Deeply private writer whose civilised prose bore witness to the world's atrocities and follies
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.
Ever since he started on the extraordinary sequence of books announced by A Dragon Apparent in 1951, about his travels in French Indochina, the truth about Lewis's discreet personality was something he left others to decide; rarely did his ego make more than fleeting personal appearances in his work - not even in Naples '44 (1978), his hauntingly comic memoir of the second world war, or his two volumes of autobiography, Jackdaw Cake (1985) and The World, The World (1996).
With mandarin-like courtesy, he once stated that he preferred to produce "revealing little descriptions; I think of myself as the semi-invisible man".
When a writer is as highly praised over his lifetime - and by as many respected voices - as Lewis was, one may feel a residual meanness that the object of admiration might have been admired too long, finishing up being praised for being praised. Luigi Barzini described reading his prose as "like eating cherries".
Reviewers eager for a lazy comparison mentioned him in the same breath as Graham Greene; and Greene himself had "no hesitation in calling him one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century". And to re-read any of Lewis's accounts of travel - to Indo- china and India, to Burma, Latin America, Spain, Sicily or Indonesia - is to fall instantly under the spell of his subtle, refulgent musical magic.
By the second page of A Dragon Apparent, one already knows that his reputation as a stylist is safe: "On the morning of the fourth day the dawn light daubed our faces as we came down the skies of Cochin-China . . . With engines throttled back, the plane dropped from sur-alpine heights in a tremorless glide, settling in the new, morning air of the plains like a dragonfly on the surface of a calm lake."
One of his fellow passengers is a Foreign Legion colonel, who notices the cloud of an explosion from "une opération": "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."
The value of Lewis's writing lies not only in that civilised style that, as Cyril Connolly said, could make a lorry interesting. Literary style is a Peter Pan - marvellous and then tiresome for not growing up - but in Lewis's delight in describing the surfaces of the world lay the most elegant of warnings.
In his mid-80s, in his conservatory at home in Essex, he summarised the order of his interests as "travelling, writing and growing lilies"; he travelled before he turned writer, beginning in the relatively incorruptible Spain of the early 1930s, and going on for more than 60 years to observe the ebb and flow of governments, the dissolution of indigenous tribal cultures and the activities of missionaries, bandits, profiteers and political scene-shifters.
He was among the first to witness the idiocy of an American foreign policy that thrust countries into the embrace of communism. In A Dragon Apparent, he foresaw the ultra-efficiency of the bombing plane 15 years before the long-houses of the Moïs people of Vietnam's central plateau were bombed into nothingness, and in Golden Earth (1952) he predicted the incurable dictatorship that would be the consequence of Burma's approaching civil war.
In 1968, observation hardened into involvement when, travelling to Brazil for the Sunday Times with the photographer Don McCullin, he saw the results of atrocities committed against the natives by the government's own Indian protection service. The long report he wrote on his return caused an international outcry, and led to the establishment of Survival International.
Lewis once said that he had no doubt that a slightly evangelical attitude hung over his books. To his readers, this was more of his modesty, even disingenuousness. Gregarious writers tend not to want to make the world stand at moral attention, and Lewis's work was always rescued from high-mindedness by his preference for communicating his enjoyment.
His dozen novels - among them The Day Of The Fox (1955), The Volcanoes Above Us (1957), A Small World Made To Order (1964), and The Sicilian Specialist (1975), which had the distinction of becoming a cold-war bestseller in both the US and the Soviet Union - were darker than his non-fiction. But they explored the same richly unexpected world: the Saigon waterfront where one chose a soft drink more for its auspicious colouring than its taste; Pnom Penh, where, taking a taxi, he was offered a tip by the Buddhist driver; the Burmese policeman whose courtesy made it impossible for him to decide whether he was under arrest.
Where another writer might have dished out such experiences with a moralising linctus or a fake spirit of adventure, Lewis gave them to us page after page, year after year, as the most delicious of unaging wines.
