An interview with Norman Lewis, The Guardian, 11 May 1996
In an age when practitioners of literary work are expected to present themselves for scrutiny at the appearance of each new book, the career of Norman Lewis has passed by almost shockingly unseen. It is, in part, his fault: as traveller, prolific novelist, historian, journalist, amateur but penetrating anthropologist, connoisseur and compulsive retailer of spectacle, wars, incidents, chance meetings, he is nervous of fame. His wariness dates from before his meeting with Hemingway, in Cuba in 1959, when the world’s most famous author appeared in pyjamas, gulping half-pint tumblers of Dubonnet: ‘a shattering experience’, as Lewis wrote to Ian Fleming, ‘of the kind likely to sabotage ambition’. Hemingway shot himself a year later. At eighty-seven Lewis, having survived, is an enigma in English letters, praised highly, read seriously and almost unknown. (Graham Greene called him one of the best writers of our century.) He is also, which may be connected to his self-effacement, one of that rare band of writers who have achieved happiness.
The books have come out with a sprightly punctuality. It took the twin chokes of two wars to get the mechanism firing on song; then in 1951, the year that British eyes bent reverently to a celebration of the last of our national essence, the first of his sequence appeared. He had written up two early escapades to Spain and Arabia in the mid-Thirties. A Dragon Apparent was his first transmutation of his travels into a literary object. He had been to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1950, four years before the defining calamity for the French at Dien Bien Phu, fifteen years before the United States air force bombed the long-houses of the Mois of Vietnam’s central plateau into nothingness. His civilised notations of colonial neurosis were balanced against a brilliant kaleidoscope of local cultures. The book must have released a more than faintly exotic note into the flag-fluttering air of the Festival of Britain.
Leaving aside his thirteen novels for a moment, Lewis followed up A Dragon Apparent with books about: Burma, the Sicilian mafia (to which he was related by marriage), the American occupation of wartime Naples, the activities of evangelical Christians in Latin America; the irretrievable charm of pre-tourist Spain, tribal India, the Indonesian empire…. His reputation experienced a partial eclipse in the 1970s, his subjects too exotic for that wan decade, and subsequently recovered to be celebrated in the travel-writing boom when temporarily marketable books by everybody’s aunt Lucy and brother George filled the shelves alongside the wildness of Lady Hester Stanhope, the Attic salt of Robert Byron or the radiant bees in Bruce Chatwin’s bonnet.
Yet his books are not travel books in the same sense as these. The historian Eric Hobsbawm has observed that our accelerated culture is well on its way to destroying the mechanism of historical memory that links our experience to that of earlier generations. If you want to categorise Norman Lewis, it is not as a travel writer but as one of those remaining links. Over more than sixty years, his readers have been the beneficiaries of his opportunist sense of timing. Only he can tell you about being on the receiving end of the Asturian miners’ gunfire that precursed the Spanish Civil War; about the shameful behaviour of the American army and the active sexual habits of Neapolitan women at the liberation of Italy; about the existential melancholy of French administrators in Indochina; about the Costa Brava of fishing villages before the sink-estates for tourists were flung up, and the courageous resistance of the East Timorese against Suharto’s policy of massacre.
I first met Lewis twelve years ago at a lunch in London when I was working for his publisher. He appeared in the shadows at the back of the restaurant in Covent Garden. For twenty minutes his wariness was like an animal’s: he said almost nothing, pretending not to be there until he had decided that the situation could be trusted. Then the reminiscences began to pour out, about the lunacy of his commanding officer in north Africa, the outstanding beauty of Guatemala, his summers in that fishing village in Spain in the 1940s.
‘And by the way,’ he would say, and the narrative would bifurcate into another continent.
His stories had the same civilised humour as his prose, the same deft, almost musical placing of adjectives. None of them was about him: they seemed almost a defence against the first person singular. He still rather prefers people not to be too interested in him. Visiting the parsonage at Finchingfield where he lives with his Australian wife Lesley on the edge of the Essex plain, you are at the mercy of very English obstacles: the Braintree branch line, which possesses the slowest and dirtiest trains this side of the Balkans, and the northern arc of the M25. In the colourless grey light of March the choked motorway embodies one of the elegant warnings in his books, of the suffocation implied by mass mobility.
