Memories of a genius friend
John Stewart Collis
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page G. B. Ed- wards, introduced by John Fowles (Penguin Books £1.95) 'That Elizabeth Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.
& that I be not buried in consecrated ground.
& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell. & that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
& that no mourners walk behind me at my funeral.
& that no flowers be planted on my grave. & that no man remember me.
To this I put my name.' — Michael Henchard.
Strong words, those, by the Mayor of Casterbridge. They come to my mind now as I contemplate the fate of G. B. Edwards, the author of The Book of Ebenezer le Page. He died in 1976 at the age of 77. He had been rejected by publishers for 50 Years. This, his only publication, was not brought out until five years after his death When the Arts Council financed and assisted a firm to take it on. He had been re- jected by the world, and dying without the flicker of renown, he rejected it. And Posterity to boot. Every scrap of evidence about himself which he could lay hold of, he destroyed — save his birth certificate. That no man remember me.
The hard-back edition of Ebenezer did not create a great popular response as far as I could see; but the words of John Fowles sank in — 'There may have been stranger literary events than the book you are about to read, but I doubt it' — and Penguin, sen- sing its worth, have given it the kind of advertising prominence one generally associates with best-sellers such as Frederick Forsyth or Jack Higgins. It hap- pens that judgments such as 'to read it is riot like reading but living', or 'the achieve- ment is so intense that the reader is rendered speechless,' so far from being ex- aggerated are actually under-statements. It would be easy to miss the significance of the book — an unlettered fisherman reminisc- ing about Guernsey. It turns out to be a mirror held up to an island so that you see all the relationships; more than that, it stands for every island anywhere; more than that, it mirrors all mankind. The sup- Posed provincialism becomes a universal Picture, and the supposed simple gardener- fisherman becomes a narrator of genius With material so rich and extraordinary that we frequently have to put the book down exhausted, only to feel so deprived that we soon take it up again. John Fowles's in- troduction is good; but as I kept turning to it while reading the book, I kept longing for him to come to the chief point. He tells us about the theme which is nothing less than what has happened to civilisation during the last 100 years. True; more or less. But that wouldn't necessarily be a good book. Mr Fowles does come to the point at last in a rather casual manner. He speaks of the author's technique; how, by virtue of an in- tensely colloquial speech, he is able 'to carry us through with him, at times to the point when we no longer care how inconse- quential or digressive the story becomes, as long as that voice is still speaking. I can think of very few novels where this extreme- ly difficult device, of the prolonged reminiscence, is worked so well.' Yes in- deed: technique is genius. For technique also is inspiration. As long as that voice is still speaking. Yes, that's the point. And the book must be read by the reader, not to him — through another voice.
John Fowles, in his introduction, is able to give us a few more facts about the author than just his, birth certificate. We are told that he left Guernsey in his twenties and went to England and worked at Toynbee Hall for the WEA. He married and separated. He became a civil servant. He retired. He wandered. Finally he became a recluse at Upwey near Weymouth. Though a literary genius he appears to have had no intimate literary friends.
In this last Mr Fowles is mistaken. Two men knew him intimately for several years — namely, Stephen Potter and myself. We met frequently at my flat in Guilford Street, Bloomsbury, at Toynbee Hall, and at the British Museum Reading Room. We called him GB — never Edwards or Gerald. We were nothings and nobodies; but we fully expected to conquer the world (and perhaps some lunar ones as well) if not tomorrow, then the next day. It was 20 years before Potter struck gold with Gamesmanship, and 20 before I saw some glimmer of light at the end of my tunnel. For GB there was to be no light. To me the present blaze of publicity about The Book of Ebenezer le Page is sorrowful beyond description. For, as Carlyle said, a man to be recognised by posterity though neglected during his lifetime, is to add insult to injury.
To Stephen Potter and myself he seemed always a genius. He was the most dynamic person we had ever met. To be dynamic May mean no more than fully alive: but he had something to say, he spoke from an in- ner centre, as one having authority and not as the scribes and the pharisees. He had dark hair, a good forehead, marvellous teeth, very brilliant eyes shining with in- telligence and warmth — but a sloppy in- determinate mouth. He reacted to life almost with an animal's lack of calculation. He was really affected by people he met, and made little attempt to conceal his ver- sion of their character. Introducing him to someone was like conducting a chemical ex- periment. If he found the person alien to his taste, say an intellectual sophisticate, he would be unable or unwilling to conceal his reaction. He would ,grow pale. He would not only lower his eyes but his whole head, slanting his face away from the person. He might not say anything at all, only bow his head still lower. He had a flair, like D. H. Lawrence, for spotting what was wrong with other people. Some people shirked meeting him for fear of his insight into their defective interiors. But he was really all warmth and concern, and friendship was a life-need for him. Stephen Potter and myself were close friends of his for several years, though he was difficult, for one never knew when he might take offence. But in spite of rows we always thought of him as 'our genius friend.'
In what way did we see him as a genius? Not in anything he wrote, for, like us, he was not writing well. It was what he said — his angle of approach. He was much in- fluenced by D. H. Lawrence. I would not say he was derivative in anything he said, but he derived support from Lawrence in ' his feeling that modern civilisation was un- civilising masses of people. He was just as much enthralled by Walt Whitman, Ed- ward Carpenter, Blake, and Nietsche's Zarathustra. One of the charms of discus--j sion with him was his way of reaching for a book at the right moment and quoting. Thus from Whitman — 'There can never be any more perfection than there is now' or 'A mouse is enough to stagger sextillions of infidels'. Or from Carpenter — 'Have faith. If that which rules the universe were alien to your soul, then nothing could mend your state — there were nothing left but to fold your hands and be damned everlasting- ly'. Or from Blake — 'I give you the end of a golden string: only wind it into a ball, and it will lead you in at Heaven's gate built in Jerusalem's wall'. He often spoke at great length and lucidity, but I liked best our... short exchanges. I would say — 'Don't you find that anything you want and expect to happen can be counted upon as definitely not going to happen?' He would say — 'It cannot happen. And therein lies our great good fortune'. I would say — 'I don't like the way scientists think they have explained things when they have only described them — and the weaker brethren then think they have been "explained away" '. He would say — 'If the universe were explained we would go mad'. I would say — 'Since beau- ty is so obviously a sign of divine assurance it is a wonder the Churchmen don't make more of it'. 'It would undercut their whole show,' he said. He liked using the word 'undercut'.
Sometimes I would tempt him into an ex- aggeration of his own manner. 'What do, you think of that woman?' She is not really; feminine, she is only a female', `I hear you:,- saw The Plough and the Stars."Y es, but it' did not move me. I'm afraid O'Casey is on- ly a playwright. Besides, wars are less the cause of tragedy than vice versa. And he is Irish before he is human. And he is humanitarian before he is true. But perhaps my criticism is not worth much as I couldn't understand the language'. We both laugh- ed, and his laugh was very infectious. 'How about R. H. Tawney?"A definitely harm- ful man. Some of the things he says are fine, but they contradict the rest'. 'Bertrand Russell?' He is much worse. He does harm to the people who matter. Beaverbrook to those who don't.' How about G. D. H. Cole?' A peculiarly futile sort of man. His terrific output is laziness — no, evasiveness'. 'But they are all courageous men'. `No. They are merely parasitic upon their own ideas'. 'You wouldn't say that Shaw was parasitic upon his religion of Creative Evolution?' No.' Edwards always admired Shaw's power, as he put it. `No. He invented creative evolution to account for his inner sense of purpose'.
These were his happiest days, I think. He was being admired, and feared, by lots of people, including Middleton Murry to whom I had introduced him. Stephen Pot- ter, Edwards and myself thought Murry a fascinating personality, very learned and gifted, and a great force. We knew his faults, but we did not know that he had been cast in the role of villain and charlatan by various luminaries who would certainly have regarded the three of us very much de haut en bas.
