Norman Lewis: A Curious Collector of Curiosities

Can a book save one’s life? I used to think so when stationed in Mogadishu, avoiding thoughts of murder or suicide in that sunburnt madness only by immersing myself in Gerald Hanley’s Warriors (1971). Day after day I would throw myself on to my bed after another utterly fruitless, pointless day in the president’s office, and lie down, sweating beneath squadrons of flies and mosquitoes, and try to forget about it all.

Read More

Norman Lewis on Naples

Today Vesuvius erupted. It was the most majestic and terrible sight I have ever seen, or ever hope to see. The smoke from the crater slowly built up into a great bulging shape having all the appearance of solidity. It swelled and expanded so slowly that there was no sign of movement in the cloud which, by evening, must have risen thirty or forty feet into the sky, and measured many miles across . . .

Read More

Martha Gellhorn on Naples '44

On an early Monday evening in November Norman and Lesley made a rare trip to London together. The occasion was a birthday party at the Groucho Club for Martha Gellhorn, a few month younger than Norman. Both were now eighty-five. Lesley recalls that the dinner was "fascinating. Her coterie of young men [was there], John Simpson, Jon Snow, Nicholas Shakespeare, John Hatt. It was predominately a male occasion." Gellhorn had been asked, as had Norman, by the Daily Mail to write a piece about her best of all time travel book for its New Year's Day edition, and told him she had chosen Naples '44

Read More

Anthony Burgess Reviews Empire of the East (1993)

'Empire' is undoubtedly the right technical term for a mass of sea-sundered territories ruled from a single centre. When I lived in Malaysia I was aware of Sumatra a few sea miles to the west; when I was in Brunei (which on Norman Lewis's map has, with Sabah, been swallowed by Sarawak) I was to the north of an unexplored mass of jungle that belonged to Indonesia.

Read More

Graham Greene

Anybody who cares to research Norman Lewis will, in numerous articles, find references to Graham Greene, the novelist and traveller, who once described Lewis as one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Journalists since the 1950s have noted a similarity between the two authors, in particular their penchant for incorporating exotic locations into their fiction. But few have explored the ways in which Greene and Lewis might have influenced one another’s writings. For some readers, it is perhaps more plausible to think that Greene, by far the more popular of the two, influenced Lewis rather than the other way around. Yet there are a number of sources that suggest that Greene might just as easily have been influenced by Lewis.

Although they never properly met in person, Greene wrote to Lewis in 1986, shortly after the publication of A View of the World, a collection of Lewis’s travel journalism. Greene had spotted two errors in the book, but admitted that, by writing to correct them, he had finally given himself the perfect excuse to express his great admiration for Lewis’s works. In his final paragraph, he went on to note how similar their paths had been: Laos, Vietnam, Belize, Goa, Liberia, Panama and Cuba, where years ago, while Greene was writing Our Man in Havana, they had observed one another from across the room of what Lewis called a “ghastly American blue-lit bar”.

“I never spoke to him,” he said decades later, though he was apparently aware of Greene’s presence in the corner.

Greene liked to keep a low profile. When the writer Bruce Palling wrote to him asking him if he would consider writing an introduction to the Eland edition of A Dragon Apparent, Greene wrote back a puzzled A5 letter saying:


Dear Palling, Yes, I have fond memories of Indo-China. A Dragon Apparent? I’ve never heard of it. What is it?

And yet it’s hard to believe that Greene wasn’t aware of this book, especially considering how familiar he seemed to be of Lewis’s other works. On another occasion, in a letter to John Hatt, the founder of Eland, Greene wrote of the “tremendous pleasure” he got from reading Naples ’44; and contrary to the impression Greene gave in his letter to palling, it is James Fenton’s suggestion that A Dragon Apparent might even have inspired Greene to visit Vietnam:

People used to say at the end of the Vietnam war that Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American had foreseen everything that would follow. But Lewis was there before Greene and you wonder whether Greene had read Lewis’s book and thought, This place sounds interesting.

Although he never wrote a foreword for A Dragon Apparent, Greene did review Lewis’s book The Missionaries for The Weekend Telegraph in 1988, and was even kinder in print than he had been two years earlier in his letter. He had only one overt criticism of the book: he felt that the title could have been more precise (The Evangelists, he felt, might have been more suitable), since the book deals entirely with the horrifying activities of the American evangelists in the Third World. But it is unlikely that Lewis would have been very disappointed to hear this; Greene’s review was otherwise extremely positive.

