The Travel Writer's Travel Writer
|By Roderick Conway Morris|
SAINT-MALO, France 6 September 1994
Described by Graham Greene as 'one of the best writers of the century', Norman Lewis prefers to characterize himself as 'probably the only person you've met with the ability to enter a crowded room, remain there for half an hour, and depart without anybody knowing I've been there.'
Lewis's life has spanned almost the entire century, during which he has produced a series of outstanding travel books, ranging from classic accounts of Indochina on the eve of the Vietnam War - 'A Dragon Apparent' and 'Golden Earth' - to an expose of the Sicilian Mafia, 'The Honored Society', an almost hallucinatory narrative of his Italian wartime experiences, 'Naples' 44', and a lyrical memoir of life among the fishermen of a remote Spanish village, 'Voices of the Old Sea', - and 13 novels, plowing an idiosyncratic but fertile furrow, and winning a steady following all over the globe.
'I like always to be in the background, to watch people and observe surroundings - and the lack of anything dramatic in my personality and appearance has stood me in good stead,' said Lewis, who, despite a natural reserve is splendid company and a fund of extraordinary tales, which he tends to begin with a discreet cough and an innocuous 'Curiously enough ... '
His literary style is at one with the man: brilliant but subtle and unostentatious, his works full of sharp, often startling observations and insights. ('Mr. Lewis', remarked the critic Cyril Connolly of one his early books, 'can make even a lorry interesting'), shot through with an inimitable brand of humane, sometimes wildly funny, humor.
Lewis was in Saint-Malo at the annual Etonnants Voyageurs (Amazing Travelers) literary festival to receive this year's Prix de l'Astrolabe for his oeuvre in general and, in particular, his novel 'Torre del Mar,' published in 1955 as 'The Day of the Fox,' which has just been issued in France, where Lewis's writings are beginning to find an audience.
The award was presented on the eve of publication in Britain of 'I Came, I Saw', an expanded and enriched version of the first volume of his autobiography (first out a decade ago under the title 'Jackdaw Cake').
He was born in 1908 in Enfield, then a village on the northern edge of London, to strikingly eccentric Welsh parents whose enthusiasm for spiritualism he did not share. Lewis emerged from the local school into the gloom of the Great Depression, and with another disconsolate school friend (who 'had set his sights on becoming an airship designer, then jettisoning the idea owing to the state of the world' had philosophically accepted 'employment at the Sewage Farm in Ponders End'), Lewis began to ask himself 'if in fact we really existed or whether what we took to be life could not be a complex illusion, and endless, low-quality, dream.'
And yet, as Lewis relates in 'I Came, I Saw', 'the experience of these years fostered resilience - possibly even, of necessity, a sense of adventure.' Revealing early his talent for falling into bizarre and entertaining company, Lewis presently became friendly with a flamboyant group of Central Asian refugees fleeing Stalin's terror, who had pitched their tents in the enormous rooms of the rundown Victorian lodgings they had rented, drank 'a home-brewed Russian beer laced with methylated spirits, smoked yellow cigarettes with Cyrillic lettering on them, spent their money on fireworks and kept the street awake with their all-night parties, at which they let off rockets, beat tambourines and wept.'
Having saved enough doing odd jobs, including working as a wedding photographer, in his mid-20s Lewis managed a trip to southern Arabia. 'I took a lot of photographs of a kind that were unusual in those days,' he said, 'and, to my absolute amazement, I made a book of them. The return, in terms of money, wasn't more than £20. But it started me off on being able to travel and more or less pay for it.'
Consistent with the unpredictable progress of Lewis's career, his marriage in the late '30s to his first wife. Ernestina, gave Lewis an entree to a Bloomsbury as different from that of the eponymous literary coterie as can possibly be imagined. Ernestina's Sicilian parents had decamped from New York on the first possible steamer, leaving behind all their possessions after a Mafia attempt to assassinate her father (which he escaped with only his hat being blown off).
Lewis moved in with the family in Gordon Street, soon to discover that his mother-in-law packed a pistol in her handbag, and her husband kept 'an imposing snub-nosed (and loaded) revolver' in the top drawer of his desk. Thus it was - as Lewis reveals for the first time in his autobiography - that he received his fortuitous introduction to Sicilian society, and uniquely privileged glimpses of the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra, which in due course gave rise to his still-gripping 'The Honored Society.'
Though never thinking of himself as a man with a mission, Lewis writings have sometimes been highly influential. 'When I first started traveling I wanted to see the world and to have adventures. But later I saw a lot of atrocious things in South America. What I saw in those days obviously changed me and I became more committed to rectifying wrongs. I wrote a very long article in the Sunday Times on the systematic elimination of the Indians in Brazil. This led to the founding of Survival International, changes in Brazilian law, and a lot was achieved.
'It was said then that there would be no Indians left in Brazil by the year 2000, but we were at least successful in slowing down this incredibly rapid decimation of their numbers, and a reasonable percentage is still there,' he said. He added, however, that the long-term outlook was pessimistic in the face of the vast commercial interests that threaten to reduce indigenous peoples in many parts of the world to a life of 'semislave labor for large corporations.'
Between journeys, Lewis lives with his family in 'introspective, almost monastic calm in the depths of Essex,' in an old parsonage with a large garden that serves as a kind of local nature reserve (and refuge for foxes). He has had what he calls 'several goes' at settling abroad, all of which have failed.
'On one occasion we tried to live near Rome. But there were numerous small things against it. It was very, very enjoyable. But, for example, the children were sent to an international school, and just before we went there, Getty's grandson had been kidnapped and they cut his ear off. We lived in a charming small village, in the annex of a palazzo with Etruscan tombs all round the garden. But the inhabitants had some terrifically bad habits. There was a wonderful river running through the garden, and then on into the village. The trouble was that everybody used to dump their rubbish in it. There was a marvelous ancient bridge - and one day some locals turned up with an old Fiat van, and three or four men just tipped it into the river. It was obviously going to stay there for ever among the rocks. By then, I'd really had enough. After that we made another failed attempt to settle in Tangiers - a very great mistake. And so we found ourselves back in Essex, which is lamentable in a way, but something I know how to cope with at least.'
Lewis's stamina both as a writer and a traveler remain prodigious, but he admits that he may at last have to slow down. 'I recently made three trips to New Guinea, and I felt fearfully exhausted. On the last one coming back we had 35 hours of misery traveling by plane, having lived at a very high altitude without really suitable food - so we were already weakened before the journey started.' On this trip Lewis was accompanied by his great friend and collaborator, the photographer Don McCullin, who though a considerably younger man was by the end, said Lewis, 'feeling pretty ropey too.'
'So yes, to some extent I shall perhaps have to cut down on some of those really terrible journeys. But I've no doubt if there's anything that really interests me in a fairly nearby situation, like South America, I shall go there.'
First published: International Herald Tribune
© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023