Born in Enfield, north London, as a clever child he was a target for the casual cruelty of other children. His parents sent him to live for a couple of years with three half-mad aunts in Wales, who crammed the Bible down his throat. This was "not a bad experience", he asserted, as it drove his desire to escape once he had left Enfield grammar school.
By his mid-20s, he was interested in nothing but travelling and writing. He published two books before the second world war, Spanish Adventure (1935, later disowned) and Sand And Sea In Arabia (1938); he wryly referred to one reviewer's description of the latter as "Biblical but soporific".
Three years in the Intelligence Corps in north Africa and Italy, from 1942 to 1945, completed Lewis's rupture with his suburban past - and with Ernestina, his Swiss-Sicilian wife and the mother of his first child. After the war, he continued a relationship he had begun with Hester, who had nursed him in Naples, divorced Ernestina, and had two more children. In 1953, he met his second wife, Lesley, an Australian working for an airline; she and their two daughters and son survive him.
Using the experience gained as an ex-son-in-law of Sicilian exiles and in military intelligence, Lewis wrote his unsurpassed portrait of the Mafia conspiracy, The Honoured Society (1964). Through his friendship with the American humourist SJ Perelman, he was introduced to William Shawn, the reclusive editor of the New Yorker, which serialised the book in its entirety.
A childhood spent dodging bullies and his aunts may have been the basis of his later invisibility; whatever the reason, his gift for observing unnoticed - whether it was Panare Indians under the missionary gun in The Missionaries (1988), the wartime Neapolitan demi-monde in Naples '44, or the fishermen of Spain's vanished shores in Voices Of The Old Sea (1984) - was one of the capital secrets of his writing.
Wherever he went, his concern to uncover the human comedy (and calamity) was the same. Only two places defeated him. One, unsurprisingly, was California; on another occasion, when a Sunday paper invited him to name a place he had never been to, he said frivolously, "Tahiti", believing that the editor would never contemplate the air fare. The next thing he knew he was on a plane for Papeete. The piece appeared, as much like a bowl of cherries as ever, but in private Lewis said the trip had been "extraordinarily boring. There was absolutely nothing to do there. I wish I hadn't gone."
In his last decade, he published a string of books that would have been prolific for a writer half his age: An Empire Of The East (1993), about his travels through Indonesia; The World, The World; a collection of articles, The Happy Ant-heap (1998); and In Sicily (2000), about his return to that haunted island. He had also had it in mind for some time to revisit the Spain of his first, 1934 adventures. The Tomb In Seville, to be published in November, is the result.
Meeting Norman Lewis, one was struck by his tremendous politeness; by his melodic, rasping voice that somehow commanded attention, somewhere between a suburban drill sergeant's and a naturalist's, stalking a timorous bird; by his great liking for almost any red wine; and by his shyness. Once he had decided you could be trusted, however, he appeared to have nothing to hide: stories and confidences poured from him with a reckless candour.
But the biography was not quite so simple. The ascetic writer and witness came after the young rake and dandy, with his love of fast cars and adventure. This period of his life he rarely talked about. His taste for happiness - what he called "the intense joy I derive from being alive" - was not blithe, but his deliberate weapon against rejection, boredom, stupidity and routine. His second wife remarked that he got horribly bored on family holidays because he was unable to make things up.
Literary judgments are often at odds with human judgments. Possibly due to his shyness, Lewis never crossed what the critic JW Lambert called "the mysterious barrier separating the admired from the famous". But his magnificent, exact rendering of the world, in his mordant, civilised and generous prose, has no comparison.
He suffered slightly from being boxed-off as a writers' writer. The condescension is inaccurate: writing so close to the surface of things, so close to the nerves underneath, he was merely himself. The few personal accomplishments that could be teased from him testified to his pleasure in that self: he raced Bugattis at Brooklands before the war. An omnibus edition of his novels in Russian translation outsold Tolstoy. And his lilies were some of the rarest in England.