous novel The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is one more instance – beyond the usually trotted out Lord of the Flies by William Golding, who was an admirer – of why that might be a pity, and why, ice-caps permitting, we might come to regret it.

Gerald Basil Edwards was born on Guernsey in 1899 and died in Weymouth in 1976, after a life spent largely in English exile, and lived largely in obscurity, first as a schoolmaster and civil servant, and then as a mordant recluse. (There isn’t so much as an author photograph of him in existence, and such information as there is is recycled from John Fowles’s fighting introduction to this, his only book.) For a time in the 1920s he promised to be a literary figure, ‘the next D.H. Lawrence’ and then Lawrence’s intended biographer, but life had other, dimmer plans for him. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page was completed shortly before his death, dedicated and its copyright made over to a young couple who had befriended him; it was they who secured its posthumous publication, when, after numerous rejections all round London, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, to his enormous credit, acquired it for Hamish Hamilton, who published it, with Fowles’s introduction, in 1981. It grieves me that I wasn’t aware of its publication at the time, because surely I would have loved it then as I love it now: I have read few books of such wide and delightful appeal.

There is a rare wholeness about The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. You get the entire man, in a way that isn’t usually within the gift of literature to procure. It is ‘the book of’ in the prosaic sense that Edwards’s character speaks it (or writes it in his three big notebooks bought for 18/6 at ‘the Press Office in Smith Street’ in St Peter Port); but also ‘of’ in the sense of ‘made into’. It is Ebenezer made into a book. (Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude comes to mind, with its paper-baler who is finally baled up himself.) William Golding put it admirably when he said: ‘To read it is not like reading but living.’ It is like reading with no clothes on.

The beginning is pretty, almost slightly false, the rhyme like a little wordplay in a distancing poem or chant: ‘Guernsey, Guernesey, Garnsai, Sarnia: so they say.’ There’s nothing quite as literary and charmingly echo-confected in the rest of the book. The quality of the voice waits till the second paragraph to appear in its whole glory: ‘My father was killed in the Boer War.’ Guileless enough, you think, and then the killer sentence: ‘He went off and joined the Irish Brigade and fought for the Boers.’ And that, aesthetically or stylistically speaking, is what Edwards does: he fights for the Boers. From that moment on, I knew I was in the presence of a masterpiece: always unassuming, but always wickedly and reliably barbed. The voice – and with it, the book – is built from such short but devious sentences and perceptions: ‘I had a good education, me’; ‘He was such a sincere boy, I’d have thought a minister was the last thing he would want to be’; ‘He said England and France was once at war for a hundred years and Guernsey was in between, so got it from both sides. I didn’t know that, me. I thought Guernsey had always been a peaceful little island’; ‘He’d had a good time, as good times go. He said the Yanks was easy fellows to get along with; though he had never quite been able to make out the difference between one and the other’; ‘Guernsey have been improving so much for the worse these last years, even me, who have lived here all my life, can hardly recognise it.’ It is simple but never plain; it is purled.

Edwards’s great accomplishment is to have constructed a stately, almost imposing – almost even conventional – narrative out of such crooked, personality-steeped sentences. It’s like a house built out of coquina, that munched or mulched shell-matter, each fragment individually turned and shaped, with its own history and outlook; one wouldn’t have thought it was load-bearing, or could go in a straight line, but it is and does. The curl, the interference, the constant heckling tuppen’orth of the ungrammatical, island-inflected speech carries the massy, chronological work of recollection forwards in three same-sized parts, each comprised of 20 trim chapters, in an ideal blend of disorder and order, of epic and anecdote, ramble and purpose. It seems, at one and the same time, to have been written by the sentence, by the chapter, and as a carefully conceived whole.

We are given Ebenezer’s childhood, his family (church father and chapel mother), his extended family (‘I haven’t said nothing about my cousins, and the cousins of my cousins; but then half the island is my cousins, and the cousins of my cousins’), the male friendship of his life with Jim Mahy (described with tact and tenderness), the love of his life with Liza Queripel (usually at daggers drawn), the stories of his aunts, ‘La Prissy’ and ‘La Hetty’, two sisters married to two brothers (a mason and a memorial mason), his sister Tabitha (‘La Tabby’), his same-age cousins Horace and Raymond. We get two world wars (‘Two is one too many for any man. Now I sit and wait for the third’); one German occupation; two royal visits (‘The king looked more serious than his father and when I stood on the edge of the kerb and shouted, “Wharro, George!” he didn’t look round. He didn’t know it was me’); the Muratti Cup (the annual football game against Jersey, like the Harvards against the Yales in Guys and Dolls), the one time Ebenezer leaves the island: ‘I wasn’t all that struck on Beautiful Jersey, as they liked to call it; and I have never wanted to go again. I was glad it was us who won.’ We get the unlikely triumph of Ebenezer’s life – ‘I won the leg of mutton off the greasy pole’ – in a chapter otherwise largely about religion (typical of Edwards’s guile). We get the story of his working life, first as he helps his father in a granite quarry (as it would have to be) during ‘the great stone-rush’, but then (as it would also have to be) as a fisherman and market gardener, at ‘Guernsey Toms’:

when I left school he got me a job in Dorey’s Vineries. They was still growing grapes, but trying out tomatoes under the vines. I thought tomatoes was a funny sort of fruit. I didn’t like the taste much. I liked the grapes, though. It turned out there was a better sale in England for the tomatoes and in the end the greenhouses grew nothing else.

