It's not often I come across a novel that I can truly say is like no other I've ever read - but The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, which I've just finished (it's a long read), is one such book. An old friend has been recommending it to me at intervals for years, but I had somehow never got round to it (it's not the easiest book to find) - then one day I was idly browsing in an Oxfam shop and there it was, in a paperback American edition (Moyer Bell, 1995). Naturally I snapped it up and, as soon as I started reading, I was gripped, enthralled. It is a wonderful book...
The Book of Ebenezer le Page was the only published work of its almost wilfully obscure author, G.B. Edwards. It was finally written, at a friend's urging, when the author was already in his late 60s, and it wasn't published until after his death. Told entirely in the first person, it is the fictional memoir of an elderly, shrewd, cranky, fiercely individual Guernseyman, looking back on his long life - lived entirely on Guernsey, but for one short excursion to Jersey. He seems to be in full flow when we join him, and he never lets up, relating a meandering saga of family quarrels, tragedies, bitter feuds that last for generations - all interwoven with moments of vivid happiness and, especially, with deep and enduring friendships. He is (like William Maxwell, oddly) especially good on the intense friendship - love indeed (of a non-sexual kind) - that can grow up between boys and men. A lot of the emotional life of the book is in the love between Ebenezer and his boyhood friend Jim, and the rather different love between Ebenezer and his strange, sweet-natured cousin Raymond, who has a highly original take on Christianity (Church and Chapel are big presences in this book, though Ebenezer has little time for either). Raymond trains and fails as a priest, and makes an unfortunate marriage... But I'm not going to start rehearsing the plot here - apart from anything else, there's so much of it. This is a big, compendious saga, incorporating in its decades-long span wars, Nazi occupation and the complete transformation - or ruin, in his view - of the island Ebenezer loves.
The magic of the book is in Ebenezer's unique, inimitable voice and the distinctive language that he uses, peppered with Guernsey French patois. The voice is so beguiling that when he's in full flow you don't want Ebenezer ever to stop, don't care how complicated and populous the story is getting, or what's to happen next... Unfortunately the voice is also so beguiling that, towards the end, as the action approaches the (fictional) present, the author himself falls in love with his creation, cannot resist softening and simplifying him, making good things happen to him and contriving an ending in which happiness is piled on happiness. The critic Guy Davenport wrote that 'I know of no description of happiness in modern literature equal to the one that ends this novel'. I fear I'm more inclined to agree with John Fowles (who provides an Introduction to the edition I read) that by the end, the story has lapsed into sentimentality. It is a great shame.
Davenport also describes The Book of Ebenezer LePage as 'a masterpiece' and I'd agree there; it is a masterpiece indeed - but a flawed one, thanks to its closing chapters.
Never mind. Here, to give a flavour of this extraordinary book and its unique voice, is a passage describing the death of Ebenezer's best friend Jim's beloved dog:
'Victor died. He wasn't all that old for a bull-dog and I have always thought he must have got himself hurt inside on his last gallivant. He lost interest and wouldn't move, but lay in his basket all day long and got fat and wheezy. The vet said there was nothing wrong with him: it was his breed and he would get over it; but he began to have shivering fits and had a hot nose. He wanted to drink a lot of water, but went off his feed. Jim's mother said she was sorry but she couldn't have him in the kitchen any longer because he smelt; so Jim put his basket in the stable and gave him plenty of straw. One Saturday afternoon we was all having tea in the kitchen when out comes Victor from the stable and trots across the yard. He was as lively on his bandy legs as when he was a pup, and grinning all over his ugly face. 'Victor's got better!' said Jim. In came Victor and Jim's mother patted him and Wilfred, who was there, said, 'Hullo, Victor!' though he didn't like him much, and I said, 'Well done! Good boy!' and at last he got round to Jim, jumping and licking and wagging his tail; and Jim was nearly in tears, he was so happy. Victor went quiet then and rolled his black eyes at the rest of us and trotted back across the yard to the stable. Jim couldn't wait to finish his tea but must get up from the table at once and make a mash of meat and potatoes to take to him. 'He'll eat this now,' he said, as he went out with it. He hadn't been gone two minutes when he came back out of the stable with Victor dead in his arms.'