The hopeful traveller

<strong>Semi-Invisible Man: the Life of Norman Lewis


Julian Evans

<em>Jonathan Cape,

If almost 800 pages are necessary to capture the essence of Norman Lewis's long and adventure-filled life, then an 800-word review can scarcely begin to do justice to Julian Evans's biography of this highly regarded and important, if often overlooked, writer. Semi-Invisible Man is a magnificent book, not only for its meticulous, spirited and colourful depiction of Lewis and his work (it could hardly fail to be vibrant, given Lewis's lust for excitement), but also for Evans's stimulating and highly welcome meditations throughout on the nature of biography, the need for stories and, ultimately, on our relationship with truth itself.

From early beginnings in his late twenties, and continuing well into his nineties, Lewis wrote almost 30 books - both fiction and non-fiction - as well as numerous magazine articles, often being one of the first to bring public attention to the plight of indigenous peoples around the world. One of these, published by the Sunday Times in 1969, led directly to the founding of Survival International. However, he is perhaps best remembered for his travel writing, with Naples '44, Voices of the Old Sea and A Dragon Apparent regarded as classics of the genre. His last work, The Tomb in Seville, was published in 2003, just four months after his death.

"This is a biography by someone who dislikes biography about someone who disliked exposure," Evans tells us in his prelude. After turning the chance down twice, he decided in the end to write the book to prevent anyone else from doing so, "given my intense dislike of some of the ways in which biography is written". And his principal focus was always to understand why Lewis wrote in the first place. Immediately the reader's fears that this might be yet another scandal-seeking, "truth-revealing" investigation are allayed. Lewis is in safe hands, his dignity intact.

Evans was Lewis's friend and editor during the latter part of his life (hence his familiar use of "Norman" when referring to him; the title of the book comes from a dedication Lewis wrote in Evans's copy of To Run Across the Sea), yet there is no sense of anything missed or glossed over here. We learn everything any other bio grapher would have told us - about his life as a dandy, celebrated photographer and successful businessman, racing driver, soldier and spy, as well as, more famously, a traveller and writer - but also about Lewis's complicated love life, his eccentric fathering (he taught his children how to poach) and his drug-taking (Benzedrine). It is noteworthy, however, that although no details are spared, any delving into Lewis's less attractive traits is done with an unfashionable delicacy; always respectful, never scurrilous. Lewis was known for his politeness towards others; it is only fitting that a study of his life should mirror that in its treatment of him.

Another strength of the book is its refusal to use the biographer's advantage of hindsight to find shape or patterns to Lewis's life where there are none. As far as is possible, Evans tells Lewis's story from his subject's perspective, events crashing into the narrative as chaotically as they occurred at the time. The result is to create a multidimensional picture of the man, with all the textures and contradictions of his personality: showy yet self-effacing, affectionate and cold, easily bored yet never boring. This may be a personal, sometimes subjective view of his life, as Evans says, yet the sense is of Lewis himself appearing very clearly from the page, not the biographer's image of him.

What is most refreshing to discover, however, is that Evans treats apparent discrepancies between certain events in Lewis's life and his later recounting of them in his books and other writings with great sensibility. "He was a writer after all, a writer of the Romantic or at least subjective stamp that realises meaning and truth are a scattered dissemination of signifiers, and that the writer's job is to take advantage of that," he says.

Taking up the theme later on when discussing differences between two accounts of a dinner in Algeria during the war - one Lewis's, the other a colleague's - he adds: "The question usually posed about modern dramatisations of 'real' events is always the wrong one. The important question is not 'Is it true - good - or invented - bad?' but 'What quality of meaning does it offer?'" Lewis's account almost certainly has elements of fabrication, but is the better for it, providing meaning "because of its distortion".

There is plenty of evidence of a storyteller's licence being used throughout Lewis's writing career, and in the hands of a less subtle biographer he would have been accused at the very least of "embellishment", at worst of lying. But as Evans points out, "a writer's lie is more satisfying than reality's truth, should that be available anywhere". It is no surprise that Lewis's favourite film was Kurosawa's Rashomon, the story of a rape and a murder told from four very different points of view. Lewis was an intelligent writer searching for meaning in a world devoid of definitive accounts or interpretations of "truth". That is why he is so admired, and why his books will survive. In Evans he has been given the biographer he most deserves. Semi-Invisible Man is designed to stimulate readers to reach out and discover (or rediscover) Lewis for themselves. It not only succeeds in that, but is a triumph in almost every regard.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide