THE MAN WITHIN MY HEADBy Pico IyerBloomsbury, $35
THERE has been a recent growth in books about writers that are neither criticism nor biography but, rather, use both to deal with the writer and their works as some kind of shadow self, or even role model. There’s Janet Malcolm reading Chekhov and Robert Dessaix’s books about Turgenev and Gide. Geoff Dyer turned the form into comedy with Out of Sheer Rage, a book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence; and in equally downbeat mode, there is Malcolm Knox’s On Obsession, about how reading Proust may not necessarily do your life much good at all.
These are books about the relationship between readers and writers, and what reading can do to a person. They are often books that challenge received ideas about form as they also ignore the demand that criticism – writing about writing – try to reduce the merely subjective or personal.
Having a man inside your head is about as personal as it gets – it’s how one might describe a lover – and the man in Pico Iyer’s head is Graham Greene. Iyer starts out by wondering why he should have lit on someone as unheroic, as interested in compromised and damaged humanity as Greene: why choose as an ideal self someone as distrustful of ideals as Greene?
As the book proceeds though, the portrait he paints of Greene makes it more obvious that for Iyer, this is exactly where Greene’s attraction lies. The interest in doubleness and divided characters, the ambiguity, the self-doubt and self-criticism: it’s Greene’s lack of moralising that attracts Iyer.
It’s also Iyer’s own background that sharpens his appreciation of Greene, the novelist who spent his career writing about displaced persons. Iyer’s parents were Indian and he spent his childhood between England, where he went to public school, and California, where his father was an admired college teacher. His girlfriend is Japanese, which makes him rather defensive about the criticisms levelled at Greene for the depiction of Phuong in The Quiet American.
Iyer, of course, has made a living as a journalist and travel writer, and the reflections on Greene here come interspersed with his own travels, from Bolivia and Mexico to Saigon, places where Greene has preceded him or where he finds people like the characters from Greene’s books: an Indian shopkeeper in the middle of nowhere in Mexico; a Vietnamese girl in an internet cafe writing to her Western lover.
The memoir and travel sections curiously come punctuated by disaster: there are two car accidents – one in Ethiopia and one in Bolivia – and Iyer returns to the time when his parents’ house was destroyed by bushfires. Iyer finds a way to approach Greene’s Catholicism through his own friendship with Louis, from his old school, who lives a life of Christian compassion, one considerably more cheerful-seeming than Greene’s own rather dark faith.
”I couldn’t quite explain to Hiroko, as I finished this book, which man within my head I was addressing.”
The other figure inhabiting the book is Iyer’s father, R.J. Iyer, the distinguished scholar of Plato. Born in a poor family, he was a brilliant young man, who, by 18, was teaching at the University of Bombay and later benefiting from the colonial system of scholarships that sought either to improve the lot of the colonised or remake them in their colonisers’ image, depending on how you look at it.
If a comparison between the two men is meant, it’s not so easy to know what conclusions to draw: Greene gets much more attention and there is not much sense that Iyer’s own father was lacking.
”You’re writing about your father?” Iyer’s girlfriend asks him at one point. ”Well, not exactly. There’s too much I don’t know or couldn’t say about him.” That ”couldn’t say” is tantalising.
If Greene is a father substitute for Iyer, this book leaves undone the psychological work of showing just how the substitution worked and bringing Iyer’s relationship with his real father into the light. But then one of the things Iyer seems to have learnt from Greene is not to judge too dogmatically or too soon; not to try to be too neat.
■Pico Iyer is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.