‘Norman Lewis is one of the great unsung literary heroes of the 20th century.’ The Sunday Times
Eland now have eleven of Norman Lewis’s titles in print. Acknowledged as one of the most influential travel writers and a pioneering journalist, his biographer Julian Evans writes about Lewis's abiding fascination with Spain in his foreword to The Tomb in Seville.
Writers alive to Spain’s appeal in the Twenties and Thirties – the appeal that tragically mutated into a cry of pain – travelled there because Spain was Europe’s antithesis: a fantastic landscape of hallucinations and extremes, of heat, human incongruity and implacable vitality. For Norman Lewis, it also represented escape from his own distinct version of northern European neurosis.
In his first volume of autobiography, Jackdaw Cake, he describes his lower middle-class suburban background in Enfield, north London, as ‘an endless, low-quality dream … nothing, with chips’, and his struggle to wake up from that dream has an escapologist’s wild vigour – motor racing, get-rich-quick business schemes (plagiarising foreign newspapers, selling umbrellas), a rash marriage to the daughter of a Sicilian man of honour. But Spain, significantly, is more than the place of his first flight: in a life compelled by the pull of the world, it is the place he returned to more often than any other, the temper with which he most identified. When, after 1945, he lived for three summers in a fishing village on what is now the Costa Brava, the happiness he experienced became his touchstone for the next half-century. Whenever his writing turns to Spain, something about his relationship with the country – not just his familiarity with it – seems to produce a distillation of his prose. That is saying a lot for a writer whose reputation rests extensively on his stylistic genius.
Lewis first travelled to Spain in the autumn of 1934. Spanish Adventure, the first book he published, relates a journey one hardly associates with the author of A Dragon Apparent and Naples ’44: a planned voyage by canoe through the waterways of southern Europe. ‘From the very first my attitude towards the canoe,’ he writes, ‘was tinged with distrust and condescension.’
This first sentence, straight from Peter Fleming or Robert Byron, gives the game away. Spanish Adventure is a derivative of the high-jinks or Wodehousian school of travel writing; Lewis himself quickly became conscious of its faults, suppressing mention of it when his first serious success, A Dragon Apparent, appeared in 1952, and ever after – although once when I stayed at his house in Finchingfield he lent me a copy, guaranteeing I would find paragraphs of hysterical prose on almost every page. Yet Spanish Adventure has plenty of felicities, 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.’Most importantly, it relates a journey that stamped the future indelibly upon him. It touched, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s phrase, ‘a virginity of sense’, and by its end he knew that he was not interested in doing anything but travelling and writing.
Norman Lewis’s place today as the father of modern travel writing is unassailable. It is so because, among other things, he changed the category. Until the Second World War, British travel writers often blatantly did two jobs at once. The passes, deserts and rivers they conquered could be a personal triumph today, an imperial army’s supply route tomorrow. The Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Gore boasted more colonels than a junta. But he was one of the first writers to travel in a spirit of pure fascination, spurred on by his belief that ‘the next valley would always be wilder’. He taught many other writers their craft, though none achieved his degree of self-erasure. To read him – his sensuous and civilised descriptions, his poker-faced wit, his anecdotal genius for painting the world’s beauty and humanity’s routine disarray – is to fall under the spell of a prose whose magic is embedded in his youthful reading: the King James Bible, Herodotus, Suetonius, and the Russian novels in Enfield Library. ‘As I never had the chance to read rubbish,’ he said once, ‘I couldn’t absorb the rubbish which went with the style of the popular writers.’
Though he is conventionally called a travel writer, Norman Lewis’s books are not travel books in what I think of as the ‘orientalist’ sense – in which successive cults for representing the exotic dominate what we know of the world. Lewis was no orientalist (although in the other sense of that word, he knew South-East Asia like no other writer I have read); he was more accurately a witness, a reconstructor. Eric Hobsbawm, almost Lewis’s contemporary, has remarked that our accelerated culture is destroying the mechanism of historical memory that links each generation’s experience to that of earlier generations. Lewis was one of the greatest of those links. Though the world is more global than it was in the eighteenth century, it is not incongruous to see him as Defoe’s heir, or Fielding’s or Cobbett’s.
Norman Lewis was ninety-five when he died in July 2003. In his last decade he published a string of books which would have been prolific for a writer half his age: An Empire of the East, about his travels through Indonesia; The World, The World, a second volume of autobiography; In Sicily, about his return to that haunted island; and two collections of articles, The Happy Ant-Heap and A Voyage by Dhow. He had also had it in mind for some time, for personal reasons – including his children’s desire to read the story – to revisit the Spain of that first adventure. The Tomb in Seville, his last book, is the result.
The bones of the story are the same as Spanish Adventure: a journey that takes Lewis and his brother-in-law, Ernesto, first to Madrid and the bloody insurrection of October 1934, and then, via the length of Portugal, to Seville. There are two superficial differences, one in the method – no canoes – the other in the chronology. In Spanish Adventure Lewis goes on to north Africa; 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, finally, and with due bathos, in the marvellous city of Seville.
It is here that he shows his preference, not just for Spain but for a Spain that precurses the twentieth century. ‘Old Spain was a country of white cities, but Zaragoza’s outline was dark.’ What Lewis instinctively prefers is Moorish Spain, pre-industrial Spain, the Spain on the edge of Africa. In Zaragoza he alights on the rich, visible in quantity in their Rolls-Royces, with a certain distaste; Madrid under fire he describes as ‘a weird and complicated child’s toy’. You sense his reluctance towards cities, though Madrid’s gun battles draw him like a magnet and he takes a 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’. Once out of the capital, his taste for the spectacular emptiness of plains and mountains immediately revives. This partiality for landscape is specific: the lushness of Portugal through which he and Eugene are forced to divert elicits a kind of scorn, ‘the first vines and cabbages’ unable to match the magnificence of ‘the golden steppes’ they have left, and produces a mild depression that only dissipates as they approach Seville and their goal.
The Tomb in Seville is a story of Spain come full circle. It is a feat not only of remembrance, but of reliving. Spain provides for Lewis, as it has done before, a perfect subject – and it occurs to me that it may be because he carried this extraordinary first journey in his memory for so long that his love of the country remained so strong. So Spain is not merely a subject here. It is a pole, a magnetic South to which the writer has been drawn, again, this time to produce both a work of restoration to delight in, and a fundamental explanation of why it draws him. The result is a story as distant as elegy, and more immediate than the news. That it comes from a writer in his tenth decade only increases the poignancy of his returning to the same ground (almost) as his first book, published nearly seventy years ago. As if, in going back to the roots of his writing career, he was setting out again in search of that irrecoverable beginning, when his impressions of the world had all the intoxicant vitality of newness.
Julian Evans, author of The Semi-invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis