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.

Only Norman can tell you about visiting the ghost town of Suakin, Africa’s Venice and centre of the East African slave trade, in the 1930s; about the ancient Costa Brava of fishing villages before the tourist hotels were flung up; about meeting Hemingway in Cuba in 1959, when the world’s most famous author appeared in pyjamas, gulping half-pint tumblers of Dubonnet (“a shattering experience”, as Norman wrote to Ian Fleming, “of the kind likely to sabotage ambition”); and about an attempt on the Guatemalan president’s life in 1996, when the would-be assassin, gunned down by valiant presidential bodyguards, turned out to be a drunken milkman.

Born the son of a pharmacist in Forty Hill, on the desert edge of north London, in 1908, he was a precociously intelligent boy. Marked down as a social outsider by his schoolmates, who came from working-class or farm-labouring families, his cleverness doomed him. One day the headmaster at his elementary school said to the school inspector, in front of his class, “Of course we have a boy here who we don’t teach at all, he teaches himself.”

The headmaster’s compliment had an immediate and brutal impact. A campaign of bullying began, Norman remembered later, “of such an intensive kind that it would have been the headlines in the papers today. I remember being thrown in deep beds of nettles – that would have been in summer – and in winter I was thrashed with the sharp edges of sheets of ice. They were exceedingly cruel.”

He found refuge from bullying by being sent to Wales, where he was tipped from a theatre of cruelty into a theatre of the absurd. For a year he endured living with an autocratic, philandering grandfather and three mad aunts in Carmarthen; but it was the first of a lifetime’s escapes. When he came back, he set about turning the tables on Forty Hill. Employed in his father’s pharmacy in neighbouring Enfield, he sub-contracted his boredom by paying an assistant to hold the fort while he sat in the back of the shop reading Russian and other classics, the only novels available at Enfield’s Carnegie library. His writing is rooted in that very early reading: to read Norman is to fall under a spell of a refulgent, musical magic of prose, whose source is embedded in his youthful consumption of the King James Bible, Herodotus, Suetonius, Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

As I never had the chance to read rubbish,” he said, “I couldn’t absorb the rubbish which went with the style of the popular writers.”

Norman had three brothers, but of his parents’ four sons he was the only one to reach adulthood. The sequence of losses turned Norman’s parents to drink and spiritualism, and Norman felt the loss of his brother Monty (he was 7 when Monty died at 17, of kidney disease) especially deeply. His pleasure as a small boy in his father Richard’s company, walking and birdwatching where city and suburbs gave way to woods and orchards and countryside, was a short-lived idyll. When spiritualism and its séances and charlatans took over, and his parents put up a spiritualist chapel in their back garden to be able to contact the astral bodies of their dead sons, the idyll turned to deep embarrassment.

The cultural desert of Forty Hill and Enfield added to Norman’s sense of extreme alienation. It also played a curious part in his development as a writer.

Turn-of-the-century Enfield was divided: half the men cycled to work at the Enfield arms factory, the other half worked for the local landowners and had a slightly better life. Both were brutalised. For a boy of Norman’s intelligence, born into a socially aspiring family ruled by his father’s fits of depression and his mother’s passionate religiosity, it was a placed that instilled a desire for flight and disappearance, a situation he hinted at in one of his volumes of autobiography, writing that as a child he would go exploring “with the idea in my head that the farther I was from home the better it would be”.

The boredom of the Enfield milieu reinforced a determination to be elsewhere. He later described his adolescence as “an endless, low-quality dream... nothing, with chips”. So a direct link exists between a childhood spent among that combination of cultural cruelty, social pretension and daily tedium, and an adulthood spent seeking out and communicating the most intense, authentic and colourful experiences.

Yet for all Norman’s complaints about the horror and tedium of Forty Hill life, it offered him a hinterland, physical and sociological, that he could explore freely, and in the exploration fashion an outline for his later passions: obsessive escape, the glorious surfaces of the natural world, and the politics of rich and underdog.

In his twenties Norman became enthusiastic about cars, bought and raced Bugattis at Brooklands, married Ernestina, the daughter of a mafia lawyer exiled in London, and discovered a knack for making money. He went through a prolonged period of discovery. His sense of adventure gradually sharpened and enlarged, and his conviction of Enfield’s ghastliness never softened, but until he was 26 his base remained there (he even returned regularly to stand behind the counter of his father’s shop).

