When G.B. Edwards’s only novel The Book of Ebenezer Le Page was published in 1981, very little was known of its reclusive author. In his introduction, John Fowles remarked,‘There may have been stranger recent literary events than the book you are about to read, but I rather doubt it.’ This seemingly provincial novel, set in the author’s native island of Guernsey, was soon being feted as a 20th century classic by the likes of Harold Bloom, William Golding, Guy Davenport, Stephen Orgel and Harry Mathews. Roy Dotrice’s radio serialisation for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour was the programme’s most popular in 20 years. Following paperback editions in US and UK, as well as French and Italian translations, it was reprinted by NYRB Classics in 2007, since when it has found a whole new audience, witnessed by the hundreds of five star reviews on bibliophile sites such as Amazon and goodreads.com.
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page only saw the light of day because of the persistence of a young art student and the novel’s dedicatee, Edward Chaney, who succeeded in getting it published five years after the author’s death. In the 35 that have passed since then, Chaney has researched and collected an impressive body of material relating to the life of this mysterious author who did his best to make the job of a future biographer as difficult as possible.
Now the results of these efforts are being published in Chaney’s book Genius Friend: G.B. Edwards and The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. The following excerpt examines the extraordinary parallels between The Book of Ebenezer Le Page set on the island of Guernsey, and Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), set on the island of Sicily.
It is perhaps unfair to compare the more popularly-esteemed, yet class-conscious mainlander McEwan - who informs us that he has ‘no patience whatsoever’ with religion - with the still underestimated and classless islander Edwards.  Where fellow-islanders, indeed fellow fishermen, are concerned, more appropriate might be a comparison with Giovanni Verga‘s I Malavoglia.  Verga left his native Sicily and wrote about it from the mainland with an obsessive combination of realism and nostalgia that inspired D.H. Lawrence to call him ‘Homeric’. In 1923, Lawrence translated Verga’s Mastro-don-Gesualdo - featuring a Sicilian peasant whose integrity is not recognised by the family he marries into - and two years later published Verga’s Novelle Rusticane as Little Novels of Sicily. If only because of Lawrence’s involvement, Gerald would have been familiar with both these works and no doubt noted the parallels between his island identity and Verga’s. Unlike Gerald, however, Verga returned to his childhood home in his fifties and died there a celebrated Senator of the Republic. 
More qualitatively challenging, however, would be the comparison between The Book of Ebenezer Le Page and Lampedusa‘s Il Gattopardo, not quite accurately translated as The Leopard (the ‘gattopardo’ or serval is an even rarer beast).  Lampedusa and his creation, Don Fabrizio, are both nostalgic vestiges of a pre-modern world, casting critical eyes on the new, mercantile and mechanical vulgarity that encroaches upon their island.
Gerald and his creation, Ebenezer, respond in similar ways to equivalent encroachments. The fact that Don Fabrizio is an aristocrat and Ebenezer a peasant, only sharpens the symmetry and highlights the common enemy, for both are anachronisms whose ancient wisdom encourages them to resist changes which are essentially bourgeois-driven.  Don Fabrizio‘s relationship with his impetuous nephew, Tancredi, parallels the real Lampedusa‘s friendship with Gioacchino, the son of a second cousin he eventually adopts, just as Ebenezer’s relationship with artist-rebel Neville Falla, the young man who marries his illegitimate grand-daughter and becomes his heir, resembles Gerald’s ‘adoption’ of me.  Though the childless and far from sexually liberated Lampedusa seems not have submitted to psychoanalysis per se, he read Freud and was married to an analyst to whom he occasionally related his dreams. 