Many great writers praised Lewis during his lifetime, though I suspect that this review, more than any other, meant a great deal to Lewis because it was written by somebody he respected. Nicholas Shakespeare once wrote how each writer has his or her own scent, and that if he had to describe Greene’s, it would be the smell of something being taken off a clothes line after being battered by the wind. “Something clean, outdoors, kinetic.” I think that this same description applies to Norman Lewis, for his, too, is a style that owes something to clean precision: lean and lucid and written in a way in which every word seems to have been carefully considered. And though both writers had very much their own voice, it is easy to see why both men, known for their privacy, admired one another.

– Jack Sharp

La Résidence des Fleurs,
Avenue Pasteur,
06600 Antibes

9th June 1986

Dear Norman Lewis,

There is always the tiresome reader who corrects an error, and this time I am the tiresome reader as it gives me the excuse for expressing my great admiration for your works.

And the error? In A View of the World you have Jaurès assassinated in the Chambre des Deputes—he was killed in the Café’ d[u] Croissant in Montrmartre. You speak of the assassin Villain being “quietly released”. He was tried for murder in 1919 and acquitted by a packed bourgeois jury and 150,000 people met, urged on by Anatole France the next Sunday to protest against the verdict.

Forgive this tiresome reader and admirer. Our paths seem strangely similar—Laos, Vietnam, Belize, Goa, Liberia, Cuba, Panama.

Yours Sincerely

Graham Greene


At God's mercy

THERE IS something a little absurd in the habit among journalists of dividing our century into literary decades, as though books went out of date like women's clothes.

No critic in the 19th century would have referred to Trollope as a writer of the '60s or the '70s, and I have no hesitation in calling Norman Lewis one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century. His work, I hope, will be fully appreciated during the '90s which already cast a shadow.

Of his latest book, The Missionaries, my only criticism is of the title, which I would have preferred to be more precise, The Evangelists, for it deals almost entirely with the horrifying activities of the American evangelists in the Third World where they are destroying native cultures, not in the service of any genuine faith, but in the service of American capitalism and sometimes in that of the CIA.

My criticism of the title comes from my own experiences, which have all been with very different missionaries—like the Fathers in a leper colony in the Congo where the health of their patients was their main concern, not their faith or even their morals; or that solitary priest whom I encountered outside the camp of Dien Bien Phu living alone in a hut, without a parish or a congregation.

He had been tortured by the Japanese and bore the scar of a Vietminh wound. His business was not conversion-there were few Christians in Laos. He offered only medicine and friendship to anyone who passed his way.

In recent years we have found it easy to laugh at the American television evangelists and their sexual adventures and the odd names of their various so-called sects (I once counted 63 of them in the Panama Zone telephone directory, including one called Coco-Sola, if I remember correctly), but until I read Mr Lewis's remarkable book I had no idea of the danger to human life which they represent.

Twenty years ago Mr Lewis wrote an article on much the same subject called "Genocide: Brazil" which led to changes in the Brazilian law. One can only hope that this more extensive study will drive even some of the dictators, whom the United States government has been happy to support, into at least mitigating action.

Take for example the New Tribes Mission run by a Mr Stolz for the spiritual benefit of the Aches in Paraguay. Donald (Mr Lewis's photographer) "strolled off towards two huts" on the outskirts of the Mission.

A smiling young missionary overtook them and barred the entrance to the first of the huts, saying there was nothing there. Donald pushed him aside, went in and came back to call me. I followed him into the hut and saw two old ladies lying on some rags on the ground in the last stages of emaciation and clearly on the verge of death. One was unconscious, the second in what was evidently a state of catalepsy, because although her eyes were wide open she did not move them to follow my hand as I moved it from side to side close to her face. The fingers on her left hand were covered with the black mud scrabbled from the floor. There was no food or water in slight.

In the second hut lay another woman, also in a desperate condition with untreated wounds on her legs. A small, naked, tearful boy, sat at her side. Mr Stolz's son, happy to help with the tripods and handing up spare lenses, gave us a matter of fact account of what had happened. The three women and the boy had been taken in a recent forest round-up, the third woman having been shot in the side while attempting to escape.

Mr Stolz was supported by the government of Present Strossner who is trusted by the White House as a strong opponent of a non-existent Communist menace. Here are Mr Stolz's spiritual views:

"There is no salvation, " he said, "for those who cannot be reached. The Book tells us that there are only two places in the hereafter: heaven and hell. Hell is where those who cannot be reached will spend eternity."

An equally well supported mission in Bolivia has the strangely unreligious title of the Summer Institute of Linguistics. This operates under the guidance of a Mr Victor Halterman, believed by all the Bolivians whom Mr Lewis met to be running a base for CIA operations as well as ensuring the spiritual salvation of the Indians. His theology was in agreement with the doctrinal statement of the New Tribes Mission: "We believe in the unending punishment of the unsound." He admitted to Mr Lewis that "we have a very limited medical programme."

Reading Mr Lewis's book, my thoughts could not help returning to that very different Mission in the Congo where the priests looked after the body and left the souls of their patients, and themselves to the mercy of a God in which the evangelists show little signs of believe.

By Graham Greene

Original Scan

- Semi-Invisible Man by Julian Evans
- Weekend Telegraph Saturday, May 7th, 1988

BBC2 Arena: The Journey Man

THEY CHANGE THEIR SKY, not their soul,' as Horace said, 'who run across the sea.' The sad old Roman truth is not to be refuted. Escape is never more than partial. Nevertheless, at a minor geographical level small, reviving evasions can be planned. This one was to Spain, an unlikely bolthole, it might be supposed, in the era of the package deal; yet far from the Costas in the deep interior rich lodes of undisturbed hispanidad remain to he discovered . . . 

Read More

'Another Spain' Taken from To Run Across the Sea by Norman Lewis

THEY CHANGE THEIR SKY, not their soul,' as Horace said, 'who run across the sea.' The sad old Roman truth is not to be refuted. Escape is never more than partial. Nevertheless, at a minor geographical level small, reviving evasions can be planned. This one was to Spain, an unlikely bolthole, it might be supposed, in the era of the package deal; yet far from the Costas in the deep interior rich lodes of undisturbed hispanidad remain to he discovered . . . 

Read More

Hold Back the Crowds

I chose Farol on the Costa Brava and as it turned out spent three summer seasons there, studying and writing about the life of the people. Protected by an approach down something hardly better than a can track, followed by steep gradients and hairpin bends, and a final patch of swamp crossed by a swaying bridge, the village was perfect from my point of view . . .

Read More

Book Review: Golden Earth

For many of its practitioners, travel writing is entirely a romantic venture by which the writer imagines himself as the hero of his own account, tramping his way through uncharted sands like Lawrence of Arabia. A more modest writer might see things less conceitedly and make himself the fool instead; but surely only a truly self-effacing one could resist the temptation of making himself the central character in his own travel book . . .

Read More

Obituary by Julian Evans for The Guardian, July 2003

The writer Norman Lewis, who has died aged 95, once claimed to be the only person he knew who could walk into a room full of people, and leave it some time afterwards without anyone else realising that he had been there. That there was only limited truth in the assertion was unimportant; it says far more about his modesty that failing to attract attention was the only claim he pretended to . . .

Read More

Desert Island Discs

Norman Lewis has spent a lifetime travelling the world and writing about it. In conversation with Michael Parkinson, he recalls his curious upbringing in Wales with three maiden aunts, his travels in Cuba where he met Ernest Hemingway, and his love of Naples which led to his writing two books on the Mafia. He also chooses the eight records he would take to the mythical island . . .

Read More

'Iniezione Reconstituenti' - From Naples '44

Neapolitans take their sex lives very seriously indeed. A woman called Lola, whom I met at the dinner-party given by Signora Gentile, arrived at HQ with some denunciation which went into the waste-paper basket as soon as her back was turned. She then asked if I could help her. It turned out she had taken a lover who is a captain in the RASC, but as he speaks no single word of Italian, communication can only be carried on by signs, and this gives rise to misunderstanding . . . 

Read More

Biography by Julian Evans

Norman Lewis’s life was as significant in historical terms as it was colourful. As a witness to his times – the good, the bad and the absurd – he was unmatched; his instinct for important events was practically infallible. Among 20th-century writers, only Norman can tell you 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 East Timorese to President Suharto’s soldiers sixty years later . . . 

Read More