The dream that the next valley would always be wilder was not driving him yet; the decade that followed his adolescence was an experimental phase, during which he still breathed mostly suburban air. He might have been mystified as to how exactly to make a break: he was self-invented, had no mentors, no path of middle-class privilege to follow, no Oxford or Cambridge or country-house upbringing to ease his way: unlike almost every writer – Robert Byron, Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Peter Fleming, Eric Newby – who would become his contemporary.

 His energy for a long time went into making money as the key to escape. He plagiarised German newspapers for stories he sold on to English magazines, and with the help of his mafia-connected father-in-law established a chain of camera shops, from which he financed his first journeys, to Spain in 1934 and Arabia in 1937.

Yet, astonishingly, both those journeys resulted in a book, both of which he succeeded in getting published: Spanish Adventure by Gollancz, and Sand and Sea in Arabia by Routledge. He later disowned the first as a “devastating piece of juvenilia” and referred wryly to one reviewer’s description of the second as “Biblical but soporific”.

His marriage to the manic, competitive Ernestina did not last. He was in Cuba with her and their son Ito when Britain declared war. He made the complicated arrangements to return home with enthusiasm, with war offering him the perfect excuse to abandon her with dignity. She and Ito would be safer there, staying with friends, than in England. In New York someone took his photograph, standing on a gangway in front of the ship he was about to sail on, the SS President Harding. He is leaning against the rail, a smile of cheerful good fortune on his face. Europe’s conflict was already being good to him.

  And his sense of luck persisted, all through the hostilities.

“The war was something fantastic. I hate cruelty of any kind, I am a passionate person, but every minute of the war, all the time I was abroad, [was] absolutely paradise.”

Those were his words more than 50 years later. The intense pleasure of his war years became the banner and device of his post-war adventures, the reality that he was always seeking to recreate, and in the postwar peace of 1945, all his problems, literary and personal, would start to reduce to one problem, how to retain the happiness of war.

Three years as an NCO in Field Security, a branch of the Intelligence Corps, in north Africa, Naples and Austria, completed the rupture with his suburban past. Freedom somehow brushed him with its wing, even in the middle of conflict.

“Nobody really quite understood what we were doing”, one Field Security section member remembered, “we enjoyed a certain mystique, and even senior officers were chary of challenging our activities.”

The best known part of Norman’s wartime service (described in his memoir Naples ’44), is the year he spent in that devastated and occupied city. The year was actually 18 months, and to Norman the city seemed less a great theatre than a great actor, a living, breathing performer whose joys – its absolute democracy, its unexpectedness, its earthy pleasures, human intensity and emotional unity – would bring him back to write about it again and again after the war was over.

His Naples experiences were not all joy. Many episodes stand out in Naples ’44; but one, both in his notebooks and the published version, is still indelible to me among the vital, shabby chaos of the city. Norman describes sitting in an unheated restaurant near piazza Victoria with his contact Vincente Lattarullo, and seeing six war-orphaned girls “between the ages of nine and twelve” appearing in the doorway. They wore hideous black institutional dresses, and were crying. As they groped their way between the tables, he saw that they were blind.

“I expected the indifferent diners”, he wrote, “to push back their plates, to get up and hold out their arms, but nobody moved. Forkfuls of food were thrust into open mouths, the rattle of conversation continued, nobody saw the tears…. Until now I had clung to the comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow. Now I understood I was wrong, and like Paul I suffered a conversion – but to pessimism. These little girls, any one of whom could be my daughter, came into the restaurant weeping, and they were weeping when they were led away. I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly. They would never recover from their pain, and I would never recover from the memory of it.”

Norman had a more complete relationship with Naples than anywhere else he had lived. He wrote later, “The income per capita is only a third of that in Milan; but, for me, Naples will always be the better place to live in.”

His enforced stay in the city also fostered a restlessness that he channelled into the discipline of writing, which, he said, compelled him “to see more, to penetrate more deeply”. Vital for his development as a stylist, with the demands it imposed to render tragedy and absurdity often simultaneously, Naples confirmed him as the kind of writer he would become.

His first postwar travel book, A Dragon Apparent (1951), the account of a journey through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, established his reputation. For the next decade and a half he undertook a series of peregrinations through Burma, Spain, Italy, central America, Siam, India and Ceylon, equatorial Africa, and the less travelled parts of south America, resulting in a series of accounts that included his account of Burma before the military took over, Golden Earth, and his ground-breaking history of the Sicilian mafia, The Honoured Society.

