Candle Moments

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Semi-Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis by Julian Evans
    Cape, 792 pp, £25.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 224 07275 5

Until recently, the art of modern biography was too little influenced by the man who invented it, James Boswell, and, even today, many of those who set out to write the lives of authors seem to be led by a suspicion that everything of interest about the subject might already have been said by the subject himself. The literary biographer is haunted by Nabokov’s stylishly defensive comment that the only biography of a writer that matters is the biography of his style.

Yet style is a manifestation of much more than a writer’s own self-fashioning: it speaks of the places he has been and is coloured by what happened there, and in that way comes to define the rhythms of his prose and the patterns of his belief. A biography of Hemingway’s style will amount to nothing if it can’t exhume the way that soldiers’ talk and newspaper-speak, Parisian encounters and African nights found their way into his stories and into the grist of his sentences. I once had dinner with Martha Gellhorn; there was a candle between us, and she told me that the point about Hemingway was that he was the sort of man who could insist there were two candles on the table, that nothing could change his mind about what he believed: ‘Two candles – that was it.’ I took her to mean that Hemingway was not without difficulty in the manner of his commitment to his own vision, or his own double vision.

There’s a very good candle moment in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. As the pair sit down together at the Saracen’s Head in Glasgow, a moth flies into the candle between them. Johnson names the moth ‘Bozzy’ for its habit of burning its wings in the dangerous attempt to get intimate with the flame. Boswell tells the reader this as if it were a necessary contribution to our understanding not only of Johnson, but also of Johnson’s idea of biographers and their task. The Boswellian mode of biography relies on the notion that the experience and the personality of the biographer can be an engaging and necessary part of the story. To Boswell it seemed natural to observe his subject peeling and eating an orange and to describe how he managed it; it also seemed natural for him to set moral traps to catch the movement of his subject’s character, his strategies of revelation and concealment.

Norman Lewis met Hemingway in December 1957 outside Havana. The visit proved a shocking disappointment; it was also a warning. Hemingway sloped around his bedroom in pyjamas, gulping huge glasses of Dubonnet, saying nothing and dismissing everything, while Lewis tried to take stock of the huge ‘exhaustion and emptiness in his face’. He was amazed that this brilliant man, who had seen ‘so many people defeated by age, power and success and written so convincingly about them should have fallen into the trap set by life’.

In Julian Evans’s depiction of the Havana scene in Semi-Invisible Man, we begin to understand the force of Hemingway’s decline and its effect on Lewis’s own persona as an author for whom the boundaries of self and world were already beginning to blur. This is precisely what is achieved by the most effective biographies, where material is first found, then edited, and ultimately transmogrified, at once properly fastened to its several contexts and brought to life by the synthesising intelligence of the biographer. Here’s Evans on the Hemingway meeting, sounding out its ramifications:

On Norman the encounter had a profound effect. Ambitiously courting literary recognition, socially he withdrew into shyness at the slightest provocation. Hospitable and flamboyant among a small circle of friends whom he trusted at Berlemont’s [a Soho pub] and Orchard Street [Lewis’s London flat], among strangers he married a suburban boy’s foundation of inferiority to a writer’s scorn for the general stupidity of polite society. He forced himself to enjoy cocktail parties, generally left early. He was nervous of celebrity well before he met Hemingway in Cuba. The meeting transformed doubt into a profound precept. For the rest of his life he retold the encounter as one of his key stories, referring to it as ‘an experience which was to change my outlook on life, not instantly but slowly over a period of time’.

Evans then quotes from a letter Lewis afterwards wrote to Ian Fleming, who as an editor (or, as he preferred, ‘foreign manager’) on the Sunday Times had sent Lewis to Cuba. ‘There was something biblical about the meeting with Hemingway,’ Lewis wrote,

like having the old sermon on the vanities shoved down your throat in the middle of whatever you happened to be doing with your life in the workaday world. They give funny names to the buses in this town and there’s one that runs past the hotel that says, ‘We just ran short of greatness,’ which just about sums him up, although perhaps understating the case. This man has had about everything any man can ever have wanted, and to meet him was a shattering experience of the kind likely to sabotage ambition – which may or may not be a good thing. You wanted to know his opinion on the possible outcome of what is happening here. The answer unfortunately is that he no longer cares to hold opinions, because his life has lost its taste. He told me nothing, but he taught me more even than I wanted to know.

There is a photograph here of Lewis wearing Arab costume, aged 14, in 1922. He grew up in Enfield (‘nothing, with chips’) and at his grandfather’s house in Carmarthen, and was set in time to become a scholarship boy and a victim of bullies. He had a rootless father and two dead brothers. For some people, belonging is not a state but a conundrum, and Lewis’s childhood, in its absences and deferred hopes, readied him to become the greatest travel writer of his generation. You get a strong impression of Lewis during these years from his own memoir, Jackdaw Cake, but Evans makes merry with school records, locating Lewis as he begins to rely not on parents and well-meaning teachers, but on his own powers of escape. To the end, he was a somewhat brutal (if you ask his wives and children) and yet talented organiser of his own life; it grew from a knowledge, maybe a conviction, as Evans has it, that ‘almost nothing any adult did for him when he was young did him any good.’ He saw abroad as a merciful place to be – the lost parts of Spain, Yemen, North Africa, Arabia – and the quality of his writing attests to the degree of his wonder at leaving home.