Recently retranslated as The Professor and the Siren, the relationship between the old Sicilian Senator in exile, La Ciula, and his young protégé, Paolo Corbera, in Lampedusa’s La Sirena, includes still more striking parallels.  Three years younger than Lampedusa but outliving him by almost twenty, Gerald set his great novel in the late 19th and 20th centuries, a generation ahead of his own. Lampedusa set the Gattopardo further back in the period of his great-grandfather, Prince Giulio’s encounter with the Risorgimento, which threatened what was sacred and customary about his beloved island. For Lampedusa and Gerald, both in fact and fiction, the Second World War was perceived as deeply destructive of their islands’ cultural memory. In The Professor and the Siren Paolo’s precious souvenirs of his mentor are destroyed in the war. In The Leopard, Bourbon Sicily is invaded by Garibaldi and his Redshirts as the advanced guard of an invasion by middle-class bureaucrats from mainland Italy. In Lampedusa‘s lifetime, Sicily was dominated first by Mussolini and his agents and then by the Germans whose eviction by the Allies involved the destruction of his family Palazzo in Palermo, an event that so distressed Lampedusa it prompted him to write his great novel. During his post-war visits to Guernsey, Gerald questioned his fellow-islanders about the German occupation and subsequent liberation, meanwhile observing what he describes as the next invasion, by tourists and tax-escapees from mainland Britain. 
Gerald lost the home he was supposed to inherit, not like Lampedusa, due to Allied bombing but to his father’s remarriage. As in The Leopard, it is difficult to distinguish the author’s more or less political protest from the poignancy of personal loss and periodic angst. Gerald must have had such dreams and aspirations when, like James Joyce he decided ‘to fly by those nets’ of nationality, language and religion flung at him by his native island, as also by his formidable mother. Like Joyce, however, his imaginative soul broke free even as it also fed upon these cultural memories. It could be argued that although both men exiled themselves from their respective islands, Joyce and Gerald constructed more positive (albeit homesick?) images of their native lands than either Thomas Hardy or Lampedusa, who travelled rather than migrated, even if all four authors ultimately envisage their birth-rights in quasi-tragic or at least melancholic terms .
Gerald has Liza Quéripel express her feelings for Guernsey after at first alienating Ebenezer with her enthusiasm for London:
… she stopped dead in her tracks and gripped me by both arms and turned me to face her in the wild way she had. She had a grip of steel. She said, ‘I swear every day and every hour I am away from Guernsey, my heart is bleeding secretly to be back. When I stand on the deck of the ship coming down the Russel and see Herm and Jethou and Sark behind, and the Brehon Tower, I know I am home!’ I liked her then. 
Having never been further than Jersey, Ebenezer expresses his own poignant nostalgia for the genius loci in these terms:
I have lived all my days to the sound of bells of the Vale Church, coming to me on the wind over the water. When I was a boy I used to hear them playing a hymn of a Sunday evening, and then the quick ding-dong, ding-dong, before the service began; and I would hear them practising of a Wednesday night... 
Elsewhere, however, Gerald merges Ebenezer’s voice with his own, as he migrates from the specificity of the island to its microcosmic significance, only returning in order to depict his alter ego as an internal exile, lamenting the loss of the ancient authenticities and so many ‘improvements for the worse’:
Mind you, I am not one of those who say living on Guernsey in the good old days was a bed of roses. I think living in this world is hell on earth for most of us most of the time, it don’t matter when or where we are born; but the way we used to live over here, I mean in the country parts, was more or less as it had been for many hundreds of years; and it was real… When I think what have happened to our island, I could sit down on the ground and cry… 
In The Professor and the Siren, Lampedusa, to a significant extent also an internal exile, imagines his curmudgeonly alter ego, Senator La Ciura, as having, just like Gerald:
scarcely visited [his] island for fifty years, and yet his memory of certain minute details was remarkably precise. ‘Sicily‘s sea is the most vividly colored, the most romantic of any I have ever seen; it’s the only thing you won’t manage to ruin, at least away from the cities. Do the trattorias by the sea still serve spiny urchins, split in half?’... ‘What flavor! How divine in appearance! My most beautiful memory of the last fifty years!’ 
Albeit then elaborated in graphically sexualised terms, this celebration of an island speciality cannot fail to remind one of Ebenezer’s paean in honour of the ormer:
The food I like best of all foods is ormers; but you can’t always get them. My father used to take me with him ormering ... I can’t say what ormers taste like. They are not like fish, flesh, or fowl. They are like no other food on earth. I have heard of the nectar of the gods. Or is it ambrosia they feed on? That must be orders. 
