A Week in Books: Norman Lewis's journey to Spain

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The Independent Culture

Avid readers of Norman Lewis's works will be delighted to discover that in his last, posthumously published, book, the travel writer returned to the magnificently eccentric Corvaja family. Lewis, who died in July, made a brief marriage in the 1930s into this Sicilian family of Andalusian descent, so memorably described in his autobiography Jackdaw Cake. The Corvajas inspired in him an enduring passion for Sicily and, through them, he was first introduced to Spain, the country to which he was always going back - in memory, at least.

Laurie Lee, Gerald Brenan and Norman Lewis were all writers whose youthful experiences of Spain provided material for some of the greatest travel books on that country. For their generation, a journey to Spain was undertaken in a very different spirit to one, say, to Italy or France. The country's monuments, and certainly its food, attracted them far less than its reputation as an exotic land of picaresque wanderings, cut off from the rest of Europe, characterised by its antithetical extremes.

Lewis, looking back in the 1980s to the Catalan fishing village he had known over 30 years earlier, produced in Voices from the Old Sea an unsurpassed lyrical account of a Spanish fishing community. In the year of his death at the age of 95, he has left another classic. The Tomb in Seville (Cape, £14.99) is a second attempt to relive a journey in 1934 with his idealistic brother-in-law, Eugene Corvaja; the trip had been the subject of Spanish Adventure (1935).

Nearly 70 years later, Lewis turned the journey into a bathetic pilgrimage in search of the Corvaja family tomb in Seville cathedral. All extraneous matter has been stripped away to reveal the essence of Lewis's mature style. He certainly was not someone whose writings drew undue attention either to the style, or the man. A chameleon-like ability to integrate into varied situations went hand-in-hand with a mastery of understatement, tinged with discreet irony and love of the absurd.

Lewis had an uncanny ability to be in places during moments of maximum drama. No sooner had he and Eugene arrived in Spain than the Asturian miners revolted, and the country was reduced to the chaos that would lead eventually to civil war. He was the opposite of travel writers who moan perpetually: adversity brought out the best in him, and highlighted his enthusiasms and love for life. Forced to walk from San Sebastian to Zaragoza, he delights in the Spanish countryside, evoked with a concision that has rarely been equalled. When he reaches Zaragoza, and realises the next stage in his journey is by armoured train to Madrid, he and Eugene "congratulated each other on what we saw as the huge stroke of luck".

Lewis's taste for difficulty and danger reaches a climax in Madrid, with he and Eugene under constant sniper fire. However, even this does not stop them from having an orangeade in the bullet-riddled station café, where they cannot help noticing a tourist poster labelled "Spain Attracts and Holds You". Lewis alternates quiet humour with the extraordinary sense of compassion that marks his greatest writings, such as Naples 44.

As the journey continues, so rich in the pungent flavours of the old days of Spanish travel, you begin wishing that this jewel-like book will never end. Sadly it does, after a downbeat conclusion in which the story of the eponymous tomb becomes like a joke at death's expense. It is a fitting epitaph for the most engaging and human of travel writers.

Michael Jacobs's 'The Factory of Light' is published by John Murray