Ebenezer discreetly amasses quite a fortune (‘When you got nobody to love and nothing to live for, you can always make money’), growing these funny fruit he doesn’t like and exporting them to people he likes even less, and this fortune – perhaps Edwards felt or thought he needed some overall intrigue on which to string his subordinate characters and stories; ‘the book grew,’ he says, ‘out of the pivotal image of the gold under the apple-tree’ – is made into an endearingly simple dramatic device: which of his many lateral relatives will Ebenezer leave it to? This gets the old Ebenezer out of the house to pay a shifty series of calls, and makes for more acerbic comedy in his responses to ‘improvements’ in island life (‘the stables was made into little rooms she called “chalets” and the visitors was going to have to sleep in stalls like the cows’), and to the new run of modern characters he encounters: the tour guides; the foreigners (‘I said: “Guernsey get more like the League of Nations every day”’); the policemen (‘they are useless objects’); the old, the young (‘a girl with pale yellow hair done up like a beehive on the top of her head, and a skirt up round her neck, and hands that flapped like the fins of a fish’); and finally his two young friends, Adele de la Rue and Neville Falla, clearly and touchingly based on the young couple in Edwards’s own later life. The comedy of fierce independence in a setting of steep cultural and human decline is in the end wrestled round to glory. It didn’t have to end this way, but it does, and one respects Edwards for his force of will.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is vast fun and vast life, a Kulturgeschichte and a roman à thèse. In fact, it’s a roman à deux thèses, the one that Guernsey is doomed to England, the other – possibly related – that ‘Man is doomed to Woman.’ On both counts, one might remember Edwards’s early promise to be a second Lawrence; ‘my boyhood, adolescence and young manhood,’ Edwards wrote in a letter, ‘was an increasingly intense fight to the death against my mother; and indeed all my relationships with women have been a fight to the death. I survive, but in grief.’ (Fowles lets us know that among the very few personal effects Edwards left at his death was a photograph of his mother.) Ebenezer’s parents limp with difference: ‘There was very few words spoken in our house. My mother would say, “Will you do that?” and my father would say “Yes”; or my father would say, “Can I do this?” and my mother would say “No”.’ About the father’s only visible consolation is the Sunday paper:

It was a pink paper called the Police Budget, which he used to buy from Tozer in Smith Street on the Saturday night; and it had pictures in it of all the murders they do in England: women with their throats cut and blood all over the bed! It was always a heavy dinner Sundays and, if my father could have had his way, he would have had a nap after; but my mother made him change into his best clothes and sit on the sofa in the front room, in case any of our relations came to tea. I don’t like to think of my father those Sunday afternoons.

I don’t like to think of him on those Sunday mornings, the woman at church or chapel, the man adjusting, compensating for the humiliations of the week, thinking about carving. It’s funny, but not altogether harmless, a slightly darker take on Under Milk Wood, as it might be. The word ‘heavy’ has a lot to do with it. As for the English, the book is so stuffed with digs at them that one never has long to wait: ‘He shook hands like a limp rag and looked down his nose at me with his big popping eyes and said “Good evening” as if he had a plum in his mouth.’ ‘I thought he was a nice chap for an Englishman, he made me laugh; but it turned out he wasn’t an Englishman. He was Irish.’ It’s that old Boer axis again.

Ebenezer has read just one book in his life, which, not unnaturally, is Robinson Crusoe. Stuck at one point for something to do, he takes it down, thinking perhaps to read it again, but decides against: he knows what happens, after all. He has something of Crusoe, though not Defoe’s so much as Elizabeth Bishop’s sadder, more challenging, more ruminative character in her great poem ‘Crusoe in England’. Some of her lines –

They named it. But my poor old island’s still
     un-rediscovered, un-renamable.
None of the books has ever got it right

or

Now I live here, another island,
that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?

– would fit rather easily into The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. In the A=X, B=X calculus of all great writing, he is both specific and universal, utterly Guernsey – which, in Edwards’s version (I have no idea how true or false it is), means ignorant of France (though every other word he speaks is debased French), and possessed of a fierce and intimately well-informed loathing for England – and all men on all islands. And of course, everywhere is an island. That doubleness is what makes Ebenezer impossible to draw; that’s why both the covers I’ve seen are unhelpful and wrong: he’s not Paul Leith’s folksy sailor-boy on the first edition, with his hand dangling suggestively on a basket of tomatoes, and he’s not Kitaj’s painting on the new paperback of a Blakean God the Father cum Methuselah either. There are some things that can be done only in words, perhaps only in Guernsey patois. Everyone needs their own inner Ebenezer.