Thursday 1 May 2008

Baise mon tchou!

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
by G B Edwards

Sometimes the story behind a novel serves not only to intrigue but to feedback and increase the magic of the work itself. There is a particular poignancy to novels published posthumously which go on to achieve great success, such as A Confederacy of Dunces, that leaves us wondering what else might have been. Gerald Basil Edwards was a civil servant for most of his life and died at the age of 77 living as a virtual recluse in Dorset. Near the end of his life he had been befriended by Edward Chaney who encouraged him to complete a novel he was working on (part of a projected trilogy of works set on his home isle of Guernsey). Unfortunately for us he only completed the first (burning what remained) but we are lucky that Hamish Hamilton published it originally and that New York Review of Books Classics have reprinted a new edition. It is a masterpiece of character fiction, a definitive novel about Guernsey and a particular time and a must read for any self respecting reader.

Ebenezer Le Page is a Guernsey man, a donkey, as the Jersey islanders would call him and as stubborn as that animal in many ways. His is an uncompromising voice and from the first page it is a voice which is utterly convincing. Speaking in the Anglo-French patois of the island the novel comes to us from three notebooks he has purchased from the local post office and which he has filled with his life. Edwards achievement is total; as you read you have to remind yourself that the notebooks aren't real, he isn't actually writing this in his home at Les Moulins. Take this paragraph:

I thought a lot of myself when I was a young chap. I wasn't bad looking for a Guernsey boy. I was dark with a round museau of a face and thick lips, and a pug nose and high cheekbones and deep-set brown eyes and a bush of black hair. I haven't got much of that black hair left now, and what there is of it is white. I've still got got enough teeth to eat with and I can hear all right and have never had to put spectacles on my nose, though I have to look through a magnifying glass to read the Births, Deaths and Marriages in the Press, and I write big in this book so as to be able to see what I'm saying. I didn't grow very tall and wished I was taller: but I had broad shoulders and a good chest which I used to go round with stuck out like a pigeon. I was given fine strong legs, but they was a trifle bandy even then, and have got bandier and bandier the older I've got. I wish now I could straighten them out a bit; but I can still get along on them all right. With a stick.

What this shows is how skillfully Edwards describes to us not only the man now but the man back then too and crucially how the physical deterioration has done nothing to dim the spirit. The chest stuck out like a pigeon, the pride in not needing spectacles, the admission to needing to write big in his book (the kind of detail that makes the book real) and that hilarious punchline to finish it off. In spite of his cantankerous nature Ebenezer provokes many laughs, not always intentionally.

I said the book he ought to read is Robinson Crusoe. It is a good book. It show how if you go gallivanting all over the world instead of stopping at home where you belong, you only land yourself with a load of trouble. Raymond couldn't stop laughing when I said that. I don't know for why.

No man is an island, but if ever a man could be seen to represent one it is Ebenezer. Having left its shores only once to play in the football match against Jersey, and lived through two World Wars, an island occupation, the arrival of the motor car and a visit from the King he is Guernsey, an embodiment of the way things were. When Dudley Waine ('with an "e"') comes to interview him as part of his research into the island he calls Ebenezer an anachronism.

'Say that word again', I said. He said it. I said 'Spell it.' He spelt it. 'Now what do it mean please?' I said. 'Out of its due time,' he said, 'in your case, belonging to a bygone age.' 'I thought you was interested in old things,' I said. 'So I am, so I am,' he said. 'I find you immensely interesting. As an object of study.' He was looking at me through his thick round spectacles, as if I was something come out of a hole in the ground. For a minute, I felt so small...but I wasn't going to give in to goggle-eyes, even if he did know everything. After all, he wasn't so wonderful himself. 'Baise mon tchou!' I said.

The framing device for the novel is Ebenezer's legacy. With no immediate family but half the island 'cousins and the cousins of my cousins' he has to decide who to leave his stash of golden sovereigns to. This allows him to introduce us to several of the island's characters. Important amongst these are his old pal Jim Mahy, his cousin Raymond Martell and the woman of his life Liza Queripel. His friendship with Jim is written with beautiful frankness; their closeness typified by a night they spend marooned on the isle of Lihou huddling together for warmth. Ebenezer knows that he can tell Jim anything and 'he would have liked me just the same.' His relationship with his cousin Raymond is far more complicated, but then so is Raymond. His struggles with faith and love make his life a misery and there is real pain in Ebenezer's inability to help him. It is a tempestuous relationship he enjoys, or endures, with Liza Queripel. From their flirtatious youth to the angry exchanges later in life the two of them are more like sparring partners than lovers but it is a relationship that endures whilst others are tragically ended; history takes its toll on a life as long as Ebenezer's. At the centre always is the man himself;

I doubt everything I hear, even if I say it myself; and, after the things I have been through and seen happen to other people on this island and known to have happened in the world, I sometimes wonder about the existence of God: but I know I am Ebenezer Le Page.

