Witness to the world

Back to Writersback to journalism

The term “travel writer” fails to express the literary range of Norman Lewis

Prospect, October 2003


With the death of Norman Lewis in July at the age of 95, we lost one of the great literary arbitrators of the twentieth century. He was casually, inadequately described as a travel writer, a description sometimes preceded by epithets such as “our greatest living”, that still seemed to shrink his literary achievement: to shut him up in a distinctly British and now often frivolous genre, in which English prose is equally often chained to what Scott Fitzgerald once referred to as “that emasculated form of humour we call fun”.

Though he wrote, with humour, books about his journeys and residences in foreign places, Lewis, along with Wilfred Thesiger, who died in August, was not that kind of travel writer. He was more like a witness to the world. His theme, as Cyril Connolly noted, was the meaning of civilisation and progress. Our accelerated culture is destroying the mechanism of historical memory that links each generation’s experience to that of earlier generations. For the better part of his century, Lewis was one of the greatest of those links. In a way he still is; only he can tell you at first-hand about being on the receiving end of the Asturian miners’ gunfire that preceded the Spanish Civil War, and about the resistance of the people of East Timor to President Suharto sixty years later.

An enigma in English letters, he never really crossed the barrier separating the admired from the famous. This is partly due to his self-effacement, a quality that characterises the extraordinary sequence of books beginning with A Dragon Apparent in 1951 and ending with The Tomb in Seville, his last book, to be published in November. Rather than dwell on his own reactions, he once said, he preferred “to produce revealing little descriptions; I think of myself as the semi-invisible man”.

Those descriptions nevertheless accumulated to produce a world-portrait for which I find the word “revealing” inadequate. I speak as a partisan, not a critic: to read the account of any Lewis journey — to Indochina, to pre-dictatorship Burma and pre-tourist Spain, to missionary Latin America, to Sicily or Indonesia — is, in my experience, to fall willingly under his prose’s spell. His writing is not just the product of the exact scrutiny and surgical wit that fashion a Lewis paragraph from the rich, the vile, the tragic or the absurd. Choose almost any page at random. By its end you may be ready, as I am, to concede that here is a master, a revolutionary stylist — a writer able to reduce the distances between observation, selection, expression, and the reader’s emotional reaction to what he or she is reading to practically nil.

One of my own favourite passages is at the beginning of A Dragon Apparent, his book about Indochina — a French Foreign Legion colonel is on the plane with Lewis, and Lewis watches him as he sees the cloudburst of an explosion from une opération on the ground below.


Authority flowed back into the travel-weary figure. With the accession of this priestly essence he dominated the rest of the passengers. Beneath our eyes violence was being done, but we were as detached from it almost as from history. Space, like time, anaesthetises the imagination. One could understand what an aid to untroubled killing the bombing plane must be.


Apart from his telegraphic concision, there is rhythm, clarity, brilliance, evolution; the duel of excitement and of one’s shame at being excited. Naples ‘44, his best known book, coruscates with a myriad such descriptions (“Anna Consomata, at Caivano, was a beautiful girl, marvellously fair, an angel by Botticelli with tapering lute-playing fingers and coifs of yellow hair in the black South. To save time I mentioned her fascicolo [criminal record] in the Questura, and the conversation became frank”). Even in his first published book which he later suppressed, Spanish Adventure (1935), the innovatory shock of that style is evident in passages like this description of the Navarran landscape:


a boundless plain of billowing rock, from which all colour has been purged by the sun, leaving a panorama empty of everything but whiteness of cloud and rock and the blue of the sky. Against such terrestrial purity one is demoted to the status of a stain.


Born the son of a pharmacist in suburban Enfield, north of London, he referred to his Enfield adolescence as “an endless, low-quality dream… nothing, with chips”. Taking refuge from severe bullying at school, he explored his surroundings “with the idea in my head that the farther I was from home the better it would be”. The seeds of his craft were sown in Enfield. He was a class hero, a lower-middle-class child who taught himself to write by reading. Employed in his father’s pharmacy, he sub-contracted his boredom by paying an assistant to hold the fort while he sat in the back of the shop reading Russian classics, the only novels available at Enfield’s Carnegie library. “As I never had the chance to read rubbish,” he said in an interview in 1996, “I couldn’t absorb the rubbish which went with the style of the popular writers.”

Spain was the place Lewis returned to more often than any other, the temper with which he most identified, and it is Spain he comes back to in The Tomb in Seville. The bones of the story are those of the suppressed Spanish Adventure: a journey that takes Lewis and his brother-in-law Eugene first to Madrid and the bloody insurrection of October 1934, and then to Seville. Where the earlier book wanders from France and into Spain and out again, often submerged in hedonistic escapism, in The Tomb in Seville a quest has been identified, to be revealed, with due bathos, in the marvellous city of Seville.

The quest is part of a deeper difference between the two books, embodied in a huge contrast of experience and language, in which the events of the journey are reviewed and restored in the new book. The Tomb in Seville is really a double reconstruction: of a journey, and of a memory of a journey. It shows too how Lewis instinctively preferred Moorish Spain, pre-industrial Spain, Spain on the edge of Africa. There is a reluctance towards cities, though Madrid’s gun battles draw him like a magnet, and he takes terrific pleasure in details like the remark of a Cuban bar owner in Atocha, veteran of half a dozen revolutions, who approvingly explains that the police “made a point of doing their best not to shoot a man in the cobblers”. The Tomb in Seville is a poignant book from a writer in his tenth decade. It is as if, in going back to the roots of his writing career, Lewis was setting out again in search of that irrecoverable beginning, when his impressions of the world had all the intoxicant vitality of newness.

Norman Lewis was one of our most trustworthy observers of the twentieth century’s comedy and calamity, warning us of the irreversible change that goes hand in hand with prosperity, universal communications and mass tourism, and of the consequences of losing our wildernesses. He was, I am inclined to think, a prophet. Yet his taste for happiness remained. “Somehow or other I derive intense joy from being alive,” he said in 1998, just back from researching a new book about Sicily at the age of 90. “But as regards the rest of it, the pessimism is total. In a hundred years’ time the whole of this country will be covered by concrete and paint, and people will require a special pass to go on a visit to the country.”

Our only hope, he added, lay in the invention of a new religion — he found Christianity and Judaism totally senseless, “but just Ecclesiastes on his own would make a marvellous religious leader. Like him, I put it all down to the love of money, the seeking of money rather than other things.”

These are the words of a writer who sought the transcendent value of human scenes wherever he could find them. In that sense too he is rather more than a travel writer: a modern Cobbett, or a Defoe or Fielding. Although he claimed to be addicted to “the glorious surfaces of the world”, few writers have penetrated it more deeply, and it is entirely in keeping to suggest that, were we to decide in future in favour of a religion based on the enjoyment of natural pleasures and the restraint of financial lust, his books should serve as sacred texts.


© Julian Evans 2003

Conditions of use

This site contains copyright material © Julian Evans 1993-2013. Permission is granted to print, download, read/listen to the print/audio material for personal use only. It may not be reused (copied, broadcast, shared) without permission and all reuses must be attributed.