Lewis, Evans writes, was ‘an escapist by reflex – arguably Norman’s management of that reflex is the dominant theme of his life.’ Like Emily Brontë and Truman Capote, he found life more natural in the anterooms of invention, and in his case such rooms were spread across continents. He could be depressive, and he relied on his writing powers to release him from that. At the centre of Evans’s biography is the mounting evidence of confusions that may have existed for years at the heart of Lewis’s abilities: whether or not he was reliable as a narrator of his own adventures, and why his fictional powers only reached full flourish when he wasn’t writing novels. Lewis was a great writer and like many great writers he was chiefly a performer, but always, with Lewis, the aesthetic extravagances serve the moral searchingness of the work. In that sense he was more like Graham Greene – with whom he shared a period and many destinations – than Bruce Chatwin, who might have learned from Lewis how to be a writer who is also a brilliant disappearing act.

Lewis wrote as much fiction as anything else but many of his 15 novels are out of print and his reputation rests entirely on the travel writing. He could see this coming and it worried him throughout his career. Evans argues for the merits of one or two of the novels – making a good case for The Sicilian Specialist and giving qualified approval to his Guatemala novel, The Volcanoes above Us – but mainly he finds them wanting, and shows us why they fail. Simply put: Lewis’s powers of invention required the pollinating gift of facts. He was never more of a novelist than when faced with a road drenched in the mire of actuality or a room beset with real horrors faced by real human beings. His prose could leap on such occasions, and without them the writing limps after fancies dancing like butterflies over his head. He was capable when writing novels of treating people as objects, something he never did with places, and he was never able to invent a history for a character in the way he could capture experience as it exists in a city. And yet he would not have been the travel writer he was had his imaginative powers not been novelistic in their reach. Some of the most unforgettable images in his non-fiction pulse with the perfect reality of an invented thing. (And sometimes, as Evans points out, they were indeed invented things.) Instead of fiction, we have the dogs of Sort in Voices of the Old Sea, whose stomachs are ruptured when they eat the fried sponges laid by men from the neighbouring village, angry because the dogs have killed their chickens. And we have the local women in Naples 44 – an image no novelist of the period could have made more resonant – sitting in a municipal building in the bombed-out city, a building filled with jostling soldiery:

Here a row of ladies sat at intervals of about a yard with their backs to the wall. These women were dressed in their street clothes, and had the ordinary, well-washed respectable shopping and gossiping faces of working-class housewives. By the side of each woman stood a small pile of tins, and it soon became clear that it was possible to make love to any of them in this very public place by adding another tin to the pile.

In time, Chatwin’s work would be cited as a polar opposite to Lewis’s: the older man was reliable, stable, socially and morally engaged, while Chatwin fabulised his way from hidden coast to dry interior, not so much a guy with a tatty passport and a deadline as a lush Flaubertian figment of his own literary style. Lewis had none of Chatwin’s ease of self-stylisation, but long before its time, Lewis’s writing involved itself in questions of environmental disaster, the encroaching horrors of tourism, the threat of terrorism, the effect of global capitalism on native ways of life, the relationship between evangelism and money, the corruption of the oil industry.

Yet Lewis was a prince of nowhere just as Chatwin was, with a style bigamously married to inventions and realities. Evans brings his fibs to our attention early in the book, saying of Lewis’s description of a journey to Epping Forest with a group that included the woman who would become his first wife, that ‘it cannot, in reality, have been like that … It is just easy to be misled by it: it has all the timing and organisation of hindsight and composition.’ We see how capable a writer Evans is at this point – Lewis is described as getting married ‘in a ritual of pronounced nonchalance’ – but the core of his preoccupation with Lewis has to do with this question of how much doubt might be cast on what he wrote. No sooner has he mentioned Lewis’s previously unheard-of propensity to fabricate the truth than we discover such occasions coming not as single spies but companionable hordes. On his first Spanish adventure, ‘one can imagine the juvenile writer milking this scene for all it was worth.’ At the Mediodia station in Madrid during the 1934 insurrection, Lewis is witness to explosions and gunfights but, Evans writes, ‘there is no immunity against the intrusion of the fictional process into non-fiction that deals with human events.’ An episode showing the inhumanity of the Fascist circle is ‘probably embellished’; in his accounts of his time in Arabia, we find ‘an assortment of storyteller’s selections … in which Norman too is not above fictionalising himself’; at Hodeida, ‘it was as if, each time it was remembered, the light had changed’:

The biographer must be aware that where the subject is a writer, such quarrels are poisoners. He or she knows that the writer does not lie in the way that others lie, for the basic reason that readers read partly for the pleasure they take in the writer’s creation of verisimilitude. A writer’s lie is more satisfying than reality’s truth, should that be available anywhere. If things were the other way around, there would not be very much point in the writer writing (and less in biographers doing so). And in such cases the ‘intermediate truth’ of the biographer, launched upon the vessel of their available facts, always risks spoiling the reader’s pleasure. Facts can be as irritating as reality, or piety. As one of the characters in Kurosawa’s Rashomon says, ‘Not another sermon! I don’t mind a lie, not if it’s interesting.’

