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Semi invisible man: the life of Norman Lewis…

Semi invisible man: the life of Norman Lewis (2008)

by Julian Evans

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This, I found, a most difficult book to get into, struggling through the preface as the author turgidity tried to assuage some guilt he seems to have felt, in undertaking his role as biographer for one of his friends.

Perseverance was rewarding eventually, although it is true to say that the 'best bits' - exciting and enthralling - were the passages from the subject's own pen. Long a fan of the gripping prose of Norman Lewis, I took a measure of satisfaction in rereading some of his (nearly forgotten) vivid descriptions and came to recognise that the biographer also truly respected this great writer.

Why "semi-invisible" ? Because Lewis was the absolute reverse of today's 'celebrities', withholding in a stiff reserve his personal life and details.

A life, if not quite the "living for ever" he claimed to expect, but respectfully lengthy and, until Alzheimer's, productive and fulfilling.

An interesting and respectful biography for this 'man of respect' of English letters, a 'travel writer' that Greene described as "one of our best, not just perhaps of this decade but since Marco Polo". But, in fact, so much more than a travel writer, producing such profound works as "Naples 44" and "Missionaries" that revealed the nefarious, murderous practices of the New Tribes Mission - unfortunately based just a few miles from where this reader lives - if you have never read Lewis, this book is a great introduction to his powerful writing.

And exciting life.
  John_Vaughan | Dec 20, 2014 |
If Norman Lewis's biographer had taken him at his modest word, he could have looked forward to thin pickings from the life of this most talented but self-effacing of travel writers and novelists. After all, this was a man who insisted on the flyleaf of his books that he enjoyed an 'introspective, almost monastic calm' between excursions and assignments. Lewis was the only person he knew who could walk into a crowded room and leave it some time later without anyone noticing, or so he claimed - though 'claimed' hardly seems the word for it.

But if charm means getting what you want before you've even asked for it, Lewis had it in abundance, though in his case it was really the uncanny hex of the snake-charmer: wily and bearing the faintest whiff of sulphur. Hypnotically disarming, he materialised in forbidding places and insinuated himself among unbiddable people, producing books that were as dry, spare and elegant as he was himself. His accounts of the Sicilian Mafia, Naples after the Allied invasion, the plight of the Brazilian Indians - these became classics.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0224072757, Hardcover)

A view of the fascinating life of travel writer Norman Lewis who, due to literary snobbery towards travel writers, was perhaps the best “not famous” writer of his generation. Julian Evans has written a biography that will send readers hurrying to the books of an overlooked master.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:27 -0400)

"Norman Lewis was the best not-famous writer of his generation, and a better writer than almost all who were. He was not-famous because of an English prejudice: because critics who judged his works of travel and non-fiction as lower than the yardstick of artistic genius represented by the novel have ignored the truth that over four decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s, he wrote books that have survived better than all but a handful of novels." "A pharmacist's son from Enfield, Lewis (1908-2003) became unmatched as a witness to his times. His account of south-east Asia before the Vietnam war, A Dragon Apparent, remains required reading. Voices of the Old Sea, a glimpse of Spain as it was before the tourists arrived, is a classic in the literature of the Mediterranean. His memoir of wartime Naples, Naples '44, is a masterpiece." "An expert at penetrating the glorious, and inglorious, surfaces of our planet, as a stylist he was a revolutionary, entirely self-taught. In appearance he was someone you could pass in the street without realising anyone had gone by, yet his self-effacing quality, which allowed him to observe unnoticed, concealed extraordinary glamour. For more than twenty years he spied for the British government. He raced Bugattis before the war, lived in Ibiza after it, and was a crack shot, flamboyant host, and businessman with mafia connections, leading a life of such self-pleasing hedonism that his existence at times was closer to a rock star's than anyone else's." "Published to mark Norman Lewis's centenary, Julian Evans's Semi-invisible Man is a fascinating view of a suburban fugitive and adventurer; an incomparable witness; a writer of unsurpassed humour, wisdom and compassion for the ridiculous. It is a biography that aims to send its readers hurrying to the books of an overlooked master."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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