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Book review: 'The Man Within My Head' by Pico Iyer

This look at Graham Greene is literary criticism disguised as autobiography, a book filled with insights, sadness, rumination and splashes of the dazzling travelogue.

January 22, 2012|By Richard Rayner, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • British writer Graham Greene (1904-91) at his home in Nice, in May 1982.
British writer Graham Greene (1904-91) at his home in Nice, in May 1982. (AFP/Getty Images )

The Man Within My Head

Pico Iyer

Alfred A. Knopf: 256 pp., $25.95

Writers don't always get the critics and biographers they deserve, but since his death in 1991 Graham Greene has been on the whole pretty lucky.

Norman Sherry completed his three-volume biography, a magnificent monument. National Book Award winner Shirley Hazzard wrote a sharply exquisite memoir of how she and her husband, the biographer Francis Steegmuller, got to know Greene on the isle of Capri, where Greene lived some months of each year during the 1950s and 1960s. (He bought a house there with the proceeds from his screenplay of "The Third Man.") What glamour!

In the New Yorker, Robert McCrum detailed an exploration of Greene's personal collection of books, which, it turned out, Greene had filled with handwritten marginalia — nuggets of literary gold alongside, say, Constance Garnett's translations of Chekhov.

All along Greene contrived to be the most public and yet private of men. I once saw him, in his trademark pale raincoat, sliding like a wraith into the Catholic church opposite Rules restaurant in London's Covent Garden. I was tempted to approach him and pay homage; something about his milky eyes said best not.

Greene, for sure, is a writer who goes on inspiring other writers, haunting them, even, as evidenced by Pico Iyer's lovely new book "The Man Within My Head," which chronicles an obsession to which in many ways he'd rather not be subjected. Greene, after all, was nothing if not an Englishman, whereas Iyer, educated in England and California, born to dazzling Indian parents, springs from several cultures and has created a career moving among many more. Iyer is a very modern kind of guy; Greene, while prescient in many ways, stalks us from another era.

"But there he is, in spite of everything," Iyer writes. "Not a hero or a counselor or the kind of person I would otherwise want to claim as kin. I see the gangly, long-legged figure graciously receiving a visitor in his room and keeping the intruder at bay with an offer of a drink, folding his awkward limbs around himself on the sofa; I see the high color in his cheeks, and the pale, unearthly blue eyes that speak to everyone of the troubled depths he's both concealing and perceiving in the world. He speaks in a slightly strangled English voice … and, when amused, he breaks into an unhardened, high-pitched giggle, suddenly, that equally abruptly stops, as if he's been caught out, the mischievous boy escaping, for a moment, from the sharp-eyed keeper of his own counsel."

Iyer tells us he isn't really interested in Greene the Catholic, Greene the Communist, Greene the rumored spy or Greene the drinker, and, being a reserved and composed character himself, Iyer certainly isn't letting on if he's interested in Greene the womanizer, Greene the damaged Englishman and swooning Baudelairean masochist who implored his American lover Catherine Walston to stub out her cigarettes on his chest.

But Iyer certainly is interested in Greene the solitary traveler, Greene the observer and screenwriter, and Greene the restlessly questing soul who saw pain and humiliation in the remoter margins of the world and found, perhaps to his own surprise, that his customarily reserved, even icy appraisals could turn to something else.

"If his books have one signal quality, it is compassion," Iyer writes, "the fellow feeling that one wounded, lonely, scared mortal feels for another, and the way that sometimes, especially in a moment of crisis, when we 'forget ourselves' (which is to say, escape our thoughts and conscious reflexes) a single extended hand makes nonsense of all the curlicues in our head. It can even make our terrors go away, for a moment."

Iyer is fascinated too by the Greene who recorded his dreams, allowing them to inform and inspire his fiction, and by the Greene who trembled with an awareness of the buried forces that guide our lives. "He had a clearer sense than almost anyone of his class and world, of all the ways the subconscious is in tune with the past," Iyer writes.

"The Man Within My Head" (a nod to "The Man Within," Greene's first published novel) is patchwork rather than a narrative, proceeding through a series of dreamike connections as Iyer, alone in a hotel room, or a bar in Saigon, or on a perilous mountain road after a car smash in Bolivia, finds himself meeting characters and walking through plots and coincidences that Greene might have invented years before. Events — eavesdropping on a beautiful young prostitute, meeting a lost and doomed expatriate — intrude upon Iyer's life in Greene-esque terms, precisely because those Greene novels he keeps rereading ("The Quiet American," "The End of the Affair," "The Power and the Glory") have permeated not so much Iyer's prose style as his psychological DNA.

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