Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

The greatest travel writer you've never read

I have been pretty shocked in the past week or so to discover how many otherwise well-read people have never heard of Norman Lewis, who is without a doubt the greatest post-war travel writer.

His biography, Semi-Invisible Man, by Julian Evans, has just been published to mark Lewis' cententary. I first discovered him in the late Eighties and devoured his seminal work, Naples '44, about his time, during the war, as part of the Allied army of Occupation of Southern Italy following the collapse of the fascist regime in the south. It is achingly funny and rich in insights into that marvellous, untidy, erotic city.

Lewis' 1950 book on Indo-China, A Dragon Apparent, was in the suitcase of every educated journalist during the Vietnam war.

His elegyy for Spain just before the arrival of mass tourism in the Fifities, Voices of the Old Sea, and not published until 1984, is one of the five or six books I cherish.

I once had a brief correspondence with Lewis. I wish I could find the letters.

So just go and read him. And if you already have, then Julian Evans will be doing an event at Daunt's Books on Marylebone High Street on Wednesday. I'll be going.


Wendy Hutton said...

You're absolutely right about Norman Lewis being a superb (and sadly ignored) travel writer. His "Dragon Apparent" has been one of my most important books every since I came to live in Southeast Asia 40 years ago. He was not remarkably prescient but wrote like an angel.

Mary said...

Thank you so much for this! Have ordered two titles immediately from Amazon. Did not realise how ignorant I was!

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for sharing some invaluable cultural and entertainment treasures with us.

I am reading Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate and bought tickets to the coming Melbourne Joan as Policewoman Concert.

Pease keep up with your good habit of sharing.

As my contribution;Sandor Marai's Embers is a great read.

Diane said...

thank you -- I was one of the ignorant ones...

Charles Lambert said...

Norman Lewis had a healthy scepticism towards religion and a very healthy contempt for its social effects: see The Missionaries. Naples '44 also provides the first glimpse, to my knowledge, of that dreadful old fraud, Padre Pio, where he's described as having flown up into the heavens, unaided, to rescue a wounded pilot. This is in line with the tradition of flying monks described in Old Calabria by Normam Douglas, also worth reading.

lagatta said...

Yes, I very much want to read Naples '44... important to look at the background for the sorry state that marvellous city finds itself in these days (literally up to its knees in rubbish - and tainted mozzarella).

Padre Pio was also a lecher, and it seems he was a child molester. I'm dismayed at him being fast tracked for sainthood - he represents the ignorant, manipulative, superstitious side of religious faith, not the nobler aspects of human spirituality.

I have seen how this cult preys on Italians and Italian emigrants of modest means and little education. Now San Giovanni Rotondo has become a notorious centre of religious hucksterism.