The Man Within My Head

Who are these figures who take residence inside our heads, to the point where we can feel them shivering inside us even when we want to “be ourselves”? Who put them there, and why this man I’ve never met, and not that one? If I were to choose a secret companion, an unofficial alter ego, I would likely fasten on someone more dashing, more decisive, less unsettled than Greene. […] But our shadow associates are, like parents (or godparents), presences we’ve never chosen and, like many of our loves or compulsions, blur the lines inside us by living beyond our explanations.

Pico Iyer’s book is a strange, hybrid beast. Part memoir, part travelogue, part literary criticism, part biography, it follows in meandering fashion the lifelong obsession Iyer has had with Graham Greene. A great deal of the fascination springs from unexpected similarities of experience. On the one hand, there are any number of uncanny coincidences between his life and Greene’s, incidents such as the fact that both lost houses to fire, biographical details concerning places they both lived, people they both knew.  But they were both chips off the same bizarrely educated block. A child of highly intelligent Indian parents who moved to London and then to California when he was eight, Pico Iyer ended up choosing to continue his education in England, at first in a school in Oxford and then via the arcane rituals of Eton. So much travelling between radically different ideologies left Iyer with a sense of rootlessness that only Graham Greene, a melancholy Englishman abroad like so many of his characters, could match. Iyer describes how his California was a place where youth believed it could do anything, where innocence was prized as useful, and where the new was welcomed with open arms. In England, he slotted into absurd traditions that predated him by centuries, where success was a dirty word, excoriating honesty about one’s flaws and failings was prized, and only one’s tender kindnesses needed to be shielded fiercely from view.

These contrasting experiences were embodied by the characters in Greene’s novels, in which inconsolable Englishmen wielded their cynicism against the recklessly open-hearted goodness of Americans. And they did so in the forgotten places of the map, Cuba, Haiti, Saigon, Mexico, places where laughter, corruption and violence lived comfortably side by side. Pico Iyer grew up to be a travel writer, and one who cherished his alienation and sense of exile as he also travelled through the forsaken parts of the world, often with a novel of Graham Greene’s as his only companion. Novels that did not read like fiction, so much as uncanny accounts of what was inside his mind and heart.

Reading Graham Greene made Pico Iyer feel far closer to him than to relatives and other intimates, and offered him an alternative to the gregarious, successful, intellectual father whom he seems to have known only from afar.

The paradox of reading,’ Iyer writes, ‘is that you draw closer to some other creature’s voice within you than to the people who surround you (with their surfaces) every day.

Greene was someone he never met although he did write to him once requesting an interview, which Greene declined with great courteousness, only to die shortly afterwards. But Iyer makes it clear that flesh and blood would probably have ruined things; Greene has been his creative inspiration, his guide and his spiritual companion, a perfect parent because utterly accessible in imagination and safe from the folly of being real with all the fallibility that entails. As you might expect, the portrait Iyer offers of the writer is a tender one that focuses on his deep compassion and capacity for love, the courage of his self-accusations, rather than the cantankerous, often hostile old reprobate that other biographies favour.

This is an extremely difficult book to write about as it is entirely without structure. There are three nominal sections, entitled ‘Ghosts’, ‘Gods’ and ‘Fathers’, and at times if I took a step back from the reading, I could see that there were fragile links mooring the material to these themes. But the writing is entirely digressive and dilatory, moving between Iyer’s often vivid experiences abroad and Greene’s life and his novels within the space of a couple of paragraphs. There is no chronological order, instead a vague circularity in which various obsessive concerns recur, and it was hard for me to know whether we were engaged in a productive return or simply a repetition. But there were many passages of extraordinary beauty, and some wonderful insights into Greene’s novels:

It is not that good and bad do not exist, but that they are so improbably mixed, in constantly shifting proportions, that we cannot begin to tell friend from foe or right from wrong: the priest is likely to be a reprobate and the sinner to have some residual kindness in him.

This is a book written from deep inside an experience, using the writer’s inexplicable spiritual attraction to another man, an intimate stranger, to think through parts of his life that have the punch of unresolved meaning. However, this is a homage, not a critique, and the fact that the world which Greene and Iyer inhabited is one that is now mostly outdated is not brought into the debate. For all that I found this an occasionally exasperating narrative, I could not help but love what it is doing, in its exploration of the admiration we can experience for the piercing insight of other writers, and for its intense probing of the powerful way that novels make us feel seen, understood, and no longer alone. Any book that attempts a very unusual and unique way of approaching literature deserves recognition for its innovation and for the courage of its convictions.