Though closer to Lampedusa and Gerald than to Lawrence and Joyce in publishing relatively little and then leaving it to the next generation to have the bulk of his writings printed, perhaps only the similarly depressive Shakespeare got the balance between life and art right, retaining a foothold in his native Stratford and significantly enlarging this to return home and retire in prosperity. Gerald resembled Shelley in his determination to live the dream to the more or less bitter end. For all his denials he was an incurable, indeed uncompromising Romantic but one who refused to die young because he hadn’t yet fulfilled his destiny.  Like Shelley, his refusal to compromise with the requirements of society, friends or family, brought a more minor version of the trauma suffered by Shelley‘s friends and family down upon all concerned, but above all upon himself.
A more pragmatic literary exile of whom Gerald (like fellow-exile Joseph Conrad) was particularly conscious was Victor Hugo, whose Les Travailleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea) of 1866 was set in the Guernsey that became his adopted home after he left France in 1851. Published in Brussels in 1866, four years after Les Misérables, the exiled Hugo dedicated it: ‘au rocher d’hospitalité et de liberté, à ce coin de vieille terre normande où vit le noble petit peuple de la mer, à l’île de Guernesey, sévère et douce, mon asile actuel, mon tombeau probable.’ Gerald has Raymond read the whole of Les Misérables in French when recuperating from influenza, but more relevant to his own novel was Toilers of the Sea, to which he referred in conversation and correspondence with me.  Hugo‘s principal protagonist, Gilliatt, however, is an epic hero who has to fight the sea and indeed an octopus in order to win the hand of his beloved. When, despite his success in these testing enterprises he loses her to another – as it happens a young clergyman called Ebenezer - he drowns himself in the very sea over which he had previously prevailed.
By comparison with the Romantic grandeur of Byron, Shelley and Hugo‘s protagonists, though he manages to kill a German soldier who was trying to sodomise an East European slaveworker, Gerald’s bandy-legged tomato grower is not most people’s idea of an Übermensch. His equivalent struggle to Gilliat’s with the octopus was his successful landing of a conger eel.  Yet Gerald leads the reader through Ebenezer’s long life and loves with such artful authenticity, he encourages a sort of evolutionary identification with his alter ego. His unpretentious insistence on maintaining Ebenezer’s unintellectualizing identity provides us with a kind of consolation that the more conventional (but less down to earth) tragic hero does not. In seeking precedents for this rare combination of archetypes, some of Chaucer’s creations come to mind, even if underpinning these, Gerald’s youthful Nietzscheanism persists and indeed re-emerges in the quiet climax of the novel.
Shelley drowned like Hugo’s hero and Lampedusa’s La Ciula, though he took an innocent party with him. Hugo himself, however, returned to prosperity in France, as Sinuhe returned to Egypt, Shakespeare to Stratford, Ibsen to Norway, Strindberg to Sweden, Verga and Lampedusa to Sicily (inasmuch as the latter ever left it), and Solzhenitsyn to Mother Russia.  Like La Ciula, Gerald remained an exile to the end, even if Ebenezer never left his native land. If Lampedusa’s Professor could not have the sublime erotic experience he had had with his beloved siren off the coast of his native Sicily, he would not settle for second best anywhere else. In the end both Gerald and Lampedusa took the advice that Ebenezer extracts from the Book of Isaiah (51:1): ‘look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are rigged.’  Only in Hugo’s fiction does the hero sit on a Guernsey rock awaiting death by drowning, or in that of Lampedusa does the Professor finally cast himself overboard to join his beloved Siren.
Extract from Genius Friend: G.B. Edwards and The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by Edward Chaney, ISBN: 978-0992879105 (Blue Ormer Publishing, 2015) – www.blueormer.co.uk.
- Daily Telegraph Review, 30 August 2014, p. 5.
- I owe this suggestion to Vittorio Gabrieli‘s article on ‘Il libro di Ebenezer Le Page’ in La Cultura, no. 2 (2001), pp. 295-301. We have seen that Gerald produced a play about a fisherman in November 1930; see above, p. 135.
- In the introduction to his translation of Mastro-Don Gesualdo (1923), Lawrence wrote that ‘the deepest nostalgia I have ever felt has been for Sicily, reading Verga. Not for England or anywhere else – for Sicily, the beautiful, that which goes deepest into the blood. It is so clear, so beautiful, so like the physical beauty of the Greek!’ Elsewhere he described Verga as ‘the only Italian who does interest me’ and ‘extraordinarily good’ and that ‘Poor old Verga went and died when I was about to meet him in Catania’; Letters of D.H. Lawrence, IV, pp. 109-110 and 186; cf. E. Chaney, ‘British and American Travellers in Sicily…’, The Evolution of the Grand Tour, 2nd ed. (London, 2000), pp. 1-40.
