Semi-Invisible Man: the Life of Norman Lewis

paperback01Reviews of the first UK edition

“Norman Lewis is one of the great unsung literary heroes of the 20th century…. It is not easy producing the biography of a man who spent most of his life writing so well about his own adventures. Yet Evans has succeeded… he has produced not only a hugely enjoyable and engaging portrait but also an affectionate one. Evans proves Lewis’s integrity – that the values in his writing were no affectation”
Philip Marsden, Sunday Times

“Semi-Invisible Man is a magnificent book, not only for its meticulous, spirited and colourful depiction of Lewis and his work (it could hardly fail to be vibrant, given Lewis’s lust for excitement), but also for Evans’s stimulating and highly welcome meditations throughout on the nature of biography, the need for stories and, ultimately, on our relationship with truth itself… a triumph in almost every regard”
Jason Webster, New Statesman

“It is a wonderful book, almost as intelligent, stimulating and gripping as its subject. Julian Evans was Lewis’s friend and sometime editor, and he has made deeply thoughtful use of the archive, from letters to unpublished typescripts and waterstained notebooks stretching back over six decades…. Semi-Invisible Man reads in parts like the best kind of social history…. Evans has, to a certain extent, written a book about the turbid relationship between life and art”
Sara Wheeler, Guardian

“Few biographers can have faced a more demanding task. Absolutely nothing about Lewis was dull or ordinary…. I doubt if anyone else could have rolled such a boulder to the top of this truly Sisyphean hill”
Jan Morris, Financial Times

“In Julian Evans’s depiction of the Havana scene in Semi-Invisible Man [when Lewis met Hemingway], we begin to understand the force of Hemingway’s decline and its effect on Lewis’s own persona…. This is precisely what is achieved by the most effective biographies, where material is first found, then edited, and ultimately transmogrified, at once properly fastened to its several contexts and brought to life by the synthesising intelligence of the biographer”
Andrew O’Hagan, London Review of Books

“All-seeing…. He comes not to bury Lewis but to praise him or, rather, to give him his complex due…. Lewis’s admirers can be grateful that his reputation has been entrusted to such a nuanced sleuth”
Stephen Smith, Observer

“Perhaps the true measure of Lewis’s greatness was that he did not allow himself to be embittered [by his lack of fame]…. And he has now been rewarded with a profound and stimulating biography which will probably ensure the continuing appreciation of his works long after some of the unjustly famous writers of today have been forgotten”
Michael Jacobs, Independent

“An excellent literary biography about one of the truly outstanding writers of our time – a man described frequently as a travel writer but who defies categorisation…. Semi-Invisible Man is a sensitive and perceptive record of a very difficult subject and deserves every success”
Patrick Marnham, Daily Mail

“The Lewis that emerges from his preferred shadow is impressive for his three-dimensionality… Evans handles Lewis’s dark side and contradictions very well”
Nicholas Shakespeare, Daily Telegraph

“Julian Evans, in Semi-Invisible Man, offers a matchless biography of a writer… overwhelmingly, an exemplary life-story”
Ian Thomson, Sunday Telegraph

“meticulously researched… he has produced an impressive, illuminating book, notably free of point-scoring or a desire to posthumously undermine his subject’s achievement. He handles Lewis’s shortcomings… with a combination of clear-sightedness and delicacy”
Helen Meany, Irish Times

“Semi-Invisible Man is generous, thoroughly researched, full of valuable insights… this often moving account tells us what Lewis didn’t”
Jeremy Treglown, Times Literary Supplement

“a long, passionate biography dedicated to this extraordinary reclusive globetrotter and spy”
Sergio Lambiase, Corriere del Mezzogiorno

“Julian Evans does his extraordinary story justice in this exhaustive and sensitive biography”
Bruce Palling, Literary Review


The biographer’s view

I had the great luck to be Norman Lewis’s friend for more than sixteen years. Every time I met Norman I was changed by a fraction, my appetite for physical and literary adventure increased. But Norman was not just an adventurer. Nor was he just an extraordinary traveller, or merely one of the twentieth century’s best and least known writers (Graham Greene’s judgment).

norman_lewis_02Apart from these relatively glamorous and easily accessible descriptions, I now mostly think of him as a truly great encyclopedist: a wide and deep chronicler of belonging and loss, and an inspired recorder of the world we belong to just when we’ve begun to run the risk of losing it.

Norman (1908-2003) was undoubtedly the best not-famous writer of his generation. He wasn’t famous because of an English prejudice: because critics who judged his works of travel and non-fiction not to meet the yardstick of genius represented by the novel ignored the fact that from the 1950s to the 1990s he wrote books that have survived better than all but a handful of novels.

A druggist’s son from the north London suburbs, Norman became unmatched as a witness to his times. His account of south-east Asia before the Vietnam war, A Dragon Apparent, is still required reading. Voices of the Old Sea, his account of coastal Spain before the concrete was poured, is a classic in the literature of the Mediterranean. His memoir of Naples, Naples ’44, about the time he spent as an Intelligence sergeant in the occupied city, is surely a masterpiece of sympathy, dispassion and stealthy comedy.

Norman was a revolutionary stylist, entirely self-taught. In appearance he looked like someone you could pass in the street without realising they had gone by. Yet the self-effacing genius that allowed him to observe unnoticed hid an extraordinary glamour. For more than twenty years he spied for the British government. He raced Bugattis before the war, lived in Ibiza after it, and was a crack shot, flamboyant host, and businessman with mafia connections. He led a life of such self-pleasing freedom that his existence at times was closer to a rock star’s than anyone else’s.

Published to mark Norman’s centenary, Semi-Invisible Man is a personal view of a suburban fugitive and escapist; a writer of unsurpassed humour, wisdom and compassion for the ridiculous; a prophet. There is no doubt in my mind that he is the Defoe of our times – and thus the book’s chief aim, to send readers at its end hurrying to the elegant, encompassing, clairvoyant books of a master.

Julian Evans, June 2008


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