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Review: The Man Within My Head

The Man Within My Head is a fraught and tricky objective, but Pico Iyer goes about his business with perceptiveness, lightly-worn erudition, comic brio and considerable tactical nous.

books Updated: Apr 06, 2012 18:52 IST

The Man Within My Head

Pico Iyer

hamish hamilton

Rs 499 pp 242

Three-fourths of the way into this slender but hardly slight book, Pico Iyer is sitting around with a few other writers in the courtyard of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, and discussing Graham Greene. When one of them asks him if he is writing a biography of Greene, Iyer says: “Oh no. The opposite. A counterbiography, as it were… I’m interested in the things that lived inside him. His terrors and obsessions. Not the life, as it were, but what it touched off in the rest of us.”

That encapsulates, in a succinct manner, what The Man Within My Head — the title is a nod to Greene’s first novel, The Man Within — tries to accomplish. It is a fraught and tricky objective, but Iyer goes about his business with perceptiveness, lightly-worn erudition, comic brio and considerable tactical nous. Greene, we are shown, touched off a whole avalanche of complex feelings and responses within Iyer. “Who are these figures that take residence inside our heads, to the point where we can feel them shivering inside us even when we want to ‘be ourselves’?” he asks. The Man Within My Head, while sometimes dancing round and round the obsession in a determined yet circular way, for the most part tries to cogently answer that question. Iyer picks at, and communicates with precision, the haunting nature of the experience of a complicated figure like Greene turning into the doppelganger of another writer.

This is, among other things, a journey of self discovery. (“Was it only through another that I could begin to get at myself?” There is another “another” — someone other than Greene — whom the author explores during the course of this searching self examination, but more of that later.) Iyer had never met Greene; never followed in his footsteps to try and understand him; never once wanted to get to know Greene’s family. All he has as the basis of his quest are Greene’s books (and Iyer, as one can imagine, is an astute, intelligent and close reader of Greene’s “world of greys”), and the disquieting sense of Greene’s shadow over him, a sense of him knowing Greene better than he knows certain members of his own family, and Greene knowing him better than most people do.

Often, their paths cross in unexpected ways. One afternoon, Iyer and his friend step out of the Casa Granda Hotel in Santiago de Cuba and, as soon as they get into a car, a stranger slips in and promises to show them around; a few years later, Iyer reads how Greene had had the identical experience 35 years ago. The coincidences are remarkable. Greene lived for a while five minutes away from the house in which Iyer was born. Greene’s son and Iyer went to the same elementary school. Iyer quotes to a friend a line from Hamlet (“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”) to explain one of his own books, only to later discover it as the epigraph to Greene’s novel, Monsignor Quixote.

Part homage, part psychodrama, part travel, part literary criticism, part lesson in ambivalence, The Man Within My Head is an intelligent, multi-layered book on a troubling subject. Iyer’s self-excavation is not merely to get at himself through the hold Greene has over him; it is also to get at himself through the prism of the relationship he had with his famous, philosopher father.

When Iyer tries to work this bit out and entwine the two themes, the book, on certain occasions, seems to be on shaky ground. Iit feels as though The Man Within My Head can barely withstand the contradictory impulses of so many strong and complex ideas which pull in different directions. It is to Iyer’s credit that he manages to largely make it all hold together, and do so with such lightness of touch.

If one belongs to a particular generation, Greene was — as Martin Amis wrote in Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions — inevitably the first serious writer one came across. But unlike Iyer, in whose head Greene has taken permanent residence, one didn’t often return to him in later years. The biggest achievement of The Man Within My Head is that it sent me back to that shelf of mine that is completely occupied by the titles that comprise the entire backlist of Greene.