“The Man Within My Head” by Pico Iyer, One Man’s Appreciation of Graham Greene

“The Man Within My Head”  by Pico Iyer    (2012)  – 238 pages

 “I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.”

                                   Graham Greene in “The Quiet American

 I came to Graham Greene quite late in my reading career about ten years ago, but when I finally did discover him I devoured his novels with a vengeance   Over the succeeding five years, I read just about all the fiction the prolific Greene wrote.  “Brighton Rock”, “The End of the Affair”, “The Heart of the Matter”, “The Comedians”, “Our Man in Havana”, all are wonderful novels just to mention a few of the many high spots.

The appeal of these novels is almost visceral for me.  I couldn’t not read these novels.  I think what separates Graham Greene from other writers is that his protagonists are not only acute observers of the other people around them, they are also acute observers of themselves. They are just as aware of their own failings, their own sins, as they are of those of other people.  This is liberating.  Too often writers grant their main character a special unearned dispensation from the rules that govern everyone else in their novels.

Pico Iyer also has a special affinity for Graham Greene, and he has written the non-fiction book, “The Man Within My Head” as a tribute to Graham Greene.  Iyer has some powerful insights into Graham Greene.

 “He looked unblinkingly at precisely the shadows in the self (and in the world)  that most of us try to look away from, drilling, as a dentist might, into the most tender and affected spaces because that  was where the trouble lay.  That was what allowed so many to write so venomously about Greene, he gave them all the evidence they needed in his compendious accounts of what he called his ‘evasions and deceits’.”

 The best word to describe Graham Greene as a husband and father is ‘absent’.  Although he was technically married for 65 years, he spent the last 43 years separated from his wife.  He had several young woman lovers in various places in the world.     However he did buy his daughter a huge ranch in Canada.

Iyer is no fan of everything Greene wrote.

 “I couldn’t bear reading the early stories, so bitter and cruel and thick with dissatisfaction. And his travel books were a near-perfect example of how not to write or think about travel.”

 As long as Pico Iyer is discussing Graham Greene,  I found “The Man Within My Head’ fascinating.  However Iyer loses me when he relates anecdotes from his own life.   Certainly his life has many parallels with that of Graham Greene, but his anecdotes about himself and his family only highlight for me the limitations of non-fiction compared to fiction.  Iyer’s own stories are certainly sincere and heartfelt, but I, spoiled as I am from reading many of the world’s finest novels including Greene’s own novels, need more than sincerity to hold my interest.

Graham Greene

One anecdote concerning Graham Greene which is in “The Man Within My Head” particularly struck me.  When Muriel Spark was struggling to write her first novel, Greene would send her a note with a couple of bottles of wine and 20 pounds each month to help her along.  He also wrote to publishers on her behalf.  Muriel Spark is a spectacularly good writer in her own right, so this story shows not only Greene’s generosity but also his good literary taste.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Pico Iyer? doesn’t he write books about travelling and stuff?
    I haven’t read anything by Graham Greene. Can you recommend a book I can start with?

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    • Hi Amrito,
      Where to start with Graham Greene? That is a good question. You might start with “The Heart of the Matter” because Greene is in top form in that novel, and it is quite humorous also. Lately “The End of the Affair” has been quite popular, because that was made into a movie recently. Greene has about 20 novels that are strong.

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    • Hi Amrito again,
      You also asked about Pico Iyer. This is my first encounter with Pico Iyer. Apparently he is a quite famous essay writer for The New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the Financial Times, etc. His family is originally from India, his wife is from Japan, he lived in California, and he travels the world over like Graham Greene did.

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