Seeing Things

John Bayley

  • The World, the World by Norman Lewis
    Cape, 293 pp, £18.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 224 04234 3
  • Omnibus: ‘A Dragon Apparent’, ‘Golden Earth’, ‘A Goddess in the Stones’ by Norman Lewis
    Picador, 834 pp, £9.99, January 1996, ISBN 0 330 33780 7

The jacket photograph is revealing. A rather apologetic looking man, in sensible but unpretentious tropical attire, stands between two tremendously authentic indigenes, complete with bows and arrows and wearing only a curl of string round their penises. He looks like a sales rep, come to show them a new line in tupperware. But Norman Lewis has always maintained a low profile when it comes to exploring. His admirable series of travel books and travel novels, informative, neatly written, and full of a dry detached humour, make Lawrence of Arabia or Bruce Chatwin, even Wilfred Thesiger and Freya Stark, look like the most tremendous show-offs, auto-destructive as wildlife films on TV.

But then flamboyance – or flamboyant understatement – is usually what travel writing is about. It is a style that protects and passes the time for writer and reader alike. ‘The next day we set off, with some trepidation, along the Mbongo Mbongo.’ There is always a next day, and another one after that, as the reader sits expectantly in his chair and the writer turns the pages of his travel notes. Dryden summed the matter up in his play Aurungzebe, after the hero, disillusioned with disappointments daily renewed, has delivered the speech beginning ‘When I consider life, ’tis all a cheat.’ The heroine vigorously disagrees with him:

Each day’s a mistress, unenjoyed before;
Like travellers, we’re pleased with seeing more.

In travel books we can see more by proxy, even though everything is now becoming much the same everywhere. Will the genre decline as a result of cheap and easy package tours to every cranny of the globe? Probably not. There is a certainty – one might call it Stanley’s or Livingstone’s Law – that as travellers we ourselves will in fact see or notice or experience very little while the people who write the books will appear both to see and go through a great deal.

The most disquieting voyage to read about is that of E.M. Forster’s Mrs Moore. She is a perfectly willing traveller, although she prefers being at home, and looks forward to getting back there. But her passage to India destroys the point of her life. In a sense it works too well – the Marabar caves, those well-known tourist attractions, are for her a real if ironic revelation – but in another sense the sights of travel destroy the coherence and meaning that she has been accustomed to take for granted in the world. Overcome, she dies on the way home. Like all really good art, Forster’s novel gives life the meaning that its message takes away: only inside the words in which it is written does India become extraordinarily real, beautiful and significant. But however much a modern travel book, like the prospectus or itinerary of a travel company, may pile on the picturesqueness, the colour, the scenery, the girls, the exotic food and drink, meaninglessness of another sort than that revealed to Mrs Moore soon takes over. In his quiet way Norman Lewis is an adept at suggesting the nature of this meaninglessness in the world of modern travel experiences, about which he seems to feel, as it were, no resentment. If drama comes it comes in the drabbest possible way: to be raped and murdered by a Buddhist monk in a Thai temple is no different from the same event in the Finchley Road. In Forster’s novel Miss Quested at least had her quest; and her author gave her its meaning.

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