All books published posthumously come to us shrink-wrapped in heartache, from a voice we know has already been extinguished. There is more sadness still in a subgroup of this category: books that come from manuscripts abandoned during wartime or hidden for safekeeping and discovered when the fighting is over, when the text is all that's left of the author.
A brief list of such books: The Diary of Anne Frank, Irene Nemirovsky Suite Francaise, Charlotte Salomon's autobiographical notebook-size gouaches with text, 769 individual pages, that she called Life? Or Theater? The last is not a book in the old-fashioned sense -- its pages are exhibited in museums and Salomon arranged them as acts in a play -- but I'm comfortable thinking of it as an early graphic novel. It tells the story of a gifted young artist in Berlin whose Jewish parents sent her to live with relatives in France before the Occupation, certain she would be safe there. It was only when they went to find her in 1947 that they learned she had died at Auschwitz -- and left a carton containing an illustrated account of her life, including her harrowing final years in a world gone mad. "Keep this safe," she had told a friend. "It is my whole life."
The story of J.B. Edwards' posthumous and only novel, The Book of Ebenezer LePage, is less dramatic but heartbreaking in its own distinctive way. "There may have been stranger recent literary events than the book you are about to read," writes John Fowles in the essential introduction to the book, first published in the UK and the US in 1981, "but I rather doubt it."
Edwards' biography is sketchy, deliberately so; over the years he burned all but the few documents that would be necessary after his death. What's important to know is that he was born on Guernsey in 1899, one of the two larger Channel Islands; that he left the island permanently in about 1926 for London, having been disinherited by his father and so losing the family house; that he had a wife and four children in London whom he abandoned when they were young and had virtually nothing to do with for the rest of his life; and that he spent his last five years in a rooming house just outside Weymouth, writing and rewriting this novel whose every line burns with love and longing for Guernsey -- the remote, unsullied island of his youth, not the tourist destination and tax haven it became.
In the mid-1970s, he tried without success to get it published. A story that seemed this old-fashioned didn't have a chance at that time, proving his point precisely: things really were better back in the day.
Weymouth, though it is 70 miles across the Channel from Guernsey, is the coastal town closest to it, and the closest Edwards could get once he lost his father's house and once Guernsey became so expensive that he could not survive there on his modest pension from working as a civil servant. In his last years, Edwards befriended a couple who encouraged him and edited his work, and to whom the book is dedicated. When he died in 1976, they helped get the manuscript to John Fowles, who helped bring it to light.
I say all of this because a book this odd needs an introduction and a context, and because the torment and longing that are evident in Edwards' skeletal biography are some of what give the narrator, Ebenezer LePage, his inimitable voice, and what give the book its breathtaking emotional heft, though Ebenezer's biography is quite different from his creator's. Part of Edwards' brilliance and the book's walloping power are that it is not what it seems to be, a quaint, chatty, meandering, provincial novel written, of all things, in a charming patois. It has those characteristics, but it is ultimately none of those things, and it is also, we learn in the end, a carefully structured book within a book. It is much more "modern" than the trendy editors who turned it down in the 1970s wanted to see at the time.
But one can understand their reluctance. The story doesn't sound like much, especially to city folks and ironists: Lifetime islander, tomato farmer and sometime fisherman Ebenezer LePage's personal history of Guernsey, from 1890 to 1970. Guernsey is famous for four things: its natural beauty; its being home to Victor Hugo during the fifteen years of his exile; its having been the only British Isle to be invaded and occupied by the Germans, from 1940 to 1945; and because its current laws make it a great place for tax free shopping and for hiding more serious money from the tax man, a tawdry turn of events that mightily displeased Ebenezer LePage. As Fowles puts it: "This inability to forget the old, this querulousness over the new, is what makes Ebenezer LePage such a convincing portrayal of a much more universal mentality than the matter of the book might at first suggest."
Writing in exile, in monastic circumstances, alienated from his grown children, and successful at destroying the evidence of his actual history, Edwards creates a narrator with none of that baggage, but nevertheless a man who knows all there is to know about the art of losing. Ebenezer never married, never abandoned a family, was never disinherited, and never had to remember Guersney from a rooming house across the Channel. For the author, Ebenezer is a fantastic effort of wishful thinking and a voice through which to write this complicated love letter to the past.
Ebenezer is an inveterate kvetcher, but he also loves what he loves to pieces. His voice has music in it, and wonder, joy, wisdom, irony, rage, and deep sadness about time passing and life and love slipping from our hands the way they always do.
I have never read a book that made me cry as this one does -- not at the conclusion or when a special character dies, but for pages on end, here and there and there and there. I can't even read the opening lines with tearing up, but I have no idea if it's because I know what will follow (Ebenezer's friend Jim will die, the Germans will come, the tourists will descend, it will no longer be the perfect place it once was), or because there is something truly tearful in them (Sarnia, by the way, is Guernsey in Latin): "Guernsey, Guernesey, Garnsai, Sarnia: so they say. Well, I don't know, I'm sure. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I know I don't know nothing, me. I am the oldest on the island, I think. Liza Queripel from Pleinmont say she is older; but I reckon she is putting it on. When she was a young woman, she used to have a birthday once every two or three years; but for years now she have been having two or three a year."
I would like nothing better than to quote more delicious passages from the book, but there are so many I have underlined and they are so interconnected, I don't know where to start and do any of them justice. And I'm certain I would end up in tears. Instead, a few more facts: In its wonderful new program to give new life to old books, The New York Review of Books just reprinted Ebenezer LePage, along with the Fowles essay. And none other than Harold Bloom chose it for inclusion in his Western Canon. So read it if you're a canonista, or just read it because it's wonderful.
But before you do, help spread the word: What are your favorite under-appreciated books?
This essay first appeared in Tin House
Elizabeth Benedict's most recent book is Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. A free copy of her essay, "What I Learned About Sex on the Internet," can be requested here.