The Semi-Invisible Man

The Semi-Invisible ManJulian Evans may be known to some readers of this blog as the author of the 1993 travel book Transit of Venus, an account of a journey to the heart of the US nuclear-missile testing programme in the Pacific. Julian's second book, The Semi-Invisible Man: A Life of Norman Lewis, will be released on July 22, 2008, to mark the centenary of Norman Lewis. This biography will send readers hurrying to the books of an overlooked master.

Graham Greene described Norman Lewis as "one of the best writers not of any particular decade, but of our century". He was perhaps the best not-famous writer of his generation, and certainly a better writer than most who were. He was not-famous because of an English prejudice: because critics who judged his works of travel and non-fiction as ultimately inferior to the yardstick of artistic genius represented by the novel ignored the truth that over four decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s, he wrote books that have survived better than all but a handful of novels.

His account of south-east Asia before the Vietnam war, A Dragon Apparent, remains required reading. Voices of the Old Sea, a glimpse of pre-tourist Spain, is a classic in the literature of the Mediterranean. His memoir of wartime Naples, Naples '44, about the time he spent as an Intelligence officer in the occupied city, is a masterpiece. To label him a travel writer would be a mistake – he was a suburban fugitive and adventurer and a unique witness to the twentieth century.

Lewis was born on June 28, 1908, the son of a north London pharmacist, and died in 2003 at ninety-five. A natural daredevil, his hunger for adventure began in the inauspicious setting of suburban England. He went on to race Bugattis before the war, lived in Ibiza after it, and was a crack shot, flamboyant host, and businessman with mafia connections, leading a life of such self-pleasing hedonism that his existence at times was closer to a rock star's than anyone else's.

For more than twenty years he used his expertise at penetrating the glorious, and inglorious, surfaces of our planet to spy for the British government (Ian Fleming was one of his controllers – and admirers). In appearance he was someone you could pass in the street without realising anyone had gone by, yet his self-effacing quality, which allowed him to observe unnoticed, concealed extraordinary glamour. In Julian Evans' essential biography, Lewis is shown to be an inimitable figure: prophet, revolutionary stylist, master storyteller of the modern world, the Defoe of our times.

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