The Writers that Shadow Us

By Pico IyerJanuary 4, 2012

The Writers that Shadow Us

The Man Within My Head by Pico Iyer

Illustration: Graham Greene by Margaret Woods (2004) Courtesy of The Graham Greene Birthplace Trust

I HAD JUST ARRIVED IN SAIGON — this was September 2004 — and, 15 hours out of sync after the long flight from California, I was wide-awake, adrenaline-quickened and eager to see everything as I hit the late-night streets. I dropped off my case at the Hotel Majestic and then began walking down Tu Do, or Freedom Street (the Rue Catinat, as it had been in French times, and now officially Dong Khoi, or Simultaneous Uprising Street).

The city had not changed much in the 13 years since I'd last been here, except that the sense of illicit energy, of movement, of underground whispering was more intense. "Layla" drifted up from an underground bar, and men along the sidewalks murmured promises of various exotic pleasures. A young woman sped up on a motorbike, took off her helmet and, shaking free her long hair, said, "We go my room?" Cyclo-drivers peddled slowly past, sometimes with a single woman in their seats, sometimes stopping to ask if I needed a friend.

I went into an internet café — they were everywhere, and everything was open, even after midnight — needing to transcribe this for someone. "I might almost be walking through Graham Greene's Quiet American," I wrote to a childhood friend who had become a novelist in a somewhat Greenian vein. "It's uncanny. The Englishman Fowler and his Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong might still be walking down the Rue Catinat."

At that very moment a young woman came in, from the N.Y.-Saigon Bar next door, and took the stool next to mine. Business must be slow, I guessed, so she'd check her email for a while. She was long-legged, very young, and barely dressed. She logged onto her Hotmail account and I, shameless journalist, looked over to see what she was typing.

It was, of course, a love letter, from an admirer in Europe. "Dear Phuong," it began, and then the changeless cadences of half-requited love came tumbling out.

She caught me looking at her, and stopped what she was doing to offer a smile, a silent invitation. Greene had met his real-life Phuong, I was later reminded, at the Hotel Majestic. Probably after midnight, just over 50 years before.

A similar thing had happened to me once in Santiago de Cuba. I stepped out of the little Casa Grande Hotel one morning and got into a car, only for a stranger to slip in, promising to show me around; reading Greene's biography, a few years later, I found that he had stayed at the Casa Grande, 35 years before I did. When he walked out, and got into a car, a stranger slipped in and promised to show him around. I continued reading the biography and found him confessing to a Father Pilkington; my housemaster at school had been called Father Pilkington.

Not long thereafter, I began working on a book on the 14th Dalai Lama, and as I was sitting in Hiroshima one fall afternoon, listening to one of his general addresses, I realized that the perfect way of summarizing his teachings — for non-Buddhists at least — was by quotingHamlet: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." A little later, I was staying in a convent on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem and, needing something to read, picked up a book from the library shelves. It was Greene's late novel Monsignor Quixote, and when I turned to the title page, there was an epigraph, from Hamlet: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

On and on this went: I learned that Greene, in the 1970s, had suddenly come upon the capricious idea of writing a play about the somewhat obscure 19th century Romantic painter and diarist Benjamin Robert Haydon; I, in 1979, had decided, eccentrically, to write a dissertation about the somewhat obscure 19th century Romantic diarist and painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon (though neither his play nor my dissertation ever got written). Perhaps — a skeptic might have said — these were no more than surface coincidences; but when there are so many correspondences, across such a wide canvas, you start to imagine that they might speak for connections of a deeper kind.

So often these days we read of travelers taking off "in the footsteps" of Marco Polo or Genghis Khan or many another distinguished forebear, even Graham Greene. But in this case, I didn't feel I had to pursue Greene, because he was so busy pursuing me.



It's not of great cosmic interest that Graham Greene seems to be writing my life, even as I'm so proud of making it up myself. Or that he reads me better than many of the friends and family members who see me every day do. But what's more intriguing is that all of us have these presences inside our heads, who seem somehow to shadow us, and in ways we can't quite explain. "I can't listen to Joni Mitchell's Blue," a friend once told me. "And I can't stop listening to it. It's as if she stole my diary and is broadcasting its secrets to the world." "I'm almost afraid to see what Henry James will write in the next sentence," another friend says. "Because it's so close to my life that he might be telling me what I'll do and think tomorrow."

These days, in our virtual lives, this sense of spectral affinity may be more intense and unnerving than ever. Every other celebrity seems to have a stalker who feels he's Gwyneth Paltrow's other half, if only she would wake up to the fact; and many of us probably know more about Princess Diana or Tiger Woods, at least when it comes to their intimate lives, than about our siblings or parents. It's almost as if we have one official life, in which we look and sound like our mother or father; but underneath is a more mysterious life in which we're really closest to Zadie Smith, or that painter who's produced our portrait without ever meeting us.

