Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My Log 361: Norman Lewis, a wonderful observer of life and its foibles and follies ---- I have just read four more of his books

Cover of "The World, the World (Thorndike...
Cover via Amazon

Cover of "Jackdaw Cake"
Cover of Jackdaw Cake
Several years ago a friend in Ottawa loaned me a book called Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis, whose writings I had followed, off and on, since I first read him in the New Statesman during my first stay in England in the early 1950s. I read the book --- a wonderful account of Naples as it came under the reign of Vito Genovese, former head of the American Mafia, who was installed by the Americans as they took over the city on their victorious march northwards through Italy towards the end of the war. Lewis, a mere junior officer in the British Army’s Intelligence establishment, was responsible for weeding out the reliable citizens of Naples from the unreliable.
I gave the book back, and a few years later came across a remaindered copy at a local W.H. Smith’s, but put it back, and moved on.  Thereafter, I kept kicking myself for not having bought it and it took me 20 years or more to find another copy, which I now have. I was entranced by the book, (described by Julian Evans in his 2003 obituary of Lewis as “a hauntingly comic memoir”) --- my memory of it being that although Lewis found the behaviour of most of the Italians he met impossible, he finished his year there with an undying love for them, for their attitudes to life, and for everything to do with Italy and  Italians.
Lewis, a self-made writer, died at the age of 95, and even in his last decade he turned out five or six notable books dealing with the travelling that had proven to be one of the purposes of his life.
Having read him with unalloyed delight for so many years, I have to say I agree with the verdict of Julian Evans, who wrote on his death that “his magnificent, exact rendering of the world, in his mordant, civilised and generous prose, has no comparison.”
My friend in Dubrovnik has a raft of his books in her library, and I have recently spent a couple of weeks reading four of them that I had missed. They include the two volumes of his autobiography, Jackdaw Cake, published in 1985, and The World, The World, published in 1996.
Although his books describe the follies and cruelties of this world, as well as the delights, he was seldom one to give way to indignation, something that seems to have arisen from the peculiar nature of his childhood. His parents were convinced spiritualists, and the section of his first autobiography under the heading The Other Side, is probably the best description ever written of this fake cult, that is believed and apparently practised by so many people. He deals with such strange beliefs from time to time throughout his books, but if he does not approve of them, he usually dismisses them gently with a word or two, more or less in passing. In fact, he loved the odd things that people do, and described in great detail  many of the weird customs of tribal people in India --- genuine indigenous people, of whom there were when he was writing about them, some 55 million, a number that is staggering when put alongside the surviving few hundred thousand of North American tribal people.  Though not himself religious, Lewis accepted religious observances, especially those that people had had passed down to them over the centuries, and he made it one of his purposes in life to see things, places and people that he realized might not last much longer, as modern life impinged on them, and shamelessly thrust them aside or destroyed them.
Almost the  only real indignation he expressed was confined to his description of the ruthless assault made on the native tribes of Brazil, many of which were physically eliminated from the earth to make way for loggers and miners, and cattle-men and others who wanted the lands they lived on, and the trees and forests from which they had always obtained their livelihoods. He made a special trip to Brazil in the late 1960s and returned with a 12,500 word article that was published by The Sunday Times, and that aroused such a response as to lead to the formation of Survival International, which by the 1996 existed in 65 countries to defend  the interests of tribal peoples who are, as we know under pressure everywhere. Lewis, the most modest of writers,  permits himself to reprint a statement by Survival International acknowledging the impact of his article --- and he just leaves it at that.
He did, however, also deplore the activities of what he casually, and repeatedly describes as “the genocidal” American fundamentalist evangelists, some of whom told him they weren’t concerned with the physical survival of the indigenous, but only to ensure that they have accepted Jesus as their saviour before being wiped from the face of the earth.
The range of Norman Lewis’s books is quite amazing: he wrote about pre-modern Spain, focusing on a fishing village, Farol, on the north-east coast,  where he hoped he had found a place that would guard him against the excesses of the modern industrial machine, only of course to be disappointed.  (His book on that experience, one of his best, is called Voices of the Old Sea.) He wrote about Burma, Indo-China, Haiti, Sicily (his book on the mafia, The Honored Society,  was accepted as the best description of that organization available to Western readers), and Guatemala, which he says is the most beautiful country he had ever seen, although  brutalized by a succession of American-supported strongmen who were untrammelled by any cncern for law or justice.
He made four trips to India, seeking out especially the tribal peoples who were under such pressure from the modern Indian government, and still are apparently. In this he describes with a dead-pan solemnity the many Indian customs that tie them to their multiplicity of gods. The name of that book is A Goddess in the Stones, and he admits in a later book (almost as an aside) that the particular goddess to whom every obeisance had to be paid before undertaking a trip of any kind may have been just a bundle of stones lying on the ground, but nevertheless, in the minds of the custom-bound, caste-bound, tradition-bound Indians, that bundle of stones contained the goddess Kali.
Though himself not religious ---  the training he got in resisting the pressure he came under from his parents to accept Spiritualism stood him in good stead --- nevertheless he was able to describe in detail religious observances that he seemed to regard as precious simply because they had been handed down through the centuries from person to person, right until our present day.  Whereas in similar circumstances I would have been frothing at the mouth in indignation, Norman was able to stand aside, more or less, at least enough to describe things with an air of detachment and wonder.
It occurred to me having read these four books, that he stood at the polar opposite  from John Pilger, an excellent writer and  remarkably courageoous reporter, who froths with indignation in almost every line he writes. Norman Lewis gets perhaps the same result, yet he remains always a  quiet, almost invisible presence. (In fact, one of his self-deprecating jokes was that he was the only person he knew who could walk into a room  and leave it half an hour later without anyone else in the room knowing he had been there.)
He is that kind of a writer, too, which perhaps accounts for his not having ever become as well-known abroad as he was in England, swhere such good judges as Graham Greene considered him one of the finest writers of the twentieth-century, and, in one famously, much-quoted quip, Auberon Waugh, who said he  was “outstandingly the best travel writer of our age, if not since Marco Polo.”
If anyone is interested in embarking on an examination of his work, he can be found on the Internet, and his books are, for the most part, still easily available.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank-you for your post on Norman Lewis - an under-appreciated writer. I liked your observations about the breadth of his writing.