Sunday, May 27, 2012

In Greeneland

This appeared in today's DNA.


It’s not often that a writer composes a book-length homage to another. Offhand, one can recall Nicholson Baker’s quirky U and I, about his fixation with John Updike; Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, about his attempts to grapple with the life of D.H. Lawrence; and, more recently, Tom Grimes’ Mentor, about his relationship with Frank Conroy, erstwhile director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Typically, such work is designed to reveal as much about the writer as the person being written about, and this is also the case with Pico Iyer’s new book, The Man within My Head, a meditation on Graham Greene. (The clever title is a take on Greene’s first novel, The Man Within.)

In his autobiography of his early years, A Sort of Life, Greene writes that part of the motive that made him a novelist was the “desire to reduce a chaos of experience to some sort of order”. In The Man within My Head, Iyer tries to impose order on his experiences of travel and early life by examining them through the prism of his relationship with Greene’s work. As such, it’s not a book that one can easily slot into pre-fabricated categories of memoir, travel or literary criticism. In a loosely-overlapping series of intensely personal chapters, he explores the question: “Was it only through another that I could begin to get at myself?”

Thus, this is no Norman Sherry-like obsessive quest; the focus is internal. As Iyer says to a friend, “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”. With Greene installed as his “adoptive father”, Iyer is also free to also talk of his actual father: the early signs of brilliance in Mumbai, the move to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and the final shift to California. Iyer himself would spend many of his growing years between England and America, no doubt planting the seeds of his interest in geographical displacement, and what it does to a person.

While travelling to places such as Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Vietnam, Mexico and Cuba, Iyer sounds a note of self-analysis again and again: “Freed from usual routine and small talk, I was away from the sense that I had to play a role, or to choose one self over another; I could find what lay at the heart of me, my core….” He dreams of meeting Greene, writes obsessively, grafts his fictional characters onto the people he meets and, on occasion, visits the locations that Greene himself went to.

In pensive passages, Iyer points out how Greene deftly escapes easy categories of being a “Catholic” or “English” writer; besides, he states that his reaction to the novels is more visceral than reductionist. The inability to slot the novelist is brought out more than once: “Sometimes Greene called his books ‘entertainments’, but they were always shot through with a sense of sadness and being lost; the ones he called novels often had scenes of such riotous misunderstanding and knockabout poignancy that professors would refuse to take them seriously”. At times, though, Iyer can skirt dangerously close to the woolly: “All Greene’s books are, deep down, about the shaking of the heart and not the body”.  (By way of contrast, one thinks of Colm Toibin’s always-trenchant assessments of writers’ relationships with their families in his recent collection of essays, How to Kill Your Mother.

At its best, Iyer’s analysis of Greene’s flawed heroes in novels such as The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana is sensitive and intelligent, and his accounts of interactions with his parents are affecting and poignant.  It turns out that this act of paying homage to another writer and exploring the nature of kinship – both genetic and elective – enables him to be more revealing about himself than ever before.

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