Byron Rogers

The man who could not tell the truth

Byron Rogers reviews Julian Evans' biography of Norman Lewis

This has to be one of the most courageous books ever written. Literary biography is a foolhardy venture anyway, a writer’s life being usually his own raw material, so he has usually written his own version, or versions, of this, however fragmentary, and, what is much worse, written it well, otherwise there would be no biographer. But what if he hasn’t told the truth, and not just once or twice, but not ever?

In 1985 Norman Lewis published his autobiography Jackdaw’s Cake, which I had looked forward to more than any book published in my lifetime. I would have looked forward to anything he had written, for I had just read John Hatt’s reprint of Naples 44, Lewis’s account of his experiences as a field policeman in occupied Italy, one of the very few books that had prompted something I thought had gone with childhood, the joy each night of looking forward to bed so I could resume my reading. But then it all went wrong. For the first chapter in the autobiography dealt with his childhood in the town of Carmarthen.

And while I knew nothing about Naples, Phnom Penh, Guatemala or any of the other exotic places he had written about, I knew a great deal about a town which, when Norman had finished with it, seemed more exotic than any of these. So when he wrote, ‘that the people living in Wales are mentally, temperamentally, generally speaking very different from those living in England, you might say almost as different as the Chinese’, I sat up very straight in bed. You see, I was brought up in Carmarthen.

Lewis wrote Jackdaw’s Cake in his mid- seventies, which was risky. Had he waited another 10 years (he would die at 93) he would have been safe, or safer.

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