I arrived in a Mercedes coupé that had seen better days. He ran a hand down one of its flanks and exclaimed, ‘They must have made this for the American market. Reminds me of a straight-eight Buick I once drove to the Black Sea and back. Belonged to Joe Kennedy.’ He is a long, loping man of severe appearance. His unfashionable clipped moustache and cavernous voice give his sudden outbursts of enthusiasm an element of surprise. The bones of his story are those of a clever young misfit who turned himself into an adventurer and then discovered his vocation by accident. Born in a hamlet of Enfield in north London, Forty Hill, at school he learned very easily. Turn-of-the-century Enfield had a semi-rural roughness. Half the men used to get on their bicycles to work at the Enfield arms factory; the semi-serfs who stayed to work for the local landowners had a slightly better life, but both were brutalised. The children made amusement from cruelty. When the birds hatched in spring, they took them from their nests and hanged them. Faced with someone more intelligent and temperamentally different, they decided what would cause the maximum amount of pain in the minimum time. Lewis realised he was done for when an inspector called at school and the headmaster said in front of his class, ‘Of course we have a boy here who we don’t teach at all.’ One winter he was dragged to a pond, thrashed with the edges of
sheets of ice and left for dead.
In the parsonage’s low sitting room there is little evidence of a traveller’s lifetime: nothing but a pair of Javanese shadow puppets – one with the traditional aquiline profile of good, one evil – mounted either side of the fireplace. His study at the far end of the house has a chaotic version of the same emptiness. Opening the cupboards, he showed me carrier bags filled with tiny leather- and spiral-bound notebooks. In two instances, writing about Naples and Spain, he has waited more than thirty years to write about the events he describes; he claims the lapse was due entirely to having lost the relevant notebooks. His memoirs have also taken in and excluded whole periods on this basis.
He wears a dark sweater and dark jacket; unwillingness to draw attention to himself as a result of childhood bullying persists. He sits back during conversations and listens to questions with a look of bleached serenity, before a pause and then a burst of highly articulate noises. Sometimes a large hand sweeps across in emphasis. Questions are hardly necessary: he will eventually halt the flow of stories out of politeness.
I wanted to know how, given the way his lifetime has bridged Hobsbawm’s ‘age of Extremes’, how did he see history?
‘History is the robbery of the poor by the rich. There is also the conclusion I have come to in the last year, that humanity went off the track, went wrong totally as a result of three things: one, the discovery of navigation; two, the invention of money; three, the adoption of worldwide religions. Sublime humanity, supreme humanity I assure you, are the Indians I have found in the jungles of the Amazon and the Orinoco. They live fantastic lives, working at most two hours a day and the rest of it having a jolly good time in every possible way, even in the production of very often superb works of art.’
He had read and reread Richard Leakey’s recent book about the future of our species. He agreed with its conclusion that humanity is on the downward path, but said it was not all the twentieth century’s doing. ‘Navigation – that was a terrible thing, navigation in big ships. With it there followed, immediately, trade and then the imperial religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, without which the world would be so much a better place.
‘Look: in the case of Christianity it was linked with the expansion of the Roman Empire and in fact you might say that Christianity was invented by Justinian. It was sufficient in many cases to establish outposts all over the place, converting people, doing very very well out of them, behaving in an unpleasant and horrible fashion and taking slaves of various kinds.’
In his autobiography The World, The World he mentions a brilliant archaeologist named Oliver Myers, who believed in the afreets, the luminous demons of the Arabian desert. Myers once dragged Lewis to Stonehenge at dawn for an experiment in telepathy. Could he not accept that there were good Christians, as he had accepted Myers’ gullibility?
‘I would define myself in opposition to him. He believed in everything, and I believe in absolutely nothing. Except my own ideas, obviously.
After the ice episode his parents had taken him out of school and sent him to Carmarthen to live with three mad aunts. When he got back, he found he had lost the ability to talk to adults. This early inability to communicate his own dramas probably fostered his career: that, and the infinitely watered-down atmosphere of his adolescence. An earlier book, Jackdaw Cake, describes Saturday night in Enfield with nihilistic lyricism
We began to ask ourselves whether what we took to be life could
not be a complex illusion, an endless, low-quality dream. These
threadbare surroundings in which we sat came very close to being
nothing. Perhaps we too were nothing, had come from nothing,
were journeying through nothing towards a distant goal of
nothingness. Enfield was nothing, the Rialto cinema nothing to the
accompaniment of organ music, the Queen’s nothing with fleas.
We had come to Mrs England’s Dining Rooms to confront a
supper of nothing, boiled, fried or scrambled, with or without
chips, to be followed by custard if desired at no extra charge. After
this it was back home to nothing, or down the town to pick up a
couple of girls at the bottom of Church Street, and engage them in
a lively conversation about nothing plus sex, or just nothing.