He published six novels and was judged to be, at his best, on a par with Graham Greene. He continued an affair he had begun with a nursing sister, Hester, who had nursed him at Philippeville when he crashed his Army motorbike in Algeria in 1943. He divorced Ernestina, started another family, and then, ever a complicated lover, separated from Hester. In 1953 he met Lesley Burley, a 23-year-old Australian working for British Airways – Norman was 45 – with whom he finally remained settled, more or less, and eventually married.

Unanimity of opinion is rare where critics are concerned, but from the early 1950s Norman’s writing attracted it. By the time he published A Dragon Apparent in 1951 he had shed his dandyish pleasure in language as a way of showing off, replacing it with prose that was an essay in understatement, allowing him to magnify events while seeming to do the opposite.

A Dragon Apparent was written in language that knew how to be subtle, direct and almost invisibly humorous – alive to the absurdities of life, its melancholy and its ironies. Peter Fleming called it “A brilliant report on a period of violent transition in a strange land… a very good book indeed.” The Economist felt it “should take its place in the permanent literature of the Far East”. Cyril Connolly summed up the reaction to a particular genius Norman had for making strings of ordinary English words turn into vivid objects when he wrote that “Mr Lewis can make even a lorry interesting”.

Norman travelled in a spirit of aesthetic curiosity, immersing himself as far as possible in the places and situations he found himself in. This was possible in part because of the knack he had acquired early in his life of making himself scarce.

As he put it, “I’m probably one of the few people that can actually enter a room and leave it, and nobody will know that I’ve been there. I can just come in completely silently, I can turn the handle of the door, I can let myself in, I can sum up the situation and retreat, and nobody will know that I’ve been there.”

Starting in the early 1950s he spent each summer at “Farol”, a village on Spain’s Costa Brava, in reality Tossa de Mar, and later, as Tossa inexorably fell to the alien invasion of tourists, on the island of Ibiza. He wrote nothing about his Spanish summers for more than 30 years. When he did, in Voices of the Old Sea, he offered elegy tinged with farce, tragedy rescued by revealing comic detail.

He himself, as he always was, was curiously absent from the narrative. This was another hallmark. He turned his early shyness into a prose virtue, and his presence in his works is always transfigured. He was, and is, a voice and a style, not an ego.

Another journey he made in the 1950s supplies a further clue to his reticence. In 1957, at the instigation of Ian Fleming, he met Ernest Hemingway at his finca outside Havana.

“There was something biblical about the meeting with Hemingway,” Lewis wrote to Fleming afterwards, “like having the old sermon on the vanities shoved down your throat.”

Lewis continued to suspect fame of Hemingway’s kind. In an interview in 1990 he elaborated briefly on this aspect of his career.

“I prefer to produce revealing little descriptions,” he said. “I think of myself as the semi-invisible man.”

The 1950s and 1960s were decades of plenty for Norman, the writer and the man. The self-effacing quality that had allowed him to observe unnoticed also hid an extraordinary glamour. He began spying, in a casual way, for the British government after meeting Ian Fleming at a party given by his publisher, Jonathan Cape. He lived in Orchard Street, opposite Selfridge’s in London’s West End. His flat was minimalist avant la lettre, apart from the bachelor’s bedroom, which had a deep pink ceiling and wall-width, heavy black and gold curtains, and he entertained lavishly there. He was a crack shot – parties at Orchard Street often included target practice – and flamboyant host; when things got slow, he took benzedrine to speed them up again. He led a life of such self-pleasing freedom that his existence at times was closer to a rock star’s than anyone else’s.

His writing was also taking him to the edges of experience. In the early 1960s he travelled to Palermo and, using his connections as a former son-in-law of mafia exiles and a sergeant in the Intelligence Corps, completed the research for his portrait of the mafia conspiracy, The Honoured Society. He became friends with S J Perelman, who introduced him to William Shawn, the reclusive editor of the New Yorker, which serialised the book in its entirety.

