For the past ten days I've been listening to her chirp and coo like a contented bird on her perch beside me. She has been reading I Came, I Saw, an autobiography of the British writer Norman Lewis. Lewis is probably best remembered these days as a travel writer, however over his long lifetime he also wrote thirteen novels. I've personally never read any of his fictional works, in fact I'm not quite certain any are still in print, but I daresay you'd be able to find them second-hand, and I reckon they would still be worth the effort. Lewis wrote prose with such blinding ease and elegance that he makes you forget you're actually reading. His sentences, free of any surplus fat, are lean but satisfying. I think the best way I could describe his skill is to say that his words somehow always carry backbone and musculature. Cyril Connolly once said of him that he could make a lorry interesting. And the distinguished author Graham Greene had no hesitation in describing him as, "One of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century."
I first discovered him in 2006 when a friend of my son's gave me a copy of what is widely considered to be his finest work, Naples '44, for my birthday. Southern Italy was our holiday destination that year and Naples was somewhere we planned to visit. For an account of the suffering encountered by a starving population in a heavily bombed and devastated city in war-torn Europe, this book takes some beating. Since then I've gone on to read a number of his other works including The Honoured Society (1964), which was serialised in The New Yorker and highly regarded in its day as being the first book to offer any real insight into the Sicilian Mafia. Both these titles and many more are published by Eland.
Norman Lewis was born in 1908 in Enfield, North London. His parents were both Welsh, and Lewis was naturally a shy type. Because of bullying encountered at his Enfield Grammar school, he was sent off to stay with three completely nutty Welsh aunts in Carmarthenshire for a while. He spent much time travelling around the world, and lived for extended periods in various countries. An article of his written for the Sunday Times in 1968, Genocide in Brazil, caused great public outcry and led in turn to the creation of Survival International, dedicated to protecting the rights of 'first peoples'. Norman Lewis died at the age of 95 at his home in Essex in 2003.
Take my word for it, this man is really worth reading.