In Sicily — and elsewhere — with Norman Lewis

A documentary inspired by Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44, his account of his stint as a British intelligence officer attached to the American Fifth Army, has been made by the Italian director Francesco Patierno, with narration by Benedict Cumberbatch. A review in Variety suggests that, if it’s not a cinematic triumph (“affectionate but misguided”), it could well encourage people to read the book and discover more of Lewis’s work. I hope so.

As the jacket notes of Julian Evans’s biography of Lewis, Semi-Invisible Man, put it, he was “the best not-famous writer of his generation” — overlooked by critics because his greatest  work was in travel and non-fiction rather than in the novel, where true genius is expected to be found. Evans — who was Lewis’s editor for 15 years — argues that over four decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Lewis wrote books that have survived better than all but a handful of novels.

Naples ’44 has been acclaimed by many as a masterpiece. My favourite of his books, though, is Voices of the Old Sea, his account of a village on the Costa Brava before the arrival of concrete; a place where the fishermen reported their successes and failures in blank verse and a stuffed dugong known as “the mermaid” decorated the bar. It has all the qualities that made Lewis one of our finest travel writers: the unfailing eye for oddity, the gentle humour, and prose that, as Anthony Burgess put it, is “almost edible”.

Those qualities are in evidence, too, in In Sicily, which first appeared in 2000 and is reissued today by Eland, the publisher of travel classics. You can read an extract on Deskbound Traveller and find more of Lewis’s books on the Eland website.

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