A divide came in his writing in 1968. Working for The Sunday Times, he travelled to Brazil and wrote about the genocide of the country’s Indians. He claimed that thereafter he ceased to be a perpetual spectator, that in the face of such calamity “it is not possible to keep silent”. The 12,000-word essay he wrote about Indian genocide led to the founding of Survival International, dedicated to the rights of indigenous peoples, and he frequently said afterwards that “Genocide” was the piece of writing he was most proud of.

The next year he returned to Mexico twice, to investigate the predicament of the Huichols of the Sierra Madre, attacked by mining companies. An ill-fated digression to Peru with Lord Snowdon followed, and in 1970 he made a more rewarding journey with another photographer, Don McCullin, to Guatemala. In 1975 he and McCullin, who had become close friends, travelled on another joint assignment to Paraguay and succeeded in proving allegations that missionaries had been involved in Indian hunts.

In 1978 Norman at last published the book based on his wartime diary of life in occupied Italy, Naples ’44, described by Eric Newby as “one of the ten best books about the war”. He was in the front rank of English writers, praised by V S Pritchett, Peter Fleming and Graham Greene as one of the best writers of the century; yet he had still not crossed what J W Lambert in The Sunday Times called “the mysterious barrier separating the admired from the famous”.

The comment was prophetic, because Norman’s reputation suffered a partial eclipse in the 1970s, his subjects too exotic for that wan decade. It recovered when John Hatt, founder and publisher at the small paperback house Eland Books, reprinted Naples ’44 in 1983 and secured 120 reviews of the book, every one acclaiming its author.

In the 1980s Norman’s work quietly lived through the travel-writing boom and then outlived it. In person, he remained as enthusiastic as before for the “glorious surfaces” of the world, although he noticed that change was increasingly rapid and irreversible. He revisited places he had seen before – Spain, Thailand, India – and published his memoir of vanished Spain, Voices of the Old Sea; a first volume of autobiography, Jackdaw Cake; an investigative polemic against The Missionaries; and two more novels.

Refusing to be judged on his age (in 1988 he celebrated his 80th birthday), he quietly lost a decade, supplying 1918 as his date of birth in his books’ cataloguing-in-publication data. To friends at his 80th birthday party at the Lewises’ Essex house, a parsonage in the village of Finchingfield, he seemed perpetually youthful, perpetually tough; so tough that in his ninth decade he travelled to the heartland of tribal India, and to Sumatra, the West Papuan highlands and East Timor for two more books; later returning to West Papua for a Channel 4 film.

On that occasion, finally, invincibility deserted him. He had to be helicoptered out of West Papua’s Baliem valley, suffering from pneumonia. Illness hardly broke his step, however, and when he recovered he went on travelling back to Spain, Sicily and Guatemala in the late 1990s for material for The World, The World, his third volume of autobiography; a collection of pieces; and a new book about Sicily.

In June 1998, Norman celebrated his 90th birthday at his daughter Samara’s house in Brighton. The following morning I walked with him, his wife Lesley and Samara to the seafront. It was a fresh English Sunday by the sea. He wore a sweater with his blue cotton trousers and jacket, and the long wisps on top of his head danced in the gusts of breeze. His expression was watchful, still, halfway between blankness and serenity, until he leaned over the rails at the edge of Marine Parade and suddenly became animated, pointing out the stretch of tarmac below. This was Madeira Drive, along which he had competed in a standing half-mile in his Le Mans-winning Alfa Romeo in 1938. “Coming second to last in my class,” he said cheerfully. At the age of 90 he still insisted that he had never won anything, never discovered anything, had no distinction; an inverted conceit that time had not changed.

He went on writing: a collection of pieces, The Happy Ant-Heap; a new book about Sicily, In Sicily; another collection, A Voyage By Dhow, in which he reached further back into the past; all books that were celebrated for extra-literary as well as literary reasons. His stories “ring with the restless melancholy of old age”, one reviewer wrote. “It is a pleasure to share the addiction of such a stylist as he once more feeds his habit,” another said. The Times offered him its best bouquet, commenting that “reading Lewis on Sicily is like reading a modern Homer or Pausanius”.

He continued willingly to submit to the discipline of work. “It is my salvation,” he confidedto a journalist who came to interview him. Even after the irrefutable signs of Alzheimer’s disease appeared when he was on holiday in the Midi-Pyrénées with his family in 2000 – he was 92 – he continued to write.

