Norman Lewis was the 20th century’s most underrated writer about place.
A man who took pride in his ability to fade into even the most exotic background, he wrote about cultures on the cusp of total and sometimes violent change.
He had an instinct for being in exactly the right place to capture traditional ways of life on the brink of modernity, but his books are far from dry — he also had an unerring eye for the absurd.
Naples ’44 remains one of the greatest first hand accounts of the Second World War.
A Dragon Apparent, on what was then French Indochina, explored the lives of tribal peoples immediately before the utter devastation of the Vietnam War, and he went on to do similar work in Burma, Indonesia and in Spanish fishing villages that were soon to fall prey to the tourist boom.
Lewis’s life was just as fascinating as the worlds he brought to life in his books.
Before he was able to live from his journalism and novels, he earned money as a wedding photographer, an umbrella wholesaler, a race car driver, and the founder of one of London’s first camera shops, which grew into a chain with outlets in several cities.
He served in the intelligence corps in World War Two, and was sent on spying missions to Cuba by the creator of James Bond.
He lived the sort of life that seems lost to us today, and he remains one of my favourite writers on place.
Lewis’s biographer, Julian Evans, joined me to talk about his life and work. Julian is the author of Semi-Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis and Transit of Venus, about his own travels in the Pacific. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, Daily Telegraph and other publications.
We spoke about Lewis’s escape reflex, the subjectivity of witness statements, and the past as a place.
These are the books we mentioned in the podcast:
- Semi-Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis
- A View of the World
- Naples ’44
- A Dragon Apparent
- Golden Earth
- Jackdaw Cake
- The World The World
- The Volcanoes Above Us
- A Suitable Case for Corruption
- The Tenth Year of the Ship