Book Review: A View of the World By Norman Lewis

A Dragon Apparent and Golden Earth established Norman Lewis as a writer of uncommonly well-written prose, who, as Cyril Connolly noted, had a remarkable gift for making even a lorry seem interesting. Both books, published in impressively short succession, were lavished with superlatives from the critics of the time. Yet neither sold especially well, and Lewis’s next few travel books followed with surprising infrequency. He completed one more in the 1950s (a collection of essays), then just two others throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, when much of his creative energy was invested in the writing of his far more lucrative novels.

Travelling the world nevertheless remained Lewis’s first priority, and he frequently wrote short accounts of his numerous trips for newspapers and magazines. In 1968, he wrote what he considered the greatest of all his endeavours: the essay “Genocide in Brazil”, about the atrocities committed against Brazilian natives by the country’s own Indian protection service. This, along with several other essays, was later included in the collection A View of the World, an astonishing work that confirms Graham Greene’s belief that Lewis was one of the best writers of the twentieth century.

When Eland Books published it in 1986, Lewis was in a new stage of his career. He had quite recently written several of his finest books, and John Hatt, the man behind Eland, had been successful in renewing attention in Lewis’s older ones. A View of the World was thus perfect for readers wishing to discover more; it was a book to dip in and out of, a work of tremendous variety, not only in terms of location, but in its vast emotional depth. Throughout it, Lewis writes of repatriating Cossacks to the Soviet Union; of the idyllic pleasures of Belize; of the ferocious blood feuds of Sardinian bandits. And his evocative descriptions of these events are nothing less than exceptional.

When readers hear the term travel journalism, they might think of the sort of articles found in Sunday newspaper supplements: those in which the writer endeavours to describe wherever it is he’s staying by using words like “sun-kissed” and “wind-swept”, while at the same time lamenting how rude the staff in his hotel were. A View of the World is nothing like this. As one review put it: Lewis “makes all other travel-writing read like the blurb on a brochure,” and to a great extent this is true. Lewis was out of place even among his contemporaries—Patrick Leigh Fermor, Eric Newby, Peter Fleming—all of whom wrote extraordinary travel books, though none quite like Naples ’44, Golden Earth or A Dragon Apparent.

Likewise, only Lewis could have written the essays collected in A View of the World. Everything that makes a good Norman Lewis book is here: his persistent use of understatement, his powerful descriptions; he even touches upon several tried and tested themes, such as in his account of a small a fishing community in unspoilt Ibiza, similar in many ways to his description of the semi-fictional Farol in Voices of the Old Sea. Yet Lewis never seems to repeat himself, even when writing of the same place twice, which he does so a number of times throughout the book.


In another essay on Ibiza Lewis explains how the mistreatment of an Ibicene hound sparks a debate of ethics among the locals of the town; and in two separate essays on Cuba, we hear of Lewis’s fascinating encounters with Ernest Hemingway, Castro’s executioner, Ian Fleming, and Ed Scott, Fleming’s priapic model for James Bond. In Hemingway, Lewis finds a man of great sadness, who, only a few years after winning the Nobel Prize for literature, has taken to drowning his tribulations with half-pints of Dubonnet. “He told me nothing,” writes Lewis, who finds the whole ordeal deeply tragic, “but taught me more than I wanted to know.”

Elsewhere, Lewis is not always quite so willing to put his opinion forward to the reader. One of his strengths as a writer was his ability to not let his fervency spoil his prose. He allowed his reader to form an opinion based on what he put down on the page, rarely interjecting to impose his thoughts or feelings on a matter. This effortlessly detached style is perfect exemplified in the aforementioned “Genocide in Brazil”, compiled here under the title of “Genocide”, which is not merely the standout article of the collection, but surely one of the greatest pieces of journalism of the 20th century. It was greeted with such outcry when it was first published that it led to the creation of Survival International, a charity concerned with the protection of indigenous peoples around the world. And even all these years later the essay’s power to shock and disturb remains undiminished.

Few essays in the collection are quite so poignant. Most conjure very different emotions in the reader. Variety is one of the great pleasures of A View of the World; it’s what makes it such an ideal bedside companion, a book that the reader can pick up at any time and find a piece to suit his mood. It is sometimes humorous, always insightful and occasionally utterly harrowing; yet whatever tone Lewis is using, he is never prosaic. His enthusiasm and finely crafted prose radiate from every page. These are the writings of a man who genuinely loved to travel, and who could keep an open mind even when presented with sheer deprivation.

Almost all of Lewis’s travel books are worth owning. But this is the one that readers should carry in their rucksacks when they themselves travel, to remove during a quiet moment, so that they can enjoy the fabulous writings of a man who gave so much of his life to touring the world.

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