The result was The Tomb in Seville: a revisitation of his very first journey to Spain, just before the Spanish Civil War. It had been a key journey for his formation as a writer and observer; had lit the flame of his obsession with the world’s glorious surfaces. When he travelled there in September 1934, Spain was Europe’s antithesis and his own: a country of extremes, hallucinations and unquenchable vitality, an intense, symmetrical escape from Enfield’s nothingness.

His last book is a double reconstruction, of a journey and of a memory of a journey, into a double time, a twentieth century that precedes the twentieth century: Moorish Spain, pre-industrial Spain, Spain on the brink of Africa. It was a place and a time that, ever after that first journey, was more than a subject for Norman. It was a pole, a magnetic South, its flag planted in the city of Seville, to which he was drawn back repeatedly and by which he set the compass of all his subsequent escapes.

The Tomb in Seville took him longer than he expected. By the time he delivered the manuscript to his publisher in late 2002 he was 94, seriously affected by Alzheimer’s, losing weight and cognition. He had angina and a faulty heart valve, and his doctor thought he would not last beyond Christmas. He did, and went on clinging to the remnants of his toughness for a few months more; sometimes rebelling, not sleeping and staying up much of the night, eating chocolates and drinking red wine. But in July, a few days after his 95th birthday, he was admitted to a community hospital near Finchingfield, at Saffron Walden. In his last hours, unconscious, he called out for Monty, his beloved older brother whom he had not seen since he was seven. He died in hospital on 22 July 2003, with his wife Lesley at his side. He had made himself scarce for the last time.

. . . 

Despite standing in the shadows and loathing publicity, despite never becoming famous, Norman’s contribution to English letters has been great: his quiet literary achievement is unlike any other, his influence resonant. As witness, observer, revolutionary stylist, he has taught many younger writers much of their craft by example, although none has achieved his degree of self-effacement. He has changed what it means to describe our world, to allow it, almost, to describe itself in sentences of magnificently sly understatement, sentences that understand the formal connection between the sad lyricism of experience and the revealing comic detail, sentences so true to life that their end is never to be guessed from their beginning.

And he has changed the eligibility of who can be a writer of his calibre. For the British, travel generally means escape; but up until the Second World War British travel writers often blatantly did two jobs at once. The high passes they negotiated, the deserts and rivers they conquered, might be a personal triumph today, an imperial army’s supply route tomorrow. The Royal Geographical Society boasted more colonels than a junta, and nearly without exception British travel writers were upper-class, landed, Oxford or Cambridge-educated, and the products of a leisured upbringing. Norman, on the other hand, escaped as a classless Everyman might, in a spirit of pure fascination, compelled by the pull of the world.

But the value of his writing is not just in his sensuous, understated style or the light-lashing wit that constantly accompanies it. Somewhere in his delight in, and appetite for, the world there has lain since the beginning the acutest of warnings.

He was one of the first to realise that American foreign policy was pushing southeast Asia into the embrace of Communism, and foresaw “what an aid to untroubled killing the bombing plane must be” 15 years before B52s bombed the Moï tribespeople of Vietnam’s central plateau into nothingness. He predicted Burma’s dictatorship, and in India the gulf that would appear when urban poverty replaced the more tolerable rural version that preceded it.

He recorded our own impoverishment by the twentieth century’s most cherished objectives – industrial prosperity, universal communications, mass tourism and globalisation – and woke us up to some of their severest consequences. As early as 1979 he was the first mainstream writer to predict that the Earth’s climate would change, after a journey to the Amazon basin.

Above all, he provided us with a context to a pleasure we are encouraged to indulge without thought – cheap, consumable global travel – while at the same time seeking out and communicating the qualities in life that stirred him most: passionate resistance, revolutionary determination, tribal loyalties, and unquenchable vitality.

He himself started travelling as a Romantic escapee and continued as a more worldly one, but he ended up in a sort of self-denying sub-category (he hated five-star hotels or almost any kind of luxury beyond good wine), pleasing himself merely in his observation, addicted equally to the words he found and the places they portrayed. He made it his pleasure to tell stories about places that still had stories.

When I started to write Norman’s biography, I had, in conventional biographical terms, a problem about those stories. It involves the question of truth. It has to be faced: Norman was reckless with dates; disinformational about his personal life; an adjuster of chronologies. This is widely felt to be acceptable in travel books. The book is not the journey. (It needs to be a lot less tedious, for one thing.) But the comparison of Norman’s notebooks and his published accounts revealed more.