One of the writers who was most interested in this secret universe — we dream, again and again, of a place we've never seen in life, but almost never of the building in which we live; we meet a stranger at a party, and feel she knows us better than the old friends we came with do — was, as it happens, Graham Greene. At the age of 16, after failing to run away from the school where his father was headmaster, he was allowed (unusually for his time and class) to go and live for six months with a dream analyst in London, and the man's glamorous wife. For much of his life thereafter he kept a careful diary of his dreams, meticulously indexed, and two of his novels, he said, came straight from dreams. The last book he prepared for publication before his death was a record of his dreams.

Greene learned at an early age how fully the subconscious has access to deeper truths than the waking mind can ever find, and to feel that everything that matters in life — whether it has to do with love or faith or even writing — arises from that domain that we can't explain away. Anyone who writes a book knows that he's tapping some presence within himself that he may not even recognize, let alone acknowledge; when the book comes out, his old friends start treating him as a stranger (who is this weird guy they've met on the page?), while many strangers take him to be their closest friend. Greene's interest in the power of such mysteries was one reason, of course, why he could never turn his back on faith, even though he could never give himself fully to it, either.

Yet with him the whole process was even stranger and more haunting. It was his mother's first cousin, Robert Louis Stevenson, after all, who had given the world the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And Greene was shadowed, throughout his life, as he recorded with fascination, by a stranger who passed himself off as "Graham Greene" and did the wildest things in his name. Messages arrived for Greene from women recalling their times together, except these were women he'd never met. He opened the newspaper to see pictures of "the writer Graham Greene" in Jamaica or Geneva, though he'd not been to those places recently. Once, after having lunch with President Allende in Chile, Greene himself was briefly taken to be the "unreal Graham Greene," a fake.

So Greene leads us into that shadow realm where, reading a book for hours at a time, we enter somebody else's being and he comes into our head, even as he's trying to get under the skin of various characters. We come to know a writer's tics and intimate secrets better than we know those of most people in real life. Nicholson Baker starts remaking John Updike's novels in his head, and losing a sense of where he ends and the other man begins; Pierre Menard, in the Borges story, feels so close to Cervantes that he independently composes the whole of Quixote, again; Judith Freeman takes off on long, haunted drives through L.A. in the rain to peer at the buildings that Raymond Chandler once occupied.

Graham Greene himself took pains, like many an Englishman of his kind, never to tell us much of himself in the two memoirs he reluctantly published in old age; he uses charm and childhood memory and anecdote to throw up a kind of smoke screen around those he loved and what he truly cared for. Yet in his twenties he'd taken time out from his apprentice novel-writing to complete a full biography of the 17th century roué and poet, the Earl of Rochester. The book tells us nothing new about the licentious poet, but it tells us next to everything about Graham Greene. Indeed, at the beginning of his writing life, Greene anticipated many of the tendencies and patterns that would haunt him for the rest of his days. Biography is fiction, he seemed to realize, but it is also, if it's worthwhile, shadow autobiography: Why else would one want to spend so much time recreating another's life?



As a boy of five, Greene dreamed one night of a ship going down; he awoke to learn that the Titanic had sunk earlier that night. Twelve years later he dreamed again of a boat sinking, in the Irish Sea; a few days afterwards, he learned that a boat had gone down that very night, as he was sleeping, in the Irish Sea. That same spirit — here the dream analyst rises from the shadows yet again — allowed him to write in February 1934 of a dead woman found in a railway station, only for a real woman to be found dead in a British railway station four months later. Every night before he went to bed, Greene read what he had written earlier in the day so that, as he slept, his subconscious could work on the material, like an outsourcing accountant in Bangalore. When he awoke, it would be with his narrative problem solved, and a clear intuition about what to write next.

All his life Greene had a mysterious fear of seeing his house burn down. One day, in his thirties, his house really did burn to the ground, hit by a German bomb during the Blitz, and he never truly settled down again. One day, when I was in my thirties, I walked upstairs in my family home in California to see 70-foot flames around our picture windows; by the time the wildfire had subsided, our home, everything in it — and 440 other houses — had been reduced to ash.

A biography, I came to think, is not about where some figure lived, how he talked to his friends, where he traveled in the world; it's about what lived in him, in terms of his premonitions and terrors and guilts. And what he could say only when he was pretending not to be himself. About where he traveled when he closed his eyes. It is about the men within his head by which he came to know himself (in Greene's case, this shadow father was Henry James). The only way to fathom myself, I decided eight years ago, was to spend all my time reading — and writing about — Graham Greene.


LARB Contributor

Pico Iyer's most recent book is The Man Within My Head.  


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