16 thoughts on “The Man Within My Head

  1. I’ve been wondering about this book. It sounds really intriguing. Is it my imagination or does it seem like there are more books being published these days that take memoir, criticism, biography – several different genres – and mix them all together? If it is a trend it is an interesting one that I will happily keep an eye on.

  2. A lovely post – just last night a companion and I were discussing The Power and the Glory, and it seems high time to read it again – as well as to check out Iyer’s book.

    • Scott, I don’t know your book taste very well, but from what I’ve seen of it, I would say this is definitely up your alley. It’s very much a book for a sensitive reader who admires literary work and wouldn’t mind the lack of narrative arc. The writing is superb in places.

  3. The way novels make us feel seen, understood, and no longer alone. Yes. That’s the way I feel when reading parts of Infinite Jest, Othello, and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, to mention three of the books most often within my head these days.

  4. I will definitely read this. Have found some of Pico Iyer’s work very moving and enlightening, always feel that he lives and writes from a ‘place’ I recognise and value him very much for that, even if it’s really been patches here and there of his work that move and inform me very directly.

    • Jean, yes, what made this book for me were Iyer’s insights which were often startling and beautifully expressed. I was happy to read without a strong storyline, knowing I could come across a nugget of glorious wisdom or experience at any moment. Would love to know what you think of this.

  5. I saw an interview with Pico Iyer by Charlie Rose about this book some months ago. It lives on in my memory principally because of what both men said towards the end of the interview about their relationships with their parents. Watching it again, the discussion of the book itself is enriched by your excellent review. The interview is available here if you’d like to see it:

    I remember when reading passages in Howard’s End it seemed that EM Forster was writing, as it were, in my language, albeit more articulately and with more insight; as Jean put it, from the same place. – To learn, or be reminded of, which writers resonate with you would make for a fascinating post I’d imagine …

    • Lokesh, I don’t know how you do it, but you find the best links! Thank you for that – a wonderful addition to the discussion. And how fascinating that Forster writes from a place you value highly. I love your idea for a post and have been thinking about it ever since I read your comment!

  6. I think people like Iyer, who are sort of exiles or rootless make the best travellers and the best observers of other cultures–they have nothing at stake in a way and see more clearly. Or maybe it just seems that way. I am familiar with Iyer’s travel books though I have never picked one up–you make me want to pick this book up even though I’ve also not read any of Greene’s work either. I like the idea of someone writing about someone they admire-I know they aren’t writing with an eye toward the critical perhaps but it makes for an interesting view. More authors to add to my list!

    • Danielle, I think that’s such an insightful comment. I hadn’t put it together, but yes, you’re so right. It is that very rootlessness that makes him so attuned, or so interested in his isolation, wherever he is. I really appreciated the fanboy angle on Greene – I felt I got a lot out of the few novels of his I’d read, retrospectively, by seeing him through Iyer’s eyes. I think you might like Graham Greene – it’s definitely worth trying The End of the Affair or Our Man In Havana. Both were far more accessible than I expected!

  7. Back in the ’60s I was a member of one of those book of the month type clubs and I was sent The Comedians by Graham Greene. I still have the book (of course) but have never gotten around to reading it. It sits near Saul Bellow and A. J. Cronin, Iris Murdoch and Betty Smith – all gathering dust. I really must pull them all down one day and read them. Anyone who loves reading usually has quite a few folks living inside their heads. They make for good company.

    • Grad – you have some wonderful books to read, when you feel like blowing the dust off them! I love your comment about the folks living inside one’s head. There was a sweet remark I saw once that made me laugh about writers, suggesting they got to know such interesting people, and a writer had replied ‘Yes, and every last one of them imaginary…’

  8. What an intriguing character you’ve painted of Pico Iyer. I haven’t read him, but now would definitely look for his works. Recently I’ve been fascinated by literature written by IWE, Indian writers in English, a term I learned from visiting blogs, albeit one might well categorize Iyer ‘British’ rather than ‘Indian’. Maybe it all started with Midnight’s Children, but I’m sure I’ve come across others in the past, like Vikram Seth. And back to your post, Graham Greene associated with Pico Iyer makes me all the more want to explore Iyer. But, are they ‘outdated’? I hope not. 😉

    • I would love to know what you make of Iyer as I think that’s a really good call. I can imagine you liking his writing very much. But what I said was not that Iyer and Greene are outdated, but that the world they write about has changed and moved on – as the world is wont to do! But anyway, read it for yourself and see what you think!

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