Enfield was nothing

P.N. Furbank

  • The Tomb in Seville by Norman Lewis
    Cape, 150 pp, £14.99, November 2003, ISBN 0 224 07120 3

‘I hate voyages and explorers,’ Lévi-Strauss writes in his Tristes Tropiques (1955). So what is he doing, he asks himself, in producing this account of his expeditions?

Must I relate so many insipid details and insignificant occurrences? Adventure has no place in the ethnographic profession: it is merely a form of servitude, it burdens effective work with the weight of weeks or months lost in travelling; idle hours in which informants disappear; hunger, fatigue, sometimes illness; and always those thousand duties which consume the days in pure loss and reduce the dangerous life in the virgin forest to an imitation of military service . . . That it calls for such efforts and vain expense to attain the object of our studies confers no value on what one should rather regard as the negative aspect of our métier. The truths which we travel so far to seek need to be stripped from such dross to have any value.

Well, one knows all too well what he means, and we need not classify his great Tristes Tropiques as ‘travel writing’. On the other hand, one should not be too dogmatic, or anyway too hasty, in arriving at a definition of ‘travel writing’. One would suppose that it must involve a journey. Henry James’s Italian Hours is neatly planned as a progress from one Italian city to another, yet the ‘journey’ aspect is given hardly any significance; instinct tells us not to class it as a ‘travel book’. By contrast, in the case of Goethe’s Italian Journey, it is the journey itself, which is by no means altogether planned and develops rather like a work of art, that counts most. One could even, metaphorically, call it an ‘explorer’ narrative, for it is partly a work of self-exploration.

It seems to help, though, if we narrow our definition of ‘travel book’ or ‘travel writing’ so as to exclude real and literal explorer narratives – such a book, shall we say, as Mungo Park’s Travels. It is a memorable book, but Park deliberately confines himself to the grave practical matters of concern to the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa. He recognised, but resisted, the temptations that Lévi-Strauss is so caustic about, telling Sir Walter Scott that he would not render his travels more marvellous by introducing ‘circumstances which, however true, were of little or no moment, as they related solely to his own personal adventures and escapes’ – the very things which, for good or evil, Evelyn Waugh and Peter Fleming and Robert Byron, not to mention Redmond O’Hanlon, assume to be the heart of travel writing.

This leads us to the reflection that travel writing, or anyway the best sort, only pretends to be informative. The author, out of self-respect, and by mugging up or other means, certainly amasses a good deal of information, but we readers are not likely to find it useful. It is improbable we will be setting off for the Gobi Desert or the Brazilian rainforest, and if we were, we would seek more reliable travel aids; while much of the appeal of reading about Tuscany or the Dordogne, regions where our faces are well known, is the provocation to disagree and know better.

There follows from this an important aesthetic criterion. It is concerned with ‘knowingness’. Few works are more indisputably travel writing than Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah (1855): every detail in his ‘pilgrimage’ – the attempt by an infidel Westerner to pass himself off as an Arab pilgrim and gain sight of the Muslim sacred places and ceremonies – is relevant to the overall purpose, if only because of the ever present risk of exposure. Perhaps no one but Burton, with his fantastic mastery of languages and passion for disguise, could have brought it off, though on reflection the whole thing does not seem such a very good idea. But there is no doubt about Burton’s determination to inform. When he is not listening to ‘knowing’ advice from travel acquaintances, he is bestowing it copiously on them, or on his readers, his sentences weighed down with glosses on Arabic words in his own improved spelling. The effect is most tiresome.

How much more appealing is the travel writing of Evelyn Waugh. In Remote People (1931), about an assignment to report on the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie, he admits he would bend the ear of any chance acquaintance with his newly acquired knowledge of Ethiopian matters (who wouldn’t, in his shoes?). Nevertheless, his underlying attitude is carefree, unpretentious and quite devoid of knowingness. (He has a nice vein of deadpan humour about the oracular pronouncements of his advisers, which infallibly prove erroneous, or at least contradictory.) He is in the tradition of Théophile Gautier, an ‘enthusiastic and descriptive traveller who, lorgnette in hand, goes to draw up an account of the universe’. His theory, as he explains it in When the Going Was Good (1946), is the disarming one that ‘one does not travel, any more than one falls in love, to collect material. It is simply part of one’s life.’

