FEBRUARY 3, 2012
RAYMOND CHANDLER ONCE SAID that great writing, whatever else it does, nags at the minds of subsequent writers, who find it sometimes difficult to explain just why they are so haunted by a particular work or author. The real mystery is not that an author takes up residence in our head, but why? Why this author and not that one? Why does Henry James haunt Colm Tóibín and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and why did he haunt Graham Greene? Why does Graham Greene haunt Pico Iyer, and Raymond Chandler haunt me? Most often we simply accept these hauntings without attempting to discover why a particular writer has so colonized our mind, because to do so would require an excavation of the unconscious that is not only hard work but often disturbing and, perhaps, impossible — like asking us to fully know ourselves while we are still in the process of becoming.
Is it that we see ourselves in the work of our shadow mentors — the traces of our own lives and sensibilities? Do they somehow supply us with the tools we need to tell stories of our own? Do we choose them, or do they choose us, taking up residence of their own volition? Do they, like love or other compulsions, become, as Pico Iyer suggests, “forces we can’t explain even to ourselves?”
This is exactly the sort of reckoning Iyer sets out to accomplish in The Man Within My Head, a book whose comely title plays off Greene’s first published novel, The Man Within. The book is a journey into Iyer’s own haunting by Greene, the writer who has most influenced his writing as well as his life. Part memoir, part literary excavation, part travelogue and existential inquiry, it’s a story about finding one’s voice as a writer and one’s place in the world (or lack of place). It’s a book about spiritual conundrums and dilemmas, and about fathers — both those we create as shadow allies, and those who create us (those real-life figures who become much more complex presences to deal with). Finally, it’s an exploration of the ways in which the power of affinity lies in its mysteriousness, how fictional and real worlds collide in the consciousness of a writer whose ghostly guide becomes more real in some ways than living people. The Man Within My Head is an investigation into not only what haunts us and why, but how what haunts us sometimes conceals what we most do not want to turn our attention to.
Iyer never met the man he refers to alternately as his ghost, his shadow presence, and his surrogate father. Chances are if he had he might have been disappointed. He might not have cared so much for the flesh-and-blood Greene, the gangly Englishman, with the watery pale eyes and drinker’s florid complexion, who was not an easy man to know, except perhaps in his fiction, where all the poses and pretenses were dropped. Iyer tells us that he regards Greene “not [as] a hero or a counselor or the kind of person I would otherwise want to claim as kin.” If he were consciously to claim a secret companion, he says, he would “most likely fasten on quite a different person, someone more dashing, more decisive, less unsettled than Greene.”
Unsettled Greene certainly was: a complex man tortured by questions of faith, a Catholic convert who never outright renounced his religious beliefs but instead wrestled with them throughout his life, both in the real world and in his fiction. There was something frozen about Greene, something icy and arrested in his person: he was forever “a precocious school boy,” as his friend Lady Read once noted, one “with tremendous depths,” but the sort of depths, she added, “that one doesn’t inquire into.”
How much more complex, then, when those “depths” become absorbed by another, transferred through a kind of affinity and mysterious alchemy from one writer to another as of by some unfathomable magic. One has to admire Iyer for opening the Pandora’s box of his haunting, for inquiring into those depths, and then admire him even more for the remarkable, grace-laden book that is the result.
Graham Greene (or Grim Grin as Kingsley Amis waggishly called him) was born in the village of Berkhamstead, the fourth of six children. His father was headmaster of the Berkhamstead School, on whose grounds Greene was raised. He was an unhappy, troubled boy — an untenable position, one imagines, to be the headmaster’s son, sure to present difficulties with the other boys — and as a teen he was sent to London to live with a psychoanalyst and his wife in order to undergo therapy. He attended Oxford, published a first book of poems with the unfortunate title of Babbling April, later became a journalist, and fell in love with Vivien Dayrell Browning, a Catholic convert still in her teens. He converted to Catholicism in 1926, perhaps primarily in order to marry Vivien, but the marriage was not a happy one: there could be no such thing for the restless Greene. Though they produced two children, they rarely lived together and formally separated in 1948, though Greene never divorced or ever remarried.
Greene understood he was unfit for domestic life, but he also knew that his nascent restlessness, combined with his obsession with the paradoxes of faith, would provide him with the material for his fiction. His hunger for the world and far-off places put him in the company of men and led to men’s adventures (he was for a time a spy for British intelligence), as well as books set in exotic locales, just as his melancholy and spiritual wrestling, his worn-out innocence and vulnerability made him attractive to women. Like Chandler, he was a romantic at heart and yet was uneasy with women. He became a patron of brothels, perhaps, as Iyer speculates, because he saw paying for sex a way of saving women from himself: relations could become transactional, free of emotional encumbrance. He also conducted passionate affairs, but like the fictional Philip Marlowe, he eschewed sleep-overs. He had Marlowe’s ineluctable solitariness: his nights were his alone.
Iyer divides his book into three sections: Ghosts, Gods, and Fathers. While it is Greene who threads together these subjects, something much stronger is at work. The haunting is a mystery never meant to be solved, just as Greene was a real-life man who was never meant to be encountered; he is really simply the means for a much deeper probing of consciousness. He’s like the raft on which Iyer can set out to explore his own life and work, the English public school past he shares with Greene and the deep life-long male friendships that resulted, and his love of travel and far-flung destinations. Iyer often finds himself in the same places Greene wrote about — Cuba, Haiti, Vietnam, West Africa — and the “correspondences” that arise at these times, he writes, “only heighten the eerie sense of possession I felt with the semi-imagined friend I’d fashioned in my head.”
