Lewis’s Loyalty

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A View of the World by Norman Lewis. 310pp. Eland, 2004 [1986].

Norman Lewis’s thirty-odd books testify to a long and admirable life of travel and activism. Born in 1908, he spent his childhood in the drab London borough of Enfield — “nothing, with chips,” in his words. Forever after he sought experience. He travelled through pre-Civil War Spain and went to Arabia as a spy for the Foreign Office. In the Second World War he was posted to North Africa and Naples with the Intelligence Corps. But Lewis wasn’t really cut out to be an English patriot. He was entirely lacking in imperial chauvinism. His loyalty was to human dignity wherever he found it.

After the war he made several South East Asian and Central American expeditions. He spent summers in Spain before the irrevocable transformations wrought by commercial tourism. In late middle age his efforts were directed towards exposing the ongoing genocide of indigenous peoples, particularly in South America. I only wish he had written about Australia.

Lewis died in 2003 at the age of 95. So far his posthumous legacy has been well-served by his champions. Julian Evans’ outstanding and ambitious biography Semi-Invisible Man appeared in 2008. All thirteen of Lewis’s novels remain out of print — I haven’t read any — but most of the travel books have been republished by Eland as high quality paperbacks.

Disregarding Lewis’s juvenilia — accounts of his early journeys through Spain and Arabia that were eventually rewritten from scratch — the non-fiction can be divided into five basic categories. Four books recount his travels in Asia: to Indochina (A Dragon Apparent, 1951), Burma (Golden Earth, 1952), India (Goddess in the Stones, 1991), and Indonesia (An Empire of the East, 1993). His extensive experiences in Italy and Spain inspired two retrospective memoirs each: Naples ’44 (1978), Voices of the Old Sea (about the Costa Brava, 1984), In Sicily (2000), and The Tomb in Seville (2003). He wrote book-length pieces of investigative reportage on the Sicilian mafia (The Honoured Society, 1964) and on genocide perpetrated by evangelical Christians (The Missionaries, 1988). His two-volume autobiography begins with Jackdaw Cake (1985; expanded as I Came, I Saw, 1994) and concludes with The World, The World (1996).

There are also five collections of shorter travel pieces. They were never simultaneously in print, so it isn’t surprising that their contents occasionally overlap. The Changing Sky (1959) contains nineteen pieces and is illustrated by Lewis’s exceptionally good photographs (for much of his life he operated a chain of camera shops). Ten of those early pieces were republished in the next collection, A View of the World (1986), accompanied by another ten written since 1959 including his most widely-known article, ‘Genocide’ (1969), about the destruction and enslavement of Brazilian tribes. Lewis’s dispatches from the eighties and nineties are respectively anthologised in To Run Across the Sea (1989) and The Happy Ant Heap (1999). A Voyage by Dhow (2001) gathered pieces from across thirty years. A final tally of seventy-four unique short articles across five books. They range nearly everywhere across the globe.

Few writers can make the imaginative recreation of a place truly palpable and memorable for the reader. How does Norman Lewis do it? Game for adventure and discovery, his voice is wry, gently amused, free of cynicism. The narrator, the man himself, retreats into near-invisibility; the prose also does its work without drawing much attention to itself. He writes in the tradition of Orwell — elegant but unpretentious clarity. Some writers are casual in the division of their prose into blocks of text, but Lewis is a crafter of paragraphs. They have robust internal structures and almost always contain at least one attention-grabbing element to ignite the imagination of the reader. It could be a concrete detail, a metaphor, a line of dialogue, or a piece of information. These moments register in the reading mind like splashes of colour, bring the setting to life, and with their accumulated weight, compel the reader onwards.

Consider the most vivid specifics in ‘A Quiet Evening in Huehuetenango’, which was first published (as fiction) by The New Yorker in 1956. Lewis escapes an English winter and winds up in the Guatemalan highlands. He is adept at metaphorical descriptions — in the town he sees soldiers “fishing in space with their rifles over the blood-red balustrade of the town hall” and vultures that fly over “waving their scarves of shadow” — but the details he chooses to note without such overt literary flair register even more vividly. His hotel features a garden turned into a “floral jungle” bordered by “Pepsi-Cola bottles stuck neck down in the earth.” Each table-top has a goldfish bowl “containing roses hideously pickled in preserving fluid.” A craze for American-style processed food means Lewis must eat “hygienic but emasculated fare… The whole loaf of bread and a half-pound of butter of a generation ago had wasted away to two slices of toast and a pat of margarine.” The scene is set and the adventure begins. When Lewis goes out to investigate a commotion in the street, he encounters a boy “throwing a bayonet at an anatomical chart given away with a Mexican journal devoted to home medicine.” Lewis and his driver wind up in a bar as the semi-captives of exceedingly polite bandits with “machetes as big as naval cutlasses.” Lewis is pressed to operate the jukebox for the bandits, who only want to hear one record over and over again. A deus ex machina arrives in the form of an earthquake, which Lewis cleverly defamiliarises: “It seemed unreasonable that an electric train should be rumbling through a subway immediately beneath us in Huehuetenango.”

