Review: The Man Within My Head - Graham Greene, My Father and Me

Jane Shilling on Pico Iyer's elegant "counterbiography".

New Statesman
Graham Greene plays the central role in Pico Iyer's "counterbiography". (Photo: Getty Images)

The Man Within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me

Pico Iyer

Bloomsbury, 256pp, £16.99

It is not unusual for bookish children to identify so fervently with characters in the books they love that for a while they adopt the persona of their literary alter ego, “becoming” Jo March or Harry Potter. In adolescence, the identification sometimes switches from literary characters to their creator. Foppish undergraduates, unable satisfactorily to mimic the languid beauty of Sebastian Flyte, instead adopt the choleric mannerisms and painstakingly acquired snobberies of Evelyn Waugh. Such impersonations provide a sheltering exoskeleton for the unformed personality and tend to fall away with maturity. But writers never know quite who they are. That is why they write. And as they write, they read and sometimes a shadowy literary godparent sets up home inside their head.

In a Bolivian hotel one day, Pico Iyer began to write, unstoppably, “as if someone (something) had a message urgently to convey”. What he wrote was a story about a boy standing by a window at school, watching his parents leave, and embarking on a complicated mathematical calculation designed to magic the coming 12 weeks of term into a bearable equation.

Iyer had been educated at English boarding schools, so the emotions were familiar. “But why was the main character in the sketch called ‘Greene’, as if he had something to do with the long-dead English novelist? Was it,” Iyer wondered, “only through another that I could begin to get at myself?” And if that were the case, why should it be Greene who haunted him? He writes:

If I were to choose a secret companion . . . I would most likely fasten on someone more dashing, more decisive, less unsettled than Greene . . . But our shadow associates are . . . presences we’ve never chosen and, like many of our loves or compulsions, blur the lines inside us by living beyond our explanations.

Greene was fascinated by double selves, such as the man in Edward Thomas’s poem “The Other” who shadows someone like himself. His memoir Ways of Escape ends with an epilogue about a criminal doppelgänger who roamed the world impersonating him, charming women and being photographed at glamorous parties.

In this memoir, which he describes as a “counterbiography”, Iyer dances a ghostly pas de deux with the man he never met, discerning themes and patterns from Greene’s work and life that emerge in his own life. “Like Greene, I suspect, I’d never had much time for memoir,” he writes. “It was too easy to make yourself the centre – even the hero – of your story and to use recollection as a way to forgive yourself for everything.” Instead, he looks obliquely at the story told in the spaces between words: the reticences, absences, losses and regrets that permeated Greene’s life and his fiction, and that resonate so distinctly in his own life.

Iyer is the product of three cultures. His late father, the scholar Raghavan N Iyer, was born in Madras and educated at Oxford, and taught in California. Pico grew up in Oxford, then in Santa Barbara from where, aged nine, he chose to return to England to be educated at the Dragon School and later at Eton, about which he is characteristically elliptical (“an all-male institution, somewhere between the grey towns of Slough and Windsor”).

His peripatetic childhood bred a love of travel and of solitude: “Freed from my usual routine and small talk . . . I could find what lay at the heart of me, and so bring back something clearer and more rounded to the people I loved.” Indeed, love is a potent theme in Iyer’s book. Self-contained, perpetually on the way to somewhere (and someone) else, he nevertheless feels constantly the poignant clutch of the attachments from which he turns away – faith, home and the cling of family life.

Unlike Greene, Iyer is happy in his domestic arrangements, grounded by his love, Hiroko, with whom he lives in Japan and who displays a bracing lack of interest in literary complication, reminding him to buy loo roll as he tries to explain some intricate point or other. Female readers, in particular, of this exquisitely complex memoir may feel glad that there is someone in Iyer’s life to remind him of the baser details of daily existence.

Then again, in a very Greene-esque inversion, it is the novelist who allows a moment of raw communication between Iyer and his father. Having read an essay by his son on Greene’s special compassion for his enemies (and his negligence towards those he loved), Iyer père left a message on Pico’s answering machine in which he began to speak, then broke into racking sobs. A few weeks later, he was dead, at 65: “The last real time I’d heard from him was the gasping call about Graham Greene.”

This is not a book that everyone will love. Some readers will scent a whiff of self-regard; the etiolation of a writer with perhaps too much time to read and think. But those who ­relish the discipline of trying to understand the human condition through the exercise of the imagination will find this an exceptionally elegant and eloquent essay.

Jane Shilling’s most recent book is “The Stranger in the Mirror: a Memoir of Middle Age” (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)