When my two dearest work friends and I talked personalities – quirks, bizarre habits, personal histories, betrayals, creepiness, whatever we knew of those around us, we were not gossiping. We were researching human interactions in contexts – and studying the many fluctuations of the human heart.
That description was tongue-in-cheek of course, but I as a one-time journalist and story reader I have often had trouble distinguishing gossip with tale telling. The former makes me feel guilty; the latter entranced. There are those I know not to listen to. When rumors are false or unfounded, I distrust. When gossip is preceded by words like idle and malicious, I know it isn’t something nice people do.
I so want to think of myself as a nice person.
But ….. I also love a good story. As did my friends – journalists at a small town newspaper. Sometimes the stories reporters covered seemed just one step above gossip – such as the church treasurer who got caught embezzling. She was apparently bullied into lending huge sums to her son to finance a not-lavish, but beyond-his-means lifestyle. Her story had good elements: a tragic fall from grace, all the more complex because she had a long-standing reputation for piety and devotion to her church.
To be a really good storyteller you have to tell the juicy parts – and you have to paint those who are manipulative, compromised, crooked, sleezy, self-serving or evil as decidedly so. In first person, it also helps to have a strong voice – replete with attitude.
Fiction offers the reader the protection of knowing that you are not listening in on the tawdry lives of real people. But, ironically, the better the fiction, the more real they seem. Some of my favorite fiction has gossipy elements to it. Nick Caraway’s narration of The Great Gatsby always struck me that way. And most recently, the first-person narrative of The Book of Ebenezer LePage brilliantly straddles the line between gossip and great story. I could listen to Ebenezer all day long as he relates his life story from the late 1800s to the early 1960s on the island of Guernsey.
LePage sorts family, friends, neighbors and chance acquaintances. He’s often quite judgmental and not very nice. But what a heart! His friendships are passionate; his love story complicated. Call him mischievous, crotchety, curmudgeonly; he’s also generous, loyal, and entertaining. He tells tales on himself as much as on those most important in his life.
Both gossip and good stories provoke the questions of why and the who are the audience as in why are you telling me this and who needs to know?
And while it may seem that his life well lived is recorded only for us, the book’s end reveals that LePage has told his story to exactly those who need to know it most. We merely go along for the ride and listen in to this charmed tale.
The Book of Ebenezer LePage was originally published in the 1980s, and has been republished, most recently by New York Review Book Classics in 2007. It has been cited by critics as one of the best books of the 20th century and was included by Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. It is the only book by G. B. Edwards, a Guernsey native and an old man himself at the time of its publishing.
I had never heard of The Book of Ebenezer LePage until a month or so ago when my sister-in-law named it as one of those books that’s so wonderful it leaves you with an afterglow -- feeling warmed and charmed.
I’m still glowing.