Traveller's Life Writ Large ; (1) This Biography of the Celebrated Writer Norman Lewis Makes You Long to Return to His Original Work(2) BOOK OF THE WEEK

Article excerpt

Semi Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis by Julian Evans ( Cape, [pounds]25 )

WHEN Norman Lewis died, aged 95, in 2003, he had published more than a dozen travel books, 15 novels, two volumes of autobiography and countless articles. He was, if not quite famous, greatly admired, especially by other writers. Graham Greene had called him "one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century".

Yet, despite so much first-person writing, he remained a self- effacing figure.

Indeed he prided himself on being able, when he wanted, to be semi-invisible. In his late seventies, he said: "I'm probably one of the few people, certainly that I know, that can actually enter a room and leave it, and nobody will know that I've been there ... This is an acquired knack which I've never lost. I've just kept out of the way, behaved myself, kept quiet, in that way deflected wrath as much as I possibly could." "You'd never notice him in the corner of your carriage, but there was your great travel writer. There was the man that I admired the most", says Redmond O'Hanlon. Reviewing one of his last books, John Bayley pointed out that Lewis's modesty made "Lawrence of Arabia or Bruce Chatwin look like the most tremendous show-offs".

Writing the biography of such a man was always going to be a delicate task.

But this life, by his former editor, makes such a display of scruple that at times it becomes almost insufferable.

Evans opens with a "prelude" titled "The Reluctant Biographer" and begins: "I must be frank. I didn't want to write this book." At length, he explains his qualms about biography as "a curious literary genre of simultaneous elevation and contempt, of admiration followed, via revelations of fallibility, by a thorough dismantling".

So why did he take it on? "To stop someone else doing it," Evans admits.

"Given my intense dislike of some of the ways in which biography is written maybe it will be understood if I say that the prospect of receiving, as a book reviewer, a biography of Norman written by another writer was intolerable." He goes on to hope that once readers finish his book they'll go straight back to Lewis's own writing "at which point, instead of being the excuse for not reading a writer's work, the biography can disappear, its work done".

It is more likely that readers will go back to Lewis's work well before they have got to the end of his biography, for, at 792 pages, it is crushingly overlong.

Evans simply cannot bear to leave any detail out, unlike his subject. He retraces all his trips, alas.

Nor does his extreme conscientiousness prevent him from falling into such routine biographical vices as gratuitous finger-wagging generalisations to show his worldly wisdom. "Others' gaiety, unchecked, can be a form of coercion," he tells us; "views are important", and that flirting is "a kind of devilry".

More elaborately, he makes such labo- rious observations as that: "A beautiful car, often the substitute choice of a man in search of something that has nothing to do with cars, will become dispensable when the thing it is a substitute for is found." As so often when publishing editors come to write, what Evans needs, ironically, is an editor himself.

Yet the biography still contains revelations, especially about Lewis's formative years. He was born in Enfield in 1908, the son of a Welsh pharmacist who, in later life, turned to drink and a "sad, heavy-laden" mother, by then aged 43. At birth, Lewis had two older brothers.

One died 15 months later, of tubercular peritonitis, aged 16; the other seven years later, of nephritis, aged 17. At eight, Lewis thus became an only child. …