We know that Lewis was a fan of Rashomon. We also know that he had a reputation for journalistic solidity. Yet Evans’s biography constitutes an argument about the entanglement of fiction and non-fiction. He goes back again and again to the notes Lewis kept during his travels, and what he finds there is different from what Lewis later decided to publish. ‘But the book is not the journey,’ Evans writes, taking his subject’s part. ‘Must it be? As an object it is always something different: a printed collection of chapters; a written outline of events transformed by memory, forgetting and selection; a literary object; a composed artefact. Yet the two objects are connected, one an account of the other, so how great may the mismatch be allowed to be?’

Lewis was good at business (he founded a chain of camera shops), good at deadlines (he and Don McCullin tramped over half the globe for the Sunday Times magazine and the Observer) and excellent in wars (the Second World War, for him, was ‘absolute paradise’). When you look back over his pieces you see an absolute dedication to two things: the first is the notion that his was the last generation ‘to be able to see strange cultures in their unspoiled condition’. Lewis had a strong nose for what global commerce was doing to turn whole populations – entire traditions and complete forests – into casualties. His journalism had moral force and storytelling genius, two things that are hard to find in British papers today. His second great preoccupation was writing prose. Lewis had several wives and several children, several houses, several publishers and several serious bouts of depression, yet from one end of his life to the other he was completely devoted in his pursuit of good sentences. Evans keeps reliable accounts of the toll this took – on children who didn’t see enough of their father, on partners who couldn’t trust the man they loved, on Lewis himself as he fought to push himself up a notch – but the achievement was mounting all the while. In A Dragon Apparent, written ten years before Agent Orange, he writes of the ‘clusters of Vietnamese beauties on bicycles’ in the Jardin Botanique, ‘bound in the same direction, floating, it seemed, rather than peddling, as the trains of their silk gowns trailed in the air behind them.’

Semi-Invisible Man turns out to be a book that makes the fluctuations and contradictions of its author’s own conscience a part of the telling of the subject’s story. Evans enters the pages by name several times. (The book even contains a photograph of them together: late in Lewis’s life, Evans was his editor at Hamish Hamilton.) What he is able to provide is not merely a well-behaved run-through of the life and the reviews, but an improvisation on the very idea of being Norman Lewis: he finds him and he loses him, he accuses him and excuses him, all the while providing a fully illustrated argument about what could have made Lewis into this first-rate writer of prose.

In a number of British universities it is now called Life Writing – biography, autobiography, memoir. There are those who achieve grand things by keeping themselves at a safe distance, by seeking to write everything from the eyrie of objective fact – as Jeremy Treglown does very effectively in his biographies of Henry Green and V.S. Pritchett, as Rosemary Hill does in her magical biography of Pugin – but to me a lively new aspect of the form is to be found in the work of those who involve themselves most visibly in their subjects’ dilemmas and who name their own troubles in the narrative as and when they occur. We saw this at work quite spectacularly in Roger Lewis’s biography of Anthony Burgess, in Geoff Dyer’s nicely solipsistic account of D.H. Lawrence, in Jonathan Coe’s artful enhancement of B.S. Johnson, and we see it here, in a more measured way. Perhaps our present conception of personality requires something more involving than impersonal rigour. Towards the end of his narrative, Evans sets down a crucial moment in his own relationship with his subject. Lewis was growing forgetful in old age and we gather he was capable of rages and paranoias, but he also grew jealous of Evans, thinking his young friend had got too close to his – Lewis’s – wife. The grand man of letters puts the phone down on his Boswell. This is how Evans deals with his decision to use his own diary entry about the incident:

Should I have included this? Am I violating the limits of biography or of friendship? … I have identified myself in the likeness of Norman’s biographer in these pages; in that likeness it seems right to question the inclusion of this piece of quoted material, as it does to say that it is the piece of quoted material I’ve thought hardest about including … I’m not sure I would have shared the diary extract with another biographer … The biographer and the subject were at war: two subjective views, two antagonists. In his mind Norman had written a story about me.

Writers create brand new environments and destroy others; it seems appropriate to find their biographers busy at the essential work of cartography, pinpointing the places of departure and arrival, while now and then making an appearance themselves, much like the human dot on the landscape of Egdon Heath at the opening of The Return of the Native, a dot that seems to enlarge and give shape to the weather and the surrounding universe.