The Man Within My HeadPico IyerKnopf, $25.95, 256 pp.
Librarians may have problems deciding where to shelve Pico Iyer’s book. The Library of Congress notes at the beginning provide information rather than enlightenment, placing it in several different categories: an account of Graham Greene’s influence; a critical study of his writings; a biography of Greene; an autobiographical account of the author’s origins and family life, particularly of his father, a philosopher who is nearly as much a presence in the narrative as the English novelist; and an essay in travel writing. Some of these headings can be disregarded: Iyer is not trying to provide either a critical study or a biography. The Man Within My Head will frustrate the casually dipping reader, since there is no descriptive subtitle, no list of chapters, and no index. But it is evidently a book “about” Graham Greene, whose picture appears on the jacket above the author’s. It isn’t really criticism or biography, but rather an account of Iyer’s enduring preoccupation with Greene, whom he regards as part of his consciousness, as actually “in his head.”
His title echoes that of Greene’s first novel, The Man Within, published in 1929. That book contains an epigraph from the seventeenth-century physician Sir Thomas Browne: “There’s another man within me and he’s angry with me.” The idea of the intrusive companion or doppelgänger would have been familiar to Greene, whose later years were troubled by the interventions of a stranger who claimed he was called “Graham Greene.”
Sometimes Iyer is affected by Greene to the extent of imitating his manner: “Home, I began to feel, was the half-formed beliefs you fashioned in the middle of all you didn’t and couldn’t understand, a tent on a wide empty plain.” Writing of his sense of closeness to Greene, Iyer reproduces some of his stylistic devices, such as description in three clauses: “As the product of the England where I grew up, he was part of all that I was trying to put behind me; he belonged with the hesitant stutter of the radiator in the red-brick classroom, the low grey skies and weathered walls that put us in our place and kept us there.”
Iyer here writes as if he, like Greene, were an Englishman. In fact, he is an Indian, born into the Bombay professional classes and given an expensive British education at Eton and Oxford. He has since become a prolific writer of travel books and biographies with an international theme. He writes largely for American publications but an English persona sits easily upon him. It is perhaps for this reason that the Greene novel he most often cites is not one of those with a Catholic dimension, such as The Power and the Glory or The Heart of the Matter, but The Quiet American, in which Greene turned from religious subjects to international politics (causing his friend Evelyn Waugh to complain that for Greene to give up God was like P. G. Wodehouse giving up Jeeves). The Quiet American is an early Cold War novel, but Iyer feels a personal affinity with it. As an anglicized Indian he empathizes with the expatriate English journalist Thomas Fowler, who is weary and cynical but still tries to act decently, a type who recurs in Greene’s later novels. Fowler is at home in Vietnam in the embattled last days of French colonial rule, and he is in love with his Vietnamese mistress, Phuong, though he eventually loses her to the quiet American, Alden Pyle. Iyer, who has a Japanese wife and lives in Japan, can identify with Fowler. He writes of The Quiet American that underneath its concern with global politics there “lives a more private and anguished book, much deeper, that could be called The Unquiet Englishman. The words that recur again and again in its opening pages are ‘pain’ and ‘love’ and ‘innocence’ and ‘home,’ and it’s not always easy to tell one from the other.”
Iyer makes little of Greene’s Catholicism, though it could be seen as informing what Iyer describes as his compassionate attitude to human suffering. Greene, in his provocative fashion, liked to call himself a “Catholic agnostic,” even a “Catholic atheist,” and Iyer concludes that his religious belief was inauthentic. But Greene was well informed about theology, as the book by his Spanish friend Fr. Leopoldo Duran indicates, and these negative descriptions may have been a gesture toward the apophatic tradition, which sees God as ultimately unknowable. Iyer follows Greene in distinguishing “faith” from “belief,” favoring the former. But there are languages, less rich in terminology than English, in which such a distinction could not be made. Greene may not have been an orthodox Catholic but the question is more open than Iyer leaves it. He may, though, be right in his conclusion: “Greene, I felt, was always in his books hoping to give us a sense of responsibility—of conscience—in part by bringing himself before an unsparing tribunal.”
Iyer is persuasive in presenting Greene as a moral force, who has indeed penetrated his own consciousness and sensibility. But in doing so he drifts away from the consideration that Greene was more than a moral force: he was a hardworking writer, who by the time of his death in 1991 had published nearly thirty novels, as well as plays, short stories, essays, journalism, and travel writing, plus a little poetry. Iyer’s Greene is somewhat immaterial, diminished to a presence in the reader’s consciousness, with little account of the extent and variety of his output. Incidentally, one mistake needs to be corrected in any future edition of the book: Greene’s posthumous The Tenth Man was written not when he was living in the South of France, but as a film treatment in wartime London.
Iyer writes admiringly and persuasively about Greene in ways that the novelist may have approved, but he may also have felt uneasy about being turned into an icon in Iyer’s life. Some of the best writing, in fact, is not about Greene but directly autobiographical. Iyer’s father, after teaching at Oxford, moved to a university in California, where the boy spent his school vacations, enjoying the contrast with the grey stone and grey skies of England. Iyer writes vividly of seeing the family home burn down in a forest fire. There is also some excellent writing about Iyer’s recent experiences in Bolivia, though this is a country that Greene, the great traveler, never visited. The book makes an engrossing read, but there is a hint of perversity about the enterprise.
Related: Graham Greene at 100, by Bernard Bergonzi