In A Dragon Apparent, his account of south-east Asia, he tells a memorable, detailed story of a grenade attack on a café across the square from his hotel at Saigon. The explosion “caused fifteen casualties – a Saigon record”. Except that it did not happen. Not to Norman, anyway: he heard about it, in Cholon, three weeks later. Elsewhere, in Voices of the Old Sea, his elegy for pre-tourist Spain, one of the most indelible characters is a local aristocrat, Don Alberto, an emaciated Cervantean reactionary who possessed a banned copy of Montaigne and, like a modernised Quixote, “a two-stroke motorcycle on which he sits like a black praying mantis”. Except that Don Alberto possessed no earthly existence.

The further I delved into Norman’s notebooks, the more puzzles emerged. The work of a writer praised, idolised by some, for authenticity was regularly invented.

Yet after a short crisis, I found I wasn’t upset but applauding. In art, a lie is disbelieved not because it isn’t the truth, but because it isn’t aesthetic; because it doesn’t supply meaning. In art, the lie that is believed is the truth that matters. Norman did not make up a single one of these episodes or characters to make himself more heroic. He placed them, as a composer does, like a phrase or theme. Far from being delinquent, impure elements of the truth, they are indispensable to his truthfulness.

What did Norman himself feel about the line between truth and fiction? In his 1949 diary he recalls how, as a ten-year-old 30 years before, he was ambushed by the bearded ladies of Carmarthen, wanting a kiss. “All right,” he retaliated, “you know the fee,” and charged them a penny. Is this story true? “How much of it is fiction and how much of it isn’t I couldn’t tell you,” he wrote in the same entry. “Leave anything to my imagination and nobody could recognise the facts after a few years.” The story might be made up. But that was how it was.

What drove Norman, though, was not just the pleasure of telling – making up – stories. It was a lifelong desire, and inability, to belong in one place. In pursuit of the happiness and humanity that belonging offered (neither of which had been available in his earliest years), he found them in his written life. What he communicated over a lifetime of writing was an extraordinarily complete way of seeing the world through that particularly modern lens.

 And so, taken together, Norman’s books, like Jonathan Swift’s (another essayist and polemicist) or Daniel Defoe’s (another writer, journalist, businessman and spy), begin to look like an encyclopedia of the twentieth century, and he himself the century’s encyclopedist. His encyclopedia is of belonging and loss: not one with any pretence at objectivity, but with a first-person bias matched by the quality and ubiquity of his focusing eye: an encyclopedist’s subjectivity, in other words: sampling what it sees with a gaze so penetrating and intense that the whole world changes before the reader’s eyes.

Julian Evans’s Semi-Invisible Man: the Life of Norman Lewis is published by Jonathan Cape (hardback) and Picador (paperback)

“Norman Lewis is one of the great unsung literary heroes of the 20th century…. It is not easy producing the biography of a man who spent most of his life writing so well about his own adventures. Yet Evans has succeeded… he has produced not only a hugely enjoyable and engaging portrait but also an affectionate one. Evans proves Lewis’s integrity – that the values in his writing were no affectation” Philip Marsden, The Sunday Times
Semi-Invisible Man is a magnificent book, not only for its meticulous, spirited and colourful depiction of Lewis and his work, but also for Evans’s stimulating and highly welcome meditations throughout on the nature of biography… a triumph” Jason Webster, New Statesman
“It is a wonderful book, almost as intelligent, stimulating and gripping as its subject. Julian Evans was Lewis’s friend and sometime editor, and he has made deeply thoughtful use of the archive, from letters to unpublished typescripts and water-stained notebooks stretching back over six decades…. Semi-Invisible Man reads in parts like the best kind of social history…. Evans has, to a certain extent, written a book about the turbid relationship between life and art” Sara Wheeler, Guardian
“Few biographers can have faced a more demanding task. Absolutely nothing about Lewis was dull or ordinary…. I doubt if anyone else could have rolled such a boulder to the top of this truly Sisyphean hill” Jan Morris, Financial Times
“… not merely a well-behaved run-through of the life and the reviews, but an improvisation on the very idea of being Norman Lewis: [Evans] finds him and he loses him, he accuses him and excuses him, all the while providing a fully illustrated argument about what could have made Lewis into this first-rate writer of prose” Andrew O’Hagan, London Review of Books