Employed in his father’s pharmacy at £4 a week, he paid an assistant £1.50 a week to hold the fort while he sat in the back of the shop, reading the Russian classics from Enfield Library – the only novels freely available.
‘As I never had the chance to read rubbish, I couldn’t absorb the rubbish which went with the style of the popular writers.’
In his spare time he became enthusiastic about cars, bought an Alfa Romeo which had won the Le Mans 24-hour race and with a friend raced Bugattis at Brooklands. He discovered a knack for making money, plagiarising German newspapers for stories he sold on to English magazines, then establishing a chain of camera shops out of which he financed his first travels to Spain and Arabia.
‘Having got to Arabia I remember really wanting to drop everything and stay there. By then I wasn’t interested in doing anything apart from travelling and writing. But the war came, and that could not possibly have been better either. It wrenched me out of an impossible situation….’
The Second World War broke and fused his life, homerically, in two halves. It completed his escape from dingy rooms, from commerce, from life among Enfield’s proletariat. Without it he would probably have been a writer, but after it he could not have become a library writer, like Huxley or C.P. Snow.
The ‘impossible situation’ was marriage to his Sicilian first wife, Ernestina. With Ernestina in Guatemala, unseen for six years, and himself suffering from mild postwar depression, he got a fishing licence and went to live for three summers in a village on one of the north-east peninsulas of Spain. He didn’t put this period on paper until the 1980s – for him the purpose of flight was to clear the decks of complications. Enviably, he also seems to have cleared the decks of the goad that writers often cannot throw away: the first pricking, in Auden’s words, of being ‘hurt into poetry’. In the winters he was writing ingenious and conventional thrillers, about Englishmen of jaded character in situations of interesting weakness. But the happiness Spain procured became his touchstone.
Writers, I suggest to him, are not supposed to be happy. They must choose between devotion to life and to their art, according to Henry James.
‘I write because I enjoy it, or if I’m lucky I enjoy it. As to the rest, my pessimism is total and utter.’
Has he stayed happy?
‘You are now speaking to one of the probably few happy people you know. I am exceedingly happy. I have everything I have set out to get. I positively do not want riches. I hate luxury, I hate extravagance. When I have to stay in a hotel, I stay wherever possible in a two-star one run by a family – I cannot bear anything lavish.
‘The other day I was in Miami. My son took me to a hotel called Breakers. He thought this would be a pleasurable experience. You know those old films by Buñuel? I saw these wizened couples walking about, sort of bound to this business of displaying themselves and their worldly goods, and I got out of there as fast as I could. I enjoy the simple life. What I want is easily obtained, and I enjoy an adventure. I look around me, at our leading writers, at our politicians’ – he mentions a Conservative MP in the news – ‘obviously you can see it in their faces, they have not got what they set out to get. Now I have.’ (The MP he has mentioned is Jonathan Aitken. This is the best character summary of Aitken I’ve heard.)
Suddenly his face takes on a devastated look. ‘I’m sorry, I’d better cut down on this. I hope you’ll forgive me that inexorable smugness. But this is a fact. I mean, I lead a heady life, even these days.’
He has just returned from Guatemala. A relaxation of the war against the Indian guerrillas had made accessible places out of reach for twenty years. Lewis’s aim was to revisit a country he considers the most beautiful on Earth, and to look into the Pandora’s box of Indian killings. This mix of excitement and violence has a political component, I say – why does he not raise his voice?
‘I think that sort of stance is unsuccessful. I provide, as I can, the facts. What I’m writing about the massacres [among his stories is an eyewitness account of seven Indians burnt alive in public, after sixteen days of interrogation] – I’m not going to use that word “massacre” more than once. People are repelled, they don’t really want to read about those things. I basically think that if you become very strident it doesn’t change anything.’
This is one of his secrets. Promoting his own obscurity in books from which a narrator seems absent, he is a gregarious writer. At its most successful, his travelling is a search for a beautiful habitat before the scene-shifters move in: a historical present in which his gifts for capturing events, rich or vile, can be let loose. This habitat is based on a few convictions: that despite the disadvantages, the attractive ways of the past were protected by abusive governments, malarial mosquitoes and poor communications; that rural cultures are better than urban ones; that Indians are probably the greatest human beings. And off he goes and deals with it. He would be fascinated only by a Britain beset by the sort of calamities that he has witnessed elsewhere. Yet, estranged from writing about England by his addiction to adventure, he delights in its language.
