- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

We all have our different ailments. I have never suffered from book fatigue, but I felt a twinge of sympathy when I read Independent columnist Terence Blacker’s account of how he had lost his appetite for the printed page. Normally an avid reader, Mr. Blacker gradually discovered that the daily process of digesting the latest fiction and nonfiction was reducing his brain cells to the level of pulped newsprint. His solution was drastic, to say the least: He has decided not to ready any books at all for the next six months.

I can’t think of a worse punishment. Yet I do understand how he feels. Like any other part of the media industry, the publishing world operates a conveyor belt that seems to grow more frenzied with each year. No sooner have you finished the latest Great American Novel than another comes knocking at the door, demanding to be praised.

What makes the task of sifting through the contenders even more arduous is that, the literary world being very small, you can never be entirely sure if critic A is being complimentary about writer B because he genuinely likes his work, or because they went to university together. Or perhaps B happens to live with agent C, who used to be married to A before he ran off with publicist D. And so on.

Which is why I never pay an awful lot of attention to those “pick of the year” lists that run in the days and weeks before Christmas. Too much log-rolling and back-scratching, you see. Although no one has ever taken the art of self-promotion to the heights of novelist Jeanette Winterson, who once famously nominatedone of her own books: “No one working in the English language now,” she declared “comes close to my exuberance, my passion and fidelity to words.”

Even the irrepressible Norman Mailer might have thought twice about posting that particular advertisement for himself. (Talking of small worlds, I had better own up to the fact that I once shared a house with Jeanette when we were students at the same Oxford college. However, our paths have crossed only once since then.)

One other reason I don’t get too excited about the lists is that I always feel an irrational spasm of pain on behalf of all those books from previous years that are consigned to oblivion. It somehow seems unfair, especially as the books that make the strongest impression on me are invariably those that come from yesteryear. The well-thumbed paperback that I stumble across in a secondhand shop is more likely to become a fixture in my life than the latest, expensively bound toast of the town. I suspect lots of other people have the same reaction.

That is why, this past week, I have been running a little series in Andrew Sullivan’s weblog, the Daily Dish, now an autonomous outpost of Time magazine’s Internet site.

While Andrew has gone off for a well-deserved annual break, I have moved in with two other British journalists, Alex Massie and Daniel Finkelstein. As we are free to print whatever we like, I decided to ask some of my other fellow bloggers to nominate their “old” book of the year — that is to say, a title they have reread or discovered in the past 12 months. There have been some intriguing choices, from Neil Postman’s critique of TV, “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” to Milton Friedman’s “Free To Choose.”

As for me, I had no trouble at all choosing my favorite. I am ashamed to say I had never even heard of Norman Lewis’ “Naples ‘44” until this summer, when I read an article about the insurgency in Iraq. Lewis’ book was cited as an example of a work which describes how every war generates its own particular form of chaos and corruption. Intrigued, I sent off my order to Amazon. The moment I opened the package, I knew I was about to embark on a very special journey.

Lewis — who died in 2003, at age 95 — served as a lowly British Army intelligence officer in World War II. He is an astonishingly sharp-eyed observer whose sense of humanity never deserts him. “Naples ‘44” is his masterpiece, by turns tragic, farcical and poetic, depicting a society where ancient custom still prevails, where the characters behave as if they have just walked out of a Fellini dream-sequence.

One of Lewis’ main contacts, a destitute, middle-aged lawyer, supplements his desperately modest income by working as a mourner at funerals. In Naples at that time, poorer families who had lost a relation would inflate their social status by inviting to the ceremony a non-existent “uncle from Rome.”

Lewis’ friend becomes an expert at playing the role. Dressed in an expensive suit he is driven to the family house in a fancy borrowed limousine. After arriving he stands, aloof, in a corner, the very picture of a grand gentleman from the mysterious north. Strangely, even though he plays the same role month after month, no one ever appears to catch him out.

“Naples ‘44” made such a profound impression on me that I actually forced myself to read the pages more slowly, not wanting the narrative to end too soon.

As soon as I reached the conclusion, I began tracking down as many of Lewis’ other books as I could find, starting with “The Honored Society,” his history of the Sicilian Mafia, and continuing with, among others, his two compelling volumes of autobiography and “Voices of the Old Sea,” his record of his years spent living among the fishing communities of the Costa Brava in the postwar years before mass tourism transformed the region. The world he depicts had hardly changed since the Middle Ages.

What strikes me most about Lewis’ work is its strange lack of ego. He is capable of striking up a conversation with anyone (in almost any language, it sometimes seems) from a trawler captain to a secret policeman. His interest in each person he meets is absolute. He listens, he gives advice, he joins in family feasts. He understands the most elemental human emotions. Graham Greene, no less, once described him as “one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century.”

I am so glad I finally made Lewis’ acquaintance, even if it was three years after he died. I feel sure I have made a friend for life.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times. Until New Year’s Day he is blogging at http://time.blogs.com/daily_dish.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide