Saturday, March 24, 2012

Literary heroes, fathers and ghosts: Pico Iyer on Graham Greene

[Did a version of this for my Sunday Guardian column]
We run and run from who we are – this was Greene’s theme from the beginning – only to discover that this is precisely what we can never put behind us.
The title of Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head seems straightforward if you know beforehand that this book is about Iyer’s longtime obsession with the English writer Graham Greene. Almost from the first page, we learn that Iyer feels constantly haunted by the author – not just because of the themes of self-discovery and foreignness in Greene's work but also the little coincidences that seem to link their lives together: watching a fire burn his house down, just as Greene had done decades earlier; discovering that Greene’s son had gone to the same elementary school as he, Iyer, did. “I began to feel I was just a compound ghost that someone else had dreamed up,” he writes.

But continue reading and it becomes clear that the man Iyer is searching for – the man within his head – isn’t just Greene. This book, written by one of the major travel writers of our time, is in many ways a voyage of self-discovery.

At one point Iyer quotes from Edward Thomas’s poem “The Other”, about a man following someone like himself. The lines go: “I pursued / To prove the likeness, and, if true / To watch until myself I knew.” This seems an obvious reference to Iyer as a Greene-stalker, but there’s a deeper layer: the poem was a favourite of Greene’s himself, and in the epilogue to his ambiguous memoir Ways of Escape he described a mysterious doppelganger – someone he never met – who passed himself off to people as “Graham Greene the writer”.

If all this sounds a little complicated, it is. Real life and fiction continually inform each other in Iyer’s book, and the narrative contains many sets of doubles. (Early on, we learn that Greene’s maternal uncle was Robert Louis Stevenson, who created Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.) One remarkable passage is an account of an “Englishman always on the move”, who is referred to from one sentence to the next only as “he”. (“His travels seemed to awaken in him an ineradicable sense of mystery ... Hollywood continues to make films out of even his lesser works, and suspicion attaches to him because of all the work he did for British Inelligence; he wrote spy novels as well as exotic entertainments.”) The natural assumption is that it is Greene being discussed; only after two pages does one realise that the passage is about Somerset Maugham, whose life was uncannily similar to Greene’s in many ways.

But this isn’t just a playful connecting of dots. Iyer uses the similarity to comment on Greene’s own stated disavowal of Maugham’s influence, “the way some of us stress how different – how very different – we are from our fathers, the ones we’ve spent our lifetimes defining ourselves in opposition to.” The relationship between fathers and sons (real and notional, biological and literary) soon emerges as another major theme, with Iyer’s reflections on his “adopted father” (Greene) moving alongside his attempts to understand his own real father.
Real parents have lives to attend to, lives beyond our understanding, and they commit, most of all, the sin of being real; they’re human and distractible and fallible ... But the parents we construct in our minds – the ones we enlist for our purposes – are more like the people we want to be ... Someone says you look like your father and you wince, or recoil; the great project of self-creation has clearly failed. Someone says you sound like that eminent novelist, and you’re flattered. You’ve followed intuition, or yourself.
Mesmerising in parts but also, by its very nature, uneven, self-indulgent and meandering, The Man Within My Head is many books in one. It is a tribute to (even a part-biography of) an enigmatic writer. It is an affectionate work of literary criticism, full of observations like this: “What makes one weep and what makes one break out laughing are identical twins in Greene’s work, and it sometimes seems almost a freak of fate, pure randomness, whether a character picks one or the other.” It is a travelogue – as all Iyer’s earlier books have, to some degree or other, been – as well as a contemplation of the relationship between readers and their cherished writers, and between writers and the world. [“The man who bares a part of his soul on the page soon finds that his friends are treating him as strangers, bewildered by this other self they’ve met in his book. Meanwhile, many a stranger is considering him a friend, convinced he knows this man he’s read, even if he’s never met him. The paradox of reading 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.”]

But it is also, alongside all these, a sort of autobiography written by a man who can only approach the subject of himself tangentially. “I’d never had much time for memoir,” Iyer writes in a telling passage, “It was too easy to make yourself the centre – even the hero – of your story and to use recollection to forgive yourself for everything.” By making someone else the ostensible hero of his story, he has written one of the most unusual memoirs you’ll read.


  1. Loved this review. The book seems like a true delight. Thanks!

  2. While I enjoyed reading your review of Iyer's book, I must confess the extract from the same that I read this morning wasn't as enjoyable. Too heavy for me!

  3. This sounds fascinating. I have loved Greene and Iyer, both for very different reading- never knew of Iyer's fascination for Greene before!