A quiet man with expansive compassion, appalled by exploitation of the weak, Lewis celebrated societies that had not been transformed (or destroyed) by modernity. This could easily have become mere romantic nostalgia, but Lewis did not shy from exploring the violence, superstitions, and destructive codes of honour within the traditional societies he encountered. He evokes those societies in their complexity. A View of the World may have a lacklustre title, but it is a perfect introduction to Norman Lewis’s imaginative prose.

Edinburgh, December 2017

 

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The Interpretive Impulse

890px-Las_Meninas,_by_Diego_Velázquez,_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth

As a writer of fiction, the act of filling the blank page gives me an exhilarating sense of imaginative freedom. The horizons seem endless. The same must be true for composers and painters.

Yet sometimes I envy the interpretive artist.

Maybe these thoughts have been prompted by listening to András Schiff’s humane and amusing lectures on each of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, an open invitation into a great musician’s workshop. They reveal the mad ambition necessary to record the whole cycle. Beyond mere technical virtuosity and interpretive artistry, the task requires total immersion in the works, years of study and research. But what could be a higher calling than anchoring your creativity to a master?

I think that’s why writers are frequently drawn to the supposedly subservient roles of translator, adaptor, or critic. The impulse to interpret an existing text — in another language, in another medium, or in an essay — represents the desire to be the best kind of reader, to grasp the intimacies of a book’s structure, to know the contours of its sentences. Ray Bradbury showed that impulse at a fantastical extreme in Fahrenheit 451 — the reader who memorises and in essence becomes a book in order to preserve it.

Of course, the Fahrenheit 451 approach is too selfless and too much like religious worship for any kind of creative, critical reader. It is not enough merely to absorb a work of art. The ultimate homage is to re-express the work by filtering it through the self — personalised, recontextualised, embellished, contested. See, for example, Picasso’s obsessive studies of Velázquez’s Las Meninas. This week I visited the Museu Picasso in Barcelona to look again at his forty-five canvases from 1957 that comprehensively analyse, break apart, and remake the forms, motifs, and characters of the original in his own style. Picasso wound up with what he acknowledged would be “a detestable Meninas for a traditional painter.” Nevertheless, it had become Picasso’s Meninas.

Fortunately Velázquez was by then safely in the public domain and available to Picasso’s appropriation and sacrilege. Pablo Katchadjian, a contemporary Argentinean author, has not been so lucky. He has been weighed down with outrageous legal problems since he self-published a chapbook called El Aleph engordado in 2009. He had taken Borges’ classic 1945 story ‘El Aleph’ and, as an experiment, “fattened” it to twice its original length. Borges’s widow, exercising her powers as heir to the copyright, has unrelentingly pursued Katchadjian for his supposed criminal “plagiarism.” Apart from the basic wrongness of the charge and staggering disproportion — the chapbook was published in a mere 200 copies — the legal action ironically demonstrates an indifference to Borges’s influence on successive generations of authors. In effect it advocates banning certain types of critical and creative reading.

It is as absurd to prohibit writers from creatively wrestling with great books as to silence pianists exploring Beethoven. Most writers discover a few crucial books early on that help them understand aspects of worldly experience, furnish them with powerful myths and metaphors, introduce them to characters they come to know as intimately as friends. Consider Orson Welles as a reader. Throughout his career, he returned repeatedly to the same books and, perhaps more importantly, to the same characters as source material for his films, theatre, and radio dramas. He never seemed to want to give up reinterpreting Don Quixote and Falstaff, Moby Dick and The Merchant of Venice, Joseph Conrad and Isak Dinesen.

As a film critic and historian, I’ve come to specialise in adaptation studies. I’ve spent a lot of time analysing the hand-annotated manuscripts of Welles’s screenplays, many of which were never produced. It has been intimately illuminating hanging out with Welles at the point of his pen, being able to relive his thought processes as a writer. Comparing an original novel or play to its adapted screenplay, I attempt to fathom the reasons behind Welles’s choices. Why this specific change? Why this cut? Why this new and original scene?

Most of Welles’s interpretative choices were designed to re-tell a story cinematically rather than with words. On this point, Welles was a formidable translator. Sometimes Welles argued against the original author’s worldview, as in his 1962 version of Kafka’s Trial. He refused to allow Josef K. to submit meekly to execution “like a dog” because he found it unbearable after the Holocaust. Welles also personalised his source material, incorporated autobiographical elements, and even synthesised different literary touchstones. Welles’s and Oja Kodar’s late 1970s screenplay The Dreamers, for example, adapts two stories by Isak Dinesen about an opera singer named Pellegrina Leoni. Several settings are relocated to places of autobiographical significance to Welles. This includes the Triana neighbourhood of Seville, where Welles had lived as a teenager amid the brothels and the bars. In Triana, Pellegrina briefly becomes an unacknowledged incarnation of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, another of Welles’s favourite books which he had attempted to adapt directly for screen and which fed into The Lady From Shanghai (1947).

Radically reinventing his beloved books, Welles’s adaptations wound up more personally expressive than his own original stories. Certain books become part of a writer’s inner life. Heirs may own the copyright, but these books belong to us. In turn, we belong to these books. They call for our interpretation.

Edinburgh, December 2017