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The Tomb in Seville by Norman Lewis

The Tomb in Seville (2003)

by Norman Lewis

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Norman Lewis was born in London to Welsh parents in 1908. I have heard him referred to as the prototypical modern travel writer, but I wonder if that is true. However, the sheer volume and quality of Lewis’s work do mark him out. His upbringing was odd; his parents were ardent spiritualists. As a young man he pursued various ventures including the motor trade and motor racing, and was married, quite young, to the daughter of a Sicilian of noble Spanish descent, Ernesto Corvaja.

In September 1934, the young Lewis embarked on a mission to Seville in search of his father-in-law’s ancestral tomb, which Corvaja hoped would be found in the cathedral. His son, Eugene Corvaja, travelled with Lewis. This is the account of their journey.

There are some very odd things about this book, not least that it appeared nearly 70 years after the journey it described, when Lewis was a very old man (he died very soon afterwards). It may be that Lewis intended it as part of his autobiography, published many years earlier - but then held it back, so that it remained unfinished business for years.

October 1934 saw a brief, violent conflict in Spain; it ended quickly, but was the precursor of the civil war that was to follow less than two years later. It was not the best time to be in Spain, as Lewis and Corvaja discover when they secure a place on an armoured train that takes them to Madrid. Here they alight to find themselves in the middle of a firefight, and as they dodge bullets to leave the station, Lewis notices a poster that assures them, in English, that “Spain Attracts and Holds You. Under the Blue Skies of Spain Cares Are Forgotten.”

The book is packed with bizarre incident. As the fighting comes to an end, the Lewis and Eugene Corvaja attend a bullfight, and see the rejoneador­ (a lead bullfighter who fights with a lance) apparently gored to death (“it was given out that he was dead”). They then decide to investigate a reported mania amongst Madrileños for drinking animal blood. They visit a slaughterhouse, but are “deterred by a woman on her way out, made terrible by the smile painted by the blood on her lips.” Later, on their way through Portugal, the pair hear of a witch-burning, no less, in a small village in Porto called Marco do Canavezes. They travel there to find that the story is substantially true.

The book sometimes raises questions it does not answer. Why would Corvaja senior send his son and his son-in-law on a quixotic journey through Spain in a time of trouble? Did they really hear of a witch-burning in Portugal? (Marco do Canavezes - actually Canaveses - is real enough, and is, oddly, the birthplace of the singer Carmen Miranda; but I can find no mention of the witch-burning story although that does not make it false.)

But does that matter? Why strain at a story of witch-burning in 1934, when a much larger outbreak of atavistic savagery was just beginning? For the most part, the narrative seems heartfelt; the journey clearly left an impression on Lewis and, like Laurie Lee a few months later, he was struck by the poverty (in Andalusia, they “pass through settlements of windowless huts consisting of no more than holes dug in the ground with branch and straw coverings …to take the place of roofs”).

The book is also alive with Lewis's descriptive genius. Thus he and Corvaja, stranded by the conflict, must walk from city to city through the countryside:

"…the rich gilding of summer returned to the Navarran landscape. …We moved across boundless plains of billowing rock purged of all colour by the sun. ...Behind the mountains ahead symmetrical and luminous and symmetrical clouds were poised without shift of position as we trudged towards them for hours on end. At our approach an anomalous yellow bloom shook itself from a single tree, transformed into a flock of singing green finches. Lizards, basking in the dust, came suddenly to life and streaked away into the undergrowth."

Therein lies this book’s great strength; besides being well-observed and well-written, it is like a trip through a wormhole; an almost covert glimpse of a world that has been forgotten. It is not perfect. but it does not have to be, for it has the freshness and warmth of a diary entry. ( )
1 vote mikerobbins | Sep 30, 2014 |
Rather a strange book, published posthumously so, regretfully, the last book we shall be able to read and enjoy from this engaging author.

It is not that the writing or prose is strange – just the perception of what the book means to the professional reviewers and blurbers. “Witty”, they said and “A delightful cross between P.G. Wodehouse and Henry James”. I found nothing humorous about the start of the Spanish Civil War or of the entrapment, delays, corruption and frustrations of the author and his brother-in-law trying to travel to Seville to pay respect to his father-in-law’s family resting place. Perhaps, because of my own often equally frustrating trips in my international travels, I missed the jokes – empathy obscured them? I saw nothing witty in being shot at – despite holding up their hands – when trying to return to their hotel, or in the tearing of the author’s legs on barbed wire or of seeing citizens gunned down into the gutters of Madrid.

So, this reader at least found no Bertie Wooster moments and the author is, as always, far less boring than Henry James!

Instead I found a lyrical treatise on a country he obviously fell in love with “at first sight” and a moving account of the peoples of an earlier Spain, about to tear each other asunder in blood, bone-crushing terror and war.
  John_Vaughan | Aug 18, 2012 |
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If it's Spain you want, put your trust in the renowned travel writer Norman Lewis, whose book ''The Tomb in Seville'' begins in 1934, at the moment when the miners of Asturias rose in armed revolt against the government of Spain. With shooting on the streets of Madrid, the government declared a state of alarm: a curfew was imposed and all public transportation came to a halt. But two young travelers -- Lewis and his brother-in-law -- were determined to continue on their journey to Seville. They begin by walking 110 miles to Zaragoza: ''We moved across boundless plains of billowing rock purged of all color by the sun. Distant clumps of poplar seemed to have been drawn up into the base of the sky in an atmosphere of mirage and mist. . . . At our approach an anomalous yellow bloom shook itself from a single tree, transformed into a flock of green singing finches. . . .

''An eagle detached itself from a boulder and flapped away towards the mountains.''
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My father-in-law, Ernesto Corvaja, although Sicilian by birth, was obsessively concerned with all matter pertaining to Spain.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0786716878, Paperback)

While the rumblings of oncoming war shook a divided Spain, Norman Lewis and his brother-in-law Eugene Corvaja traveled through the Spanish countryside to the family tomb in Seville. Nearly seventy years later, in prose that is witty, understated, and poignant, Lewis describes the duo's travels first to Madrid, then through the bloody insurrection of October '34, and finally via the length of Portugal to Seville. Once there, they find the Corvaja tomb, but it is nothing like they expected. In this, his last book before his death in 2003, Lewis conjures up the country he returned to time and again in his writing, and displays the spirit of pure fascination that has inspired generations of readers. He recalls covering a hundred miles on foot, sleeping in caves, dodging sniper fire, and attempting to dissuade the communist-leaning Eugene from joining the People's Army. Yet Lewis's sweetly infectious enthusiasm for the sights and sounds of a country holding on to its glorious past in the face of a violent future never wanes. For the avid and the new Norman Lewis reader alike, The Tomb in Seville is a vibrantly fresh tale of a historic time and place.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:59 -0400)

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'The Tomb in Seville' is an account of a journey Norman Lewis made in 1934 with his Sicilian brother-in-law Eugene Corvaja. Their destination was the cathedral in Seville, site of the Corvaja family tomb.

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