Friday, February 25, 2011
Norman Lewis - the quiet explorer
I’m discovering that truth is stranger than fiction – or rather that (some) biographies can make for more gripping reading than novels. A few months ago, the book which stunned me was The Orientalist – in search of a man caught between east and west. This is the incredible tale of one Lev Nussimbaum - born into Baku and a world subsequently destroyed by Communism and Fascism and the ideologies of class and race. The book vividly describes the 'wild west', oil-rich city of Baku in the 1920s, the cabaret of Weimar Germany and a whole host of strange and eccentric characters: Viereck, the writer and Nazi sympathizer, Ernst 'Putzi' , Hitler's Harvard-educated press secretary, Baron Omar-Rolf, Erika Lowendahl, a Jazz-age poetess whom Lev marries, Varian Fry whose mission it is to save two hundred of Europe's top intellectuals and artists from the grip of the Nazis and Italo Balbo, founder of the Italian Air Force who sets up a futurist experiment in the deserts of Libya. Through one largely unknown man we learn so much about that lost world.
And these last few days I’ve been reading Semi-invisible Man – the life of Norman Lewis by Julian Evans. I have read enough of Norman Lewis to recognise that he was up there as one of the inspirations for the new breed of travel writers but had not properly appreciated his other writing – nor the sort of life he had, right until his 90s. Norman Lewis spent his life foraging around some of the world's most dangerous places, from civil-war Spain to remote corners of Asia and drug-ravaged Latin America. From all of them Lewis returned vividly-written accounts which found their way into more than 30 books and many pieces of inspired journalism. Some see Lewis as the equal of Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. He was a superb reporter of the civilisations being crushed by modernity. After an arduous jaunt around Spain just before the civil war he produced Spanish Adventure . It was followed three years later by Sand And Sea In Arabia. The outbreak of war found Lewis in Cuba, where he left his wife and son (for their safety, he said) and returned to England to enlist. He found a slot in the Intelligence Corps which dispatched him to French North Africa and then to Italy, where he found the inspiration for Naples '44 (published in 1978), the book that many regard as his masterwork. It tells the story of people scraping a living in a half-ruined ancient city that had been overrun by conquering foreign armies.
After the war Lewis seems to have found his voice. For 30 years he travelled incessantly and published book after book. Among the better known: The Volcanoes Above Us (1957); A Small War Made To Order (1966); The Sicilian Specialist (1974); An Empire In The East (1993); In Sicily (2000). All this was interspersed with journalism for titles such as the New Yorker, the Sunday Times, the New Statesman and Granta. In most of his writing, he gave voice to the outrage which people like John Pilger have subsequently made a vocation.