There is another important character of course: Guernsey itself. My copy of the book included a map of the island but Edwards writes with such knowledge that you don't need it. Not so much sketching as painting the landscape, it is a portrait filled with great affection. Edwards himself was unable to return to Guernsey when his father remarried and left their home to his new family so it is no wonder that legacy plays such an important role in his novel. Some have criticised the novel for its happy ending but it is hard to begrudge Ebenezer his resolution; finding a worthy recipient of not only his stash but the three notebooks, bought for 18/6, which make up the book of Ebenezer Le Page. As a final quotation (I could happily copy out vast chunks) I'll leave you with another example of Edwards' love for Guernsey.

...we sat and watched the big sun sink lower and lower until there was only a tip showing; when suddenly, it dipped under, and was gone! Then it happened. I don't know what. The great rocks was not rocks, nor the sea sea, yet they was real as real; and the clouds was gates of glory, and every way I turned my eyes the view was waves of joy and golden light. 'God, that's magnificent!' said Neville. I had no words but Raymond's. 'It is a glimpse of the world as God made it,' I said, 'on the first evening of the first day.' He gave me a funny look. 'I'd love to paint it!' he said. 'It can never be painted,' I said.

Don't be so sure. In his unique work G B Edwards has done exactly that.


John Self 5 May 2008 at 21:08  

I've had my eye on this book as I'm a big fan of the NYRB Classics series and this looks to be one of their more intriguing volumes. Sad though that we have to rely on a US publisher to make available again a forgotten work of UK fiction. Er, the Channel Islands are part of the UK, right...?

William Rycroft 5 May 2008 at 23:48  

Sad indeed. And yes, they are part of the UK. You mean you haven't got a vast off-shore account John?!

John Self 8 May 2008 at 21:15  

Afraid not. I spent all my money on NYRB Classics...

Anonymous,  9 September 2008 at 08:38  

This is a wonderful book, and I'm glad it's back in print (there's an old paperback edition that crops up in charity shops once in a while, but it has a horrible cover). It's a shame that nothing remains of the other two books.

William Rycroft 9 September 2008 at 09:01  

I think I have that very copy Rob. A rather fetching picture of Ebeneezer by the boats, with large baskets of his tomatoes. Classy.

Unknown 9 January 2009 at 04:15  

The Channel Islands are not part of the UK. But they are British islands.

William Rycroft 9 January 2009 at 09:07  

Thanks Adele for the clarification. They are what's called British Crown dependencies, neither part of the UK or EU but with responsibility for defence falling on the UK. A bit like the Isle of Man.

John Self 17 May 2009 at 15:14  

Your and Rob's pincer movement has finally got me to order this book. Boy are you for it if it's completely awful.

William Rycroft 17 May 2009 at 19:12  

I don't know about Rob but I'd be happy to offer a money back guarantee if you think it's awful. Either that or give you a stern talking to.

John Self 22 May 2009 at 22:07  

Ho boy, are you ever in trouble! The book arrived yesterday. Not once did you mention above that the 400 pages of this book are each covered in very very small type. I consider this most unsporting.

William Rycroft 22 May 2009 at 22:53  

Which edition do you have?

John Self 23 May 2009 at 09:35  

The NYRB Classics one pictured. It clearly wasn't reset for this edition though, and the type must have been taken from earlier editions.

William Rycroft 23 May 2009 at 11:22  

Ah. I used the picture from the NYRB edition because the cover of the old Penguin paperback that I read is so...dated (or horrible as Rob says). I figured I was paying the price for being a cheapskate. Bit cheeky of them not to reset it. Do you have a magnifying glass?

fantaghiro23 9 November 2010 at 02:11  

I love the parts you quoted. Those and your review have convinced me to look for this book, too. Even if it is 400 pages worth of small print.

William Rycroft 9 November 2010 at 08:51  

I think it's well worth it, fantaghiro23. Just imagine you're reading the small writing in a handwritten journal!

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