These were the years of Edwards's Great Expectations, the norm of most young writers at a certain period. He had always several works in hand. 'A book of essays,' I quote from his correspondence with me, 'a book of poems, a book of stories. In each case to be published separately before together. I have sent Murry a copy of Margaret and received a letter from him of- fering to help me by giving me £10 at once if I'd write some articleg for The Adelphi. It was a most friendly letter. I accepted, of course, and last week got the cheque.' And, in another context, 'Millstones is finished, at least the dialogue. I am now occupied re- writing it and putting in stage directions. It is a very masculine production. It doesn't touch the teaching of females by females. Also I think you had better warn any of your women students who are weak minded (probably 7/8 of them) that if they come they come at their own risk. Please try to collect some men'.
So his spirits were high, though little came of these projects. His mother had just died, and he hoped for help from his father and ultimately the family inheritance in Guernsey. But he did not go and see his father and soften him up, he allowed the housekeeper to marry him and inherit the property. He feared that she would poison him if he went to stay with his father. So his finances were low. But, to use a singular phrase, he was still single — no need to halve himself by marriage. He once said to me that when a man marries he becomes alone for the rest of his life — which
Ebenezer also says. But in 1928 he appeared on my doorstep in Guilford Street with a wife who looked like Alice in Alice in Wonderland.
They had a son whom they called Adam, and a daughter whom they called Eve. Then two more children. They lived in frightful qualor. 'It is an achievement to keep alive,' he would say to me over and over again. An achievement for the children too, I thought. 'Aren't we responsible for children we bring into the world?' I asked. He did not hedge. 'Yes we are. But we must not spare ourselves the harder truth — that every living creature who ever was, is, or shall be on earth, always was, is, and shall be there on its own responsibility.' By 1933 the marriage had come to an end. And Alice had such a way with her that I think she always managed to get rich people to take over the children.
My relations with him became strained on the literary front. 'I have just burnt some of my MSS' he would say, 'including The Idea of Ideas, perhaps my best work'. I thought this silly and pompous. 'Here are five poems' he wrote, 'which I enclose for the good of your soul'. I thought they were flat, and replied that they interested me but did not move me much. And I said something about lacking 'magic of phrase'. This brought me a 20-page letter on my own shortcomings. 'It is not my inadequate little poems that are at fault, John. Forgive me for saying so, but for you to appreciate those poems you must first know the same Lord. On reading them you feel that you do not or cannot or will not acknowledge the same Lord as I do — so you are hurt and hit back'. And much more in the same vein. Then — 'Oh, John when you start talking magic of phrase at me I fear for you! We don't read books for their tone or their rhythm or their magic of phrase — but as Human Documents ' I now think that he was right to be annoyed, for he was eventually to be the author of Ebenezer le Page. In Ebenezer there is no magic of phrase: the whole thing is so intensely magical an evocation that 'the reader Is rendered speechless'.
The war came and scattered us. In the late Fifties he got in touch with Stephen Potter. Stephen returned from the meeting with a glowing account of how GB was just as marvellous as ever, 'a supreme mind'. But he had been given no MS. Edwards had not yet found his frame. When he did find Ebenezer he planned a trilogy. But the book was turned down by publisher after publisher till he died of discouragement. He did not die of a heart-attack. He died of the killing cancer of rejection. Had Ebenezer been accepted and acclaimed he would not have died, he would have written the trilogY and become one of the immortals. I could have said to him — Give me Ebenezer rather than Ulysses; give me Ebenezer before any novel by Lawrence; and I would have said, though only he would have understood my meaning — it is a sort of Leaves of Grass.
I hope no author has enjoyed this article.
I hope no talented writer, neglected and abandoned, derives comfort from it. I hope no genius with a pathological hatred of Publishers is consoled by it. For the story is too awful. It is unbearable. To me it is sor- rowful beyond measure.