But a further classificatory thought comes to mind: that a travel book, despite its name, does not absolutely have to describe a journey or travelling. It can be about a stay, perhaps lengthy, in a single foreign spot. We might call it ‘acclimatisation’. The point is very relevant to Norman Lewis.

Lewis, who died in July at the age of 95, began a career as a travel writer in 1935, with a facetious entertainment entitled Spanish Adventure, which he later did his best to suppress and blot out of the record. Thus we can regard A Dragon Apparent (1951), the fruit of a three-month stay in Indo-China not long before the Vietnam War, as his first serious travel book. (The implication of the title was that, with the Communist takeover in China, Far Eastern travel might have to be undertaken now, or never.) The book already shows many of his best qualities: a genial, tolerant, gently ironic tone and a marvellous eye for the odd and grotesque. It is hard not be captivated by his summary of the religious outlook of the Moïs (a remote hill tribe, in the early 19th century reported to have tails).

From the multiplicity of their rites, all of which require alcoholic consumption, the intriguing side-issue emerges that respectability and drunkenness are allied. The upright man gives evidence of his ritual adequacy by being drunk as often as possible, he is respected by all for his piety, a pattern held up to youth. The words nam lu uttered in grave welcome to the stranger in a Moï village, and meaning let us get drunk together, have all the exhortatory value of an invitation to common prayer.

It is true that Lewis once told an interviewer, ‘Whatever I tell you, cut by a half or two-thirds,’ but one does not quite know what use to make of this boast or confession. On the other hand, a difficulty about knowledgability certainly arises. Lewis, who one supposes did not have much grasp of the Moïs’ language, and who was by no means a ‘knowing’ writer, explains frankly that he got most of his understanding of this ‘engaging race’ from a single long conversation with an expert, who had himself spent ten years studying it and despaired of coming to an end of his inquiry.

There are minor lapses, too, which Lewis would have avoided later: an occasional hint of 19th-century imperialism, for instance, as with the phrase ‘the best type of Yemeni Arab’, or a photo with the caption ‘Meo woman’. (Had he wanted one of ‘British woman’, one asks oneself, whom would he have chosen as his model: Barbara Cartland, Edith Evans or Barbara Castle? His remark that ‘to a Vietnamese all Europeans looked exactly the same’ demands much probing.)

But a great strength of his writing, here as elsewhere, is self-effacingness, and one detects it directly entering the rhetoric of his prose. He was often ironical about ardent naturalists, whose only way of welcoming a new species seemed to be to hunt and kill it; but in describing the Emperor of Vietnam’s hunting-party he cheerfully, in the cause of ethical neutrality, assumes a hunter’s point of view. He notes how five peacocks, surprised in the topmost branches of a tree, were ‘perfect targets sitting silhouetted against the sky’.

Lewis, who wrote about Burma, Sicily, Brazil, Central America and Indonesia, as well as Spain, was clearly a dedicated travel writer; yet, as I mentioned earlier, two of his books, indeed the ones that some, myself included, find most involving – Naples ‘44 (1978) and Voices of the Old Sea (1984) – are about staying put. He was in Naples, as a field security officer in the Intelligence Corps, during the first year of the Allied occupation, hardly stirring from the city in this agonising and frantic moment of history. By contrast, he spent three long and happy summers (1947 to 1949) in an isolated fishing village, Farol, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, a place where nothing much could be said ever to happen; and he entered the local life in the directest possible way, by becoming a professional fisherman.

The reason one nonetheless thinks of Naples ‘44 and Voices of the Old Sea as travel books relates to Lewis’s psychology. In his autobiographical Jackdaw Cake (1985) he is explicit that, from boyhood onwards (he grew up in Enfield, where his father ran a chemist’s shop), home meant nothing to him. He pictures how a friend and he, having their ritual Saturday night supper at Mrs England’s Dining Rooms, would begin to ask themselves if they really existed.

