Semi-Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis by Julian Evans - review by Bruce Palling

Bruce Palling

The World, The World

Semi-Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis


Jonathan Cape 725pp £25

Norman Lewis only just scraped into The Oxford Companion to English Literature in his tenth decade, three years before his death in 2003. Even then, it was the briefest of entries, naming merely two of his travel classics, published nearly half a century earlier. It was as if Britain’s literary establishment didn’t quite see the point of him or even approve of his oeuvre. The title of Julian Evans’s exhaustive and sympathetic biography sums up Norman Lewis’s problem – he never did break out from being an author revered by a discriminating minority to one, like Bruce Chatwin or Paul Theroux, with a wider audience. It was erroneously assumed by many that Lewis was a mere travel writer rather than a master of description and atmosphere. How blinkered they were. The genius of Lewis is in his ability to evoke the surreal nature of many aspects of people’s lives without belittling or patronising them. 

It is true, though, that by the 1970s he was virtually unknown except for his magazine journalism, with his earlier South East Asian volumes well out of print. He still had a faithful if small following. A Dragon Apparent was the first book mentioned when anyone asked veteran foreign correspondents

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