by Sarah Anderson, published in the Independent, July 2003
There are few writers who produce elegant, witty and perfectly-pitched prose and yet remain unknown outside a small but devoted band of admirers. Norman Lewis was one. Lewis loved the craft of writing and wrote about 700 words in cramped longhand every day; words which were then deciphered and transcribed by his wife and which eventually became one of his travel books or novels.
But despite being called ‘one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century,’ by Graham Greene and ‘the best travel writer of our age’ by Auberon Waugh, in his lifetime Lewis never crossed that ‘mysterious barrier separating the admired from the famous.’ No doubt because he was never part of any literary elite; he was very much his own person, saying exactly what he thought and hating any kind of pretension.
He was born in London in 1908; his father, an eccentric overly-qualified Welsh chemist who became a spiritualist medium, sent him to live with his mad aunts in Wales when he was nine, to assuage his grandfather’s ambition to make a Welshman of him. His time there is brilliantly described in his autobiography I Came, I Saw (1994), originally published as Jackdaw Cake (1985).
He was educated at Enfield Grammar School and began to earn his living filling bottles with his father’s Elixir, a harmless concoction of water and garlic, which Lewis senior sold to his customers with great success. Lewis had always wanted to be a writer; he won many consolation prizes from literary magazine competitions, but early on he grasped that as writers are badly paid, setting up a business would help him achieve his aim of both writing and travelling. Although he was not interested in business he had a canny flair for it, and saw the potential of amateur photography; he began by buying and selling Leica cameras and eventually created a chain of camera shops.
Armed with income from these he went on his first major journey to Arabia: ‘Travel came before writing…when I began to write it was probably at least in part, in an attempt to imprison some essence of the experiences.’ His first book Sand and Sea in Arabia was published in 1938. Naples ’44 (1978). While he was in Naples he became fascinated by the Mafia and the Neapolitan Camorra (his first wife Ernestina Corvaja was Sicilian); he spent months researching them in both Sicily and Naples, but characteristically did not feel frightened. He was always respectful to people, and this combined with a genuine curiosity about human nature and an ability to be invisible in difficult situations would have helped his safety.
His friend S.J. Perelman, an early admirer, devised an elaborate plan whereby Lewis would show his Mafia manuscript to William Shawn, the notoriously shy editor of the New Yorker.
Shawn published the whole of what later became the book The Honoured Society(1964) in the magazine where it came to the attention of Ian Fleming who commissioned him to go to Cuba for The Sunday Times.
In 1946 he got divorced, having not seen his wife for six years, and went to live in Wales. In 1947 he moved to Farol in Northeast Spain; Voices of the Old Sea about his time there was not published until 1984, but in true Lewis fashion, which included almost perfect recall, it is a vivid masterpiece. In 1950 he spent three months in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam; he went determined to write a book as he was convinced that the communist takeover in China heralded irreversible change in Indo-China.
A Dragon Apparent which was immediately successful was published in 1951 followed by Golden Earth about Burma in 1952. After this he found that he had ‘picked up the habit of travel and that it had become an almost indispensable stimulant.’
In 1968 Lewis noticed a small item in a newspaper suggesting that entire tribes of Indians were being massacred in Brazil. He went to investigate and the whole of his 12,000 word article, which he considered the most worthwhile of all his endeavours, was published in The Sunday TimesMagazine. The article, which became the catalyst for the foundation of Survival International, caused a furore and Lewis said ‘It is the only thing I have done that has actually changed anything.’ Another influential piece of journalism was the article he wrote for the Observer Magazine
in 1979 about the burning and destruction of the Amazon rain forest. His visits to South America left him with an abiding hatred of missionaries which he turned into a book The Missionaries (1988).
His love of travel never stopped even though he wrote ‘I cannot think of any single place that I have written about that did not appear to have gone down hill – sometimes disastrously so – on a subsequent visit.’ Goddess in the Stones (about India) was published in 1991 and An Empire of the East: Travels in Indonesia in 1993.
The photographer Don McCullin who travelled with him to South America, Irian Jaya, Central America and Sicily said that it was always a privilege to be in his company and that he would have ‘walked to the end of the world for Norman.’ Being in his company was instructive and fun (he could be very witty and was an inveterate story-teller). He had the quality of getting under people’s skins without ever being judgemental, and with his rather anonymous looks he could stay in the background as an observer without being seen as a threat.
Most of Lewis’s journeys also spawned novels: Samara (1949), The Day of the Fox (1955), The Volcanoes Above Us (1957) and The Sicilian Specialist (1974) are a few of the fourteen or so that he wrote, but he will be better remembered for his non-fiction. His travel books bubble with their magic and their metaphors; and with his kindly, if mocking eye, he had the ability, according to Cyril Connolly, to ‘make even a lorry interesting.’ It was largely due to the enterprising small publisher Eland that some of his travel books which had been out of print for many years were reissued in the early eighties ensuring that at least his fans could continue to read him.
Lewis was full of surprises and hidden interests; in his youth he had owned a Bugatti which he had raced at Brooklands. He attributed his long and active life to drinking a bottle of wine a day and eating a lot of garlic. He said that for his writing style, he had learned much from the Authorised Version of the Bible and that as a boy, he had been influenced by the Russian classics which he had been forced to read since all the ‘new and exciting’ books were always out of his local library. As an adult he found modern thrillers unreadable, preferring to read the classics, especially Herodotus and Suetonius in translation. When he was not travelling Lewis lived modestly in rural Essex, with his Australian wife Lesley, where he was a keen amateur botanist, collector of rare plants and bird-watcher. His latest book The Tomb in Seville, an account of his journey in 1934 to visit the Corvaja family tomb in Seville, is due to be published this autumn.
Norman Lewis, writer: born London 28 June 1908; three times married (three sons, three daughters); died Saffron Walden, Essex 22 July 2003