These threadbare surroundings in which we sat hunched over a scrubbed table, our backs to the light, came very close to being nothing. Perhaps we too were nothing, had come from nothing, were journeying through nothing, towards a distant goal of nothingness. Enfield was nothing, the Rialto Cinema nothing to the accompaniment of organ music, the Queens’s nothing with fleas.

One can see how, for one for whom home had no value, there might be salvation in ‘abroad’, and that is what he seems to have discovered. This was not, however, because when abroad he would be ‘something’, nor because he found a ‘home’ abroad (as, for instance, Gerald Brenan did in Spain). On the contrary, he liked to say that people didn’t see him, that they would not notice he had been in a room or had left it. This anonymity enabled him to see places and cultures more clearly. His attitude to ‘abroad’ involved a very large element of detachment, though detachment only of a certain kind.

For detachment is not to be confused with indifference. The scene in Naples in 1944 was one of starvation, epidemic disease, near universal prostitution (with a retreating enemy deliberately spreading syphilis), revolting savagery on the part of French colonial troops, and bottomless corruption. (Lewis says, and I suppose one must believe him, that the chief adviser of the Allied administration was the erstwhile head of the American Mafia.) To these things, as he makes plain, he reacted with intense pity, outrage and indignation, and occasionally, when he encountered heroism and endurance, with admiration; and what he could do to help the victims, he did. But in 99 cases out of 100 he could do nothing whatever, and he is able to register this fact calmly, without protest or attempts to pass blame onto the reader. His book is a triumph of tone.

It is significant that he did not create a book, from the copious notes he took at this time, until 34 years later. By then, indeed, to give himself such a long period of meditation had become his chosen method. His last travel book, The Tomb in Seville, is an extreme example of this. It describes a journey written up from notes made more than sixty years earlier, yet manages to preserve what Evelyn Waugh calls a ‘vernal scent’.

Lewis had married the daughter of Ernesto Corvaja, a wealthy Sicilian, at one time a Mafia lawyer, now retired to London. Corvaja was a descendant of a princely Spanish family, a fact he was highly proud of, and in September 1934 he offered to pay the expenses of Lewis and Lewis’s wife’s brother Eugene for a two-month visit to Seville, where they were to inspect what remained of the Corvaja palace and pay their respects to the family tomb in the cathedral.

No sooner had they crossed the frontier into Spain than they learned that international telephone lines were dead, the border with France was closed, the Government had declared a State of Alarm, and travel within the country was at a standstill. It was, they vaguely gathered, the response to a threatened Communist uprising. It was now a baffling problem for them how to get to Seville, and before long they were journeying the 110 miles from Pamplona to Zaragoza on foot. The scene had changed from the bustling modern one in Irun, where the French ‘hastened from one engagement to another with an eye kept on their enormous clocks’, to an ancient and primitive Spain, where ‘beauty was once again under the protection of poverty.’ A Spain, moreover, seemingly intensely lonely.

Small men with ancestors who for a thousand years had fitted themselves into the cramped living spaces in this barren immensity, watched us from the roadside, avid perhaps for human company of any kind. A lean fox scrutinised us from its hole, a gaunt bush suddenly exploded with a hundred twittering birds, while small white butterflies had settled on nearby rocks like hoarfrost.

(The quotation catches the subtle cadence and delicate exactitude of Lewis’s mature prose.) The effect of this sudden transition from new to old (and from old to new when they reach Madrid amid a hail of machine-gun bullets) was decisive for Lewis’s sensibility, leading him to say much later: ‘I am looking for the people who have always been there, and belong to the places they live. The others I do not wish to see.’

The Tomb in Seville, though not in a limiting sense, is simply and wholly about the experience of travelling. It has a muted ending, for the Corvaja palace had become an expensive shoe-shop, and the tomb, with hundreds of others, had been thrown out of the cathedral and ignominiously pulverised. But this last and posthumous book is authentic Lewis, full of feeling, exact notation, delicious oddities and a love of the natural world.