In particular Greene provides him with the means to explore, however obliquely and subtly (and Iyer is nothing if not an exquisitely subtle writer; he understands the importance of never fully disrobing) his relationship with his real-life father, a man of great charisma and brilliance who was born in Bombay, the son of a Ford Motor Company worker and a mother who was only fifteen at the time of his birth, who became a philosopher and gifted teacher and hypnotic speaker, eventually invited to join the prestigious Santa Barbara think tank, The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
Iyer, an only child, was raised in two worlds: the old world of a British public school, with its emphasis on traditional values and self-restraint, and the rollicking free-for-all world of post-sixties New Age California. Born in Oxford, he was just eight when his father and mother (also a philosopher and teacher) moved to Santa Barbara, but one senses that not all of Iyer got transported to the new world. In Oxford he had been the bright, well-mannered inquisitive child who had sorted his father’s magazines for him: a boy who was English through and through. In Santa Barbara he became the boy who, upon encountering the wild tribe of his new classmates up close, convinced his parents to send him back to England and the known sanctuary of a very good public school. His parents had seen, he writes, “how much I might forget if I stayed in this fresh and unformed society,” and so at age nine he returned, alone, to Oxford: “I headed back to the strange cloistered world of Victorian England.” Back, in other words, to early “Greeneland,” the world that created not only the man who would come to take up residence in his head, but the world of two other writers with whom Iyer also has an affinity: Raymond Chandler and Somerset Maugham.
What these writers all have in common is a sensibility formed by Old School values and a fading Empire: loyalty and fealty, reticence and self-restraint, the stiff-upper lip, and an inclination toward male camaraderie (friendship is much more important in the novels of Greene and Chandler than romance) as well as an uncertainty about how to deal with what Iyer calls that most foreign country of all: the country of women.
Here, as in other very important ways, Iyer departs from Greeneland: he has great tenderness for women, and there are lovely passages in The Man Within My Head devoted to his relationship with his Japanese “sweetheart” and wife, Hiroko, as well as his mother, with whom he travels to Easter Island and the Holy Land and who, in fact, perhaps tellingly, was the first to suggest he read Graham Greene. Hiroko is a figure of enigmatic simplicity and quiet, with a calm directness, who is a bit perplexed by her husband’s absorption with Greene and asks if he really wants to write a book about him. He tells her yes, he does — that he thinks it might be “a way of working things out, as I couldn’t otherwise.”
“You’re going to write about his life?” she asks Iyer. “Not exactly,” he replies. “About my life. Or how we project onto others …” He had realized that Greene was the way he could get into places in himself that were otherwise well-defended.
Later he writes of Hiroko, with whom he shares a simple apartment in Japan when he is not traveling the world: “She has a wonderful, bracing lack of interest in all the things complicated men dream up at their desks and a complete indifference to — and innocence of — the stuff that people chatter about in the literary circles of London or New York City.”
In Iyer’s defense, I would point out that he is not accusing his wife of being simple; he is only saying that she is uninterested in the complicated things complicated men dream up. In this sense Iyer would almost seem to have replicated Greeneland as a man of the new global world, having adventures with male friends, except that he inhabits, with unusual gracefulness and commitment, the sort of relationship Greene could never have managed. The striking word in that sentence about his wife is innocence: this is the very quality that draws him to Greene’s novels, the theme not just of innocence but lost innocence, a theme that emerges in his own writing over and over again. In Greene’s fiction he finds such deep humanity, and most importantly, kindness: an understanding of the sufferings in the world, and the possibility for honesty and compassion, even in the midst of our confusions and sins. Compassion, he writes, is the signal quality in Greene’s work: the way life can be transformed, if only briefly, by a single decent action, and the ability to feel someone else’s position so acutely that for a moment, at least, we slip the bonds of our own self-absorption.
Over the years, Iyer’s devotion to Greene sometimes wavers: he grows tired of his frequent melancholy, his talk of Russian roulette and empty suicide threats, his selfish treatment of women, the bathos, the dishonesty, the dyspeptic views, and finds he can no longer read the early stories, “so bitter and cruel and thick with dissatisfaction.” These qualities are also found in Greene’s later novels, such as A Burnt-Out Case, about an architect named Query (no subtlety there), a famous designer of churches who has renounced the world as well as his Catholic faith and ended up toiling humbly in a leper colony in Africa.
But Greene is not a companion Iyer can simply shed. They are like the friends one often finds in Greene’s novels: two men, often of opposite sensibilities and backgrounds, who sit together in the dark, in a house or outpost in a far-away country, and open their hearts, revealing their secrets and wounds, examining what Iyer has called “the riddles and the aches … the dilemmas and shadows,” as they dwell together temporarily in Greene’s Church of Humanity. Reading The Man Within My Head is like being allowed to enter that church and sit quietly, listening to both the moving hymns and the mumbled prayers, the stories of the two men who have traveled far and come to the same place for a while.