- Both Verga‘s I Malavoglia and Lampedusa‘s Gattopardo were transformed into films by Luchino Visconti, who also created a film out of D’Annunzio’s L’Innocente, unfashionably admired by Lampedusa. Although I don’t remember Gerald referring to Lampedusa, he would certainly have been all too conscious of the 1958 posthumous publication of the Gattopardo and its 1963 translation, which coincided with the release (in both Italian and English) of Visconti’s film.
- Cf. Lampedusa’s aphorism: ‘Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi.’ (‘If we want everything to stay the same as it is, everything will have to change.’) with Ebenezer’s ‘things got to change … but they ought to change so as you don’t notice.’; Ebenezer Le Page, p. 167.
- Though Gioacchino’s father was Lampedusa’s second cousin, they only became acquainted in 1952, five years before the latter died; see G.L. Tomasi, A Biography through Images, p. 79; cf. alainelkanninterviews.com/lanza-tomasi/; cf. the wonderful interview with him at NYU: www.youtube.com/watch?v=J50cWxwK2n4. For both Lampedusa and Gerald predicting problems for the marriages of their fictionalised protégés, see below, p. 322.
- See for this, and his admiration for Freud, Tomasi, Biography, pp. 75 and 122.
- La Sirena, introduction by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (Milan, 2014), newly translated by Stephen Twilley for Gerald’s American publisher, NYRB, as The Professor and the Siren, introduction by Marina Warner (New York, 2014).
- One of the reasons for the lack of official enthusiasm for, or promotion of, the greatest work of art by a native Guernseyman, not least on the part of the Guernsey Tourist Board (see the Ebenezer-less, two-page spreads in the Sunday supplements), may be statements such as that which Gerald included in his preface-turned-appendix to the novel, ‘Guernsey English’: ‘Tourism is an incubus that saps the natural and spiritual vitality of the island’. For the argument that Sicily might even benefit from tourism were it more judiciously distributed, from Cefalu and Taormina (whose ‘parterre of English weeds’ was already critiqued by D.H. Lawrence), to Palermo, Messina and Catania, see Chaney, ‘British and American Travellers in Sicily…’, pp. 39-40.
- For Gerald on Ebenezer’s ‘tone of tragi-comic irony’, see below, p. 320.
- Ebenezer Le Page, p. 140.
- Ebenezer Le Page, p. 57. Poignantly, the mere title of a poem, entitled: ‘Sailing Down The Russell’, survives among Gerald’s manuscripts.
- Ebenezer Le Page, pp. 171-72.
- The Professor and the Siren, ed. cit., p. 11; cf. the original La Sirena, republished this year by Feltrinelli with a CD of Gioacchino Tomasi‘s precious recording of Lampedusa reading the story in February 1957, a few months before he died. I greatly regret not recording Gerald reading at least a part of Ebenezer Le Page, though in 2012 I managed to persuade AudioGo (now Audible) to record Roy Dotrice reading the entire book after the BBC failed to locate his original, abridged ‘Woman’s Hour’ reading.
- Ebenezer Le Page, p. 17.
- See his letter of 8 July 1975 when he silently references Shelley and states ‘I am not a Romantic’; below, p. 295.
- Ebenezer Le Page, p. 123.
- Ebenezer Le Page, p. 286. This might even be a parody of the Hugo episode though at the time Ebenezer is close to starving due to the German occupation; cf. Peter Goodall, ‘The Book of Ebenezer Le Page: Guernsey and the Channel Islands in the 20th Century’, The 2nd International Small Island Cultures Conference, Norfolk Island Museum ed. H. Johnson, 9-13 February 2006, pp. 54-60.
- For Gerald on Solzhenitsyn see below, p. 257.
- For this and other comparisons with Hugo, see the articles by Peter Goodall, culminating in ‘”The Rock whence ye are hewn”.’ Ebenezer’s own name is derived from the Hebrew for stone.