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Norman Lewis's Letters From a Vanished Spain

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Jonathan Taylor writes:

Patrick French's authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, will come out in the U.S. next month, complete with its salacious revelations of marital cruelty. After it was published in Britain in spring, the formidable Stephen Mitchelmore questioned the connection being hastily drawn between the writer's vices and his books:

When I found out Naipaul was married, it was after I'd read and enjoyed the overtly autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival which does not (if a twenty-year-old memory serves) mention any other presence in the narrator's Wiltshire cottage. Does this demonstrate a protective love or contemptuous indifference? Such is the ambiguity of writing.
Another new British bio, Semi-Invisible Man by Julian Evans, is not set for U.S. release. Like Naipaul, its subject, Norman Lewis, was a novelist and travel writer whose work appeared in The New Yorker. This work, too, turns on the writer's sculpting of lived experience, switching, almost silently, between fiction and nonfiction as needed. An observation about Lewis in the Times Literary Supplement review of Semi-Invisible Man nicely illustrates the parallel. Lewis's Voices of the Old Sea (1984) is a spare memoir of three summers he spent in an isolated Catalonian fishing village in the 1950s:
Lewis's visits, we learn from the biography, were made in a large Buick, in the holidaying company of his partner of the the time and their children. You wouldn't guess this from Voices of the Old Sea. Lewis was a secretive, contradictory man who nursed his inconsistencies because they fitted his understanding of how the world worked.
I haven't gotten my hands on Semi-Invisible Man yet. But the UK reviews sent me to Voices of the Old Sea, and thence to some of Lewis's New Yorker articles, mostly published in the 1950s and 60s.

Voices conjures the elemental traditional life of the village he called Farol, on the eve of its destruction by the tourist industry. This conquest was decades old by the time Lewis wrote the book. Farol's residents were adamantly attached to a hardscrabble subsistence economy and a culture of atavistic paganism still not yielding completely to Catholicism, much less to anything called "Spain." Their cosmology was dualistic: one world was Farol, the seaside, cat-infested village whose authority figures were fishermen. Its eternal Other was Sort, and inland, dog-riddled hamlet of cork farmers and other peasant landlubbers who wore shoes rather than rope sandals (chief among Farol's superstitions was an abhorrence of leather).

As land and houses are bought up to build a hotel, a kind of suspense builds slowly, even though the final outcome seems obvious. And in fact it is shocking when suddenly the villagers, once dismissive of the possibility of change, cheerfully exterminate any private habit of life once the price became irresistible, to be replaced with something palatable to visitors' expectations of Spain. It's a sobering read for anyone historically minded who has been to the Costa Brava, or any other part of Europe extensively developed for tourism, and is tempted to think they have an eye for what is "authentic" to the place.

Lewis's contemporary account of his sojourns in southern Spain, in a March 10, 1956, New Yorker "Letter from Ibiza," has the same principal theme. He sought out Ibiza as he migrated "farther south each year to keep ahead of the tourist invasion." Ibiza also exhibited a basic dichotomy between fisherman and peasant.
The existence of the generous, impoverished fisherman and that of the peasant, with its calculation and lacklustre security, are separated by a tremendous gulf. For a fisherman, to be condemned to plant, irrigate and reap, bound to the wheel of the seasons, his returns computable in advance to the peseta, is the most horrible of all fates.
However, the fisher and the farmer had in common their absolute faith in methods and customs that Lewis dated back to Roman, Carthaginian, and Arab rule over the island, equidistant between Iberia and Africa.
The Ibizan peasant is the product of changeless economic factors—a fertile soil, an unvarying climate, and an inexhaustible water supply from underground sources. These benefits have produced a trancelike routine of existence.... Much of the past is conserved in the husk of convention, and archaic usages govern his conduct toward all the crucial issues of life.
But already, Ibiza had a steady flow of transient bohemians and "modern remittance men—the free-lance writer who sees two or three of his pieces in print a year, and the painter who sells a canvas once in a blue moon." And as in Catalonia, mass tourism was approaching, luring Ibiza's fishermen into the unthinkable occupation of captaining boat excursions, and sometimes into trysts with "fair strangers."

In Ibiza, Lewis describes this phenomenon almost whimsically; when he refers to the island's "first cautious step forward into the full enlightenment of our times," the undoubted irony is gentle. Similarly, in his October 15, 1955, New Yorker "Letter From Belize," Lewis sees a "glamorized and air-conditioned Belize emerging as another Caribbean playground for the people of the industrial North" as a bona fide solution to the country's economic problems, however unappealing it might be to the discriminating traveler. While alluding knowingly to the New Yorker reader's distaste for "the chagrins of the tourist area," he concludes with tips for "someone seized by weariness of the world" to retire in Belize, "Gaugin-style."

But by the 1980s, Lewis had no remaining illusions about "the full enlightenment of our times." His 1968 London Times article "Genocide in Brazil," which exposed the oppression of Amazon peoples, had led to the founding of the tribal rights group Survival International. And in place of the little ironies facing the lucky discoverer of an "unspoiled" place, Voices of the Old Sea is a terse requiem. The beginning of tourist boat outings in Farol represent the collapse of the main pillar of the existing order, recorded with the bitter knowledge that there is now no traditional society that is not doomed, if it has not already disappeared.

Given how much Spain's Costa Brava had changed already by the time Lewis was writing, Voices of the Old Sea is devastating in its understatement. Refraining from overtly referring to the full extent of the later transformation of the place, Lewis lets us fill in the blank sequel ourselves with the shocking knowledge we already have about our "enlightened" age. (I can only wonder what Lewis would have made of The New Yorker's other "Letter from Ibiza," by Nick Paumgarten in 1998.)

Some differences between the article and the book point to the ways Lewis reshaped his experiences in order to bring out what he saw, in hindsight, as their ultimate meaning. An apparent allusion to Farol in the "Letter From Ibiza"—"my favorite Catalonian village"—gives it a "native population of a thousand," and says 32 hotels had already been built. Without saying so explicitly, Voices of the Old Sea gives the impression of a village of perhaps a few dozen households, and the drama focuses on the creation of a single hotel, heightening the sense of nearness to extinction of the bearers of the old ways.

This misleading effect seems to amount to a clever method of omission, rather than an altering of the facts outright. But without the biography, I haven't even succeeded in tracking Farol down to correlate his account to any known place. This epic blog comment is the most extensive discussion I've found about whether the village exists, or existed, under that name, or was perhaps a fictionalized place in which Lewis synthesized his area experiences.

Lewis's longest New Yorker work was the 1964 serialization of his book on the Sicilian Mafia, The Honored Society. What keeps him interested in Sicily is the same thing as in Ibiza. The glittering history of an island, its Roman and Arab past seemingly concealed under a decrepit present, but to the lingering eye, actually revealed by it. The Mafia, he writes, is the descendant of an organization formed to defend the poor from the depredations of the Inquisition, which were more economic than theological. It eventually allied itself instead with the feudal landowning class, and after World War II, inhabited the shell of electoral politics (with the help of the U.S. military).

It is the same deadly combination of atavism and modernity that is also often Naipaul's subject; the two also share a dazzling focus on its material manifestation in landscapes scarred by man. Joan Didion wrote in 1980 that for Naipaul, the world is "charged with what can only be described as a romantic view of reality, an almost unbearable tension between the idea and the physical fact." The World Is What It Is, indeed. Or, as Lewis put it in the title of a memoir: The World, The World.

Like any other writer, a biographer is wrestling with "the tension between the idea and the physical fact." French has the goods on "the physical fact": Naipaul handed over his wife's damning diaries, sight unseen, and The Guardian says they "take us probably as far as it is possible to go to the core of the creative process." Andrew O'Hagan in the London Review of Books notes that in Semi-Invisible Man, Evans, who was Lewis's editor and friend, reveals his misgivings about whether and how to use his own diary entries about a maritally sensitive incident. O'Hagan suggests the degree to which Evans grapples with "the idea," in fact calling the book "an improvisation on the very idea of being Norman Lewis."

In either case, it's worth remembering that, however close we are getting to "the creative process," it's only through another's creative process. I for one am looking forward as much to reading Evans's book as French's.


Fascinating divagations, Jonathan. I wasn’t previously aware of Norman Lewis before; you make me want to read him.

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