An interview with Pico Iyer about his latest book, a memoir about his relationship with Greene's work
For nearly 25 years, Pico Iyer's books and essays have examined the intimate cross-cultural fascinations, discoveries, and contradictions of an ever-shrinking world. Eloquent and at times deeply philosophical, his writing explores the personal and social complexities that arise not just from displacement, but from attachment as well.
Iyer's newest book, The Man Within My Head, documents the author's lifelong fascination with English writer Graham Greene, and "the power of art to make us feel human, to identify parts of ourselves we never otherwise could have articulated." Journeying into Greene's books—often amid physical sojourns in places like Cuba, Mexico, Ethiopia, Burma, and Sri Lanka—Iyer moves from reportage and criticism into a haunted and acutely personal examination of his own life. "It was a if, underneath the self I knew and was in public," he writes, "there was another self, mysterious even to its owner, that lived beyond the grasp of explanation but would read Greene's works as if they were a private diary." Iyer spoke to The Atlantic by email from his home in Japan.
The Man Within My Head feels more reflective, less reportorial, than many of your other books. Was this approach at times difficult for you?
Writing about myself is very much the hardest thing I can imagine—exactly what we were trained not to do at school in England—which is why, as a traveler, I wanted to do it. Greene's central mission might have been the challenging of all abstraction and the safety of mere observation; his books may be public and political on the surface, but what drives them always is human contradiction. So in choosing him as my subject and catalyst, I was essentially daring myself to write in a more open and vulnerable way than some of my earlier books of reportage had allowed and even to challenge the kind of wry and detached writing those earlier books often enshrine
When writing, you have to be personal—more and more in this age when multi-media tools can give us the external world with such immediacy and power. But you have to work hard to find those personal details that have a larger resonance, so you're spinning a real story and a kind of parable at once.
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You've said before that writing a book is itself like a journey. What did you discover in writing The Man Within My Head?
Spending eight years doing little but reading and rereading Graham Greene showed me many things about him (and, I found, about myself) that I'd never seen before. As soon as I began thinking about fathers—my real father and the literary godfather I had taken Greene to be—I began to see how his own work was preoccupied with fathers. We're all defined by the deep divisions within us, and with Greene one of those certainly came from the fact that he was sent, at 16, to live for six months with a wildly eccentric dream-analyst. For the rest of his life, he seemed split between the dramas of the subconscious the Jungian had led him into, and the almost too-innocent pieties of official life his actual father, who was also his school's upstanding headmaster, handed down to him.
But in this book the other excitement came in trying to create a new form appropriate to the moody, haunted, slippery, and startlingly personal landscape of a Greene novel. In the past, I've often been shocked into life by my first encounter with Cuba, Tibet, Damascus; here the thrill of discovery came from voyaging out into what seemed to me a new way of trying to tell a story.
Initially, if you can believe it, I wrote the whole book as fiction—imagining Greene in places where he'd never been, making up characters who might have known him at different phases of his life, spinning new tales around the ones he gave us. After a few years making up perhaps 40 of these sketches, I distilled them down to four, and decided to try to make a hybrid, which caught the sense that, in exploring Greene, I was really exploring the parts of me I saw in him, and vice versa.
Finally, I had just one piece of fiction in the book, as the man within my head (the title of course alludes in part to Greene's own first novel, The Man Within) began to be less and less Greene and more and more my actual father, or parts of myself I'd always shied away from. Then, just before submitting it to my editor, I cut out even that. So the journey was all about cutting back and trying to go closer to the bone. When I wrote my first book, 25 years ago, I began each chapter at the beginning and just kept writing; here I wrote fully 3,000 polished, fact-checked, finished pages out of which to coax the rather tiny book you now hold in your hands.
Where should a person unfamiliar with Greene's work start reading?
I often tell my friends to begin with The Quiet American, his novel about an aging English journalist in Saigon in the 1950s, the young American who comes into the country, eager to "save" it by destroying it and the Vietnamese woman they both love.
Of course, on its surface it offers an uncannily prescient look at the clash of empires, Britain mocking America as it feels its own power on the wane, young America beginning to feel its strength as it goes around the world importing the latest ideas of Democracy from Harvard Yard (and Asia swaying in the middle, seeming to give itself to either and therefore remaining outside the grasp of both). It's somewhat typical of Greene that when it was filmed, earlier this century, with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, the release had to be delayed because it was screened for its makers on September 10, 2001, and not long thereafter it seemed too accurate, and incriminating, a portrayal of America's latest adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet even as it catches the larger dance of nations as no other work has done so economically—it's barely 200 pages long and written with a taut elegance Greene had honed by writing for the movies—it is also a deeply rending, very private story about how we destroy the things we love, and betray ourselves in going after the things we think we want. A reader soon comes to see that the Englishman, Fowler, is only mocking the young American, Pyle, because he envies him; the younger man's idealism and innocence and chivalry are what Fowler had himself once upon a time and now he can't forgive the other man for having them. And Pyle is so driven by pure intentions that he can't begin to fathom a world that's less than pure, and so undoes the very ideals he's come to Vietnam to honor. We're left with a man who brings about the death of someone he calls his "best friend," perhaps his only friend; and an ending in which everything works out wonderfully, and the main character only wants to say he's sorry.