He has, moreover, brought about change. Among others, ‘Genocide in Brazil’, his report for the Sunday Times in 1968 on the near-extermination of the country’s Indians, led to a change in Brazilian law and the formation of Survival International. If there is a sense in which his appeal is limited to readers interested in travel, there remains a distinction between Lewis and the rest. Many travel writers write for those who don’t travel. With his elusive apparatus of enthusiasm, Lewis teaches how to travel.
He has largely abandoned writing novels. ‘At a certain moment I had an ambition to be a novelist and haven’t quite jettisoned it now, because like most people I have a half-finished novel around. Laziness comes into this – with novel writing, all you’re doing really is this rather narcissistic thing. You’re producing bits from the self and in the time taken you become unreceptive to outside influences. I have one on the go now, and I assure you I could get it finished and published and get a reasonable advance, but somehow or other I am constantly being distracted. In the short time of this trip to Guatemala I have experienced new sensations by the thousand. Had I been writing the novel for the last two or three months, I would have had no new sensations.’
But he is supposed to be a writer. Surely at some level that means a writer of fiction; he is plainly making some sort of excuse for his addiction.
‘The absurdity of life far beats anything the imagination can invent.’ He tells another story from Guatemala. ‘We had been in Antigua, and we went away into the middle of the country and while we were away President Arzu, who was a great horseman, decided to go for a ride. He and his friends, various military captains, were riding down a charming country road when a pickup swept out of a side turning and was coming straight for the President. The story thereafter is extremely vivid – one newspaperman said the driver drove down a man and his horse and was obviously going for the next man when somebody opened the car door (and the car must have been stopped for that to happen), grabbed him by the throat and shot him through the head. Now, I read about ten versions of this, all of which were substantially different, some based on the official version that it was an attack on the life of the President, courageously and skilfully avoided by his bodyguards, who shot this man dead. In fact most people believed he was a local milkman out on his rounds who had been on a bender and was drunk as a skunk. This fascinates me; I think, that’s the kind of thing I ought to get from this life, instead of trying to drag things up from inside me. I want my life to be full of incidents like that rather than worry about my own reactions to everything.’
I suggest that we go out for lunch. I want to wheedle out the writer’s reactions to his own habitat. He proclaims this to be a tremendous idea and strides out, cheerfully shriven, to the car.
We drive south off the downland onto the fertile, uninteresting plain. This is the country where one morning last winter some drug dealers were tidily assassinated in a farm lane. It is the kind of mute, clinical landscape in which you might expect such a crime not to be traced.
As we pass through Braintree’s silent estates, Lewis notes that the people in this part of England never offer opinions, from an ancestral fear of being kicked out of their homes.
‘Now this is midway to hell,’ he nods with satisfaction, swivelling enthusiastically to
point out a rigmarole of awful, runty 1930s villas. ‘There, look. Pure Kulturbolschevismus, you see!’
‘There’s plenty to observe here, Norman.’
‘I admit it. But I’m afraid I could not foresee spending three months in an estuarial slum here in order to get the atmosphere.’
‘What’s the difference between an Essex slum, and one in Central America?’
‘Here I would not be serenaded to sleep. I wouldn’t be woken by a harpist who would fetch me a fresh roll from a trolley for breakfast. I love old witches; I can’t imagine I would find one anything like as good here as the one I found in Paraguay. She told me a great deal. The only thing I wouldn’t let her tell me was the date of my death.’
We plump for Maldon: a view, something ancient and picturesque, riggish marine smells.
The town, when we get to it, is a Dantesque spiral of a one-way system, and we revert to a pub in the high street where the drinkers squint at us from their stools. In the pub we order sandwiches and talk of Lorca; of a blonde Carinthian pharmacist Lewis was billeted with in 1945, whom he prevented two Russian soldiers from raping; of his affinity with brutal people. ‘I get on terribly well with them. I offer them no competition.’
I am anxious about his sandwich. I warned him against prawns: these are bright pink supermarket morsels, reanimated with bottled dressing.
‘What sort of outlook is there for adventurers today?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know. I’m always learning, picking up new things. Whenever I have travelled with Don McCullin [the photographer] I have been amazed by his terrific eye for beauty – he has shown me any number of things I would have dismissed.’
I wonder how this enthusiasm can continue to be nourished in the face of Mrs England’s Dining Rooms (modern version): nothing, with prawns. But possibly there is also something of his personality to be discerned, aside from his witnessing of significant historical events, aside from his certainty about the falsities of religion and his conviction about the path we are on, as we leave and walk outside, and in the yard behind the pub he murmurs across the roof of the Mercedes,
‘Do you know, that must be the best prawn sandwich I’ve had in fifteen years.’
© Julian Evans 1996