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.
I've always been haunted by the fact that Greene couldn't take himself to films with happy endings: he was afraid he'd begin weeping, because he so longed for life to have hopeful resolutions, and yet was so convinced it never could.
One interesting contradiction you raise in your book is how Greene was better at evoking the humanity of faraway places in his fiction than in his nonfiction travel books. You even go so far as to say that "his travel books were a near-perfect example of how not to write or think about travel." Why do you think this is the case, and what does it say about Greene's way of seeing the world?
We are never less forthright than when writing of ourselves; that's one of the lessons I feel I share with Greene (or maybe partly learned from him). Memoir to me is a kind of fiction, and the most striking autobiographical works I know—whether Philip Roth's The Facts or W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn or V.S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival—all present themselves as novels. So it's always seemed perfect to me that in his two quasi-memoirs, Greene uses charm and anecdote and childhood memory to avoid really telling us anything about himself, his loves or his beliefs; yet in his novels, given a mask or cover, he's as naked and unguarded as any author I know. Give yourself an alias or call your work fiction and you can say things you might not say to your closest friends.
In his travel-writing, likewise, Greene was always on the outside of what he was observing, ever more English, seated in a corner, pouring abuse and scorn on the alien scene around him. Yet as soon as he worked up the material he'd seen in Mexico into a novel—The Power and the Glory—he was so deeply inside his characters, both the whisky priest protagonist and even the lieutenant in pursuit of him, that he wrote perhaps his most affecting and compassionate novel, and the one, liberatingly, without a single English character in it.
He might be almost offering us—inadvertently—a lesson on the limitations of travel-writing, much as Naipaul or Theroux or Maugham also do in novels that are far more compassionate and sympathetic than the travel-books that gave rise to them. In writing a non-fictional book about travel, you usually have to create a fictional persona of sorts, some convenient version of the self that will make the narrative work. But that front is almost never as rich or deep or conflicted as the self we allow ourselves to entertain in fiction; it can't be. Very often the travel-writers we enjoy are engaging or buoyant or splenetic on the page, but all those are really just useful props, tiny fragments of the self, and don't always take us very deep.
Though you corresponded with Greene late in his life, you never made an effort to meet him in person. Why was this the case?
When writing, an author is private and solitary and usually lost in his deepest thoughts; when talking, he seldom has the chance to be. One of the themes of this book is that sensation many of us know whereby we feel closer sometimes to writers we may never have met than to those who surround us every day; and when you publish a book, you soon find that many of your friends start looking at you as strangers might (who is this weird guy they've met on the page?), while many strangers start approaching you as friends. Just as I do, archetypally here, with Greene.
Wanting to meet an author is to me akin to lingering over a record cover or a movie poster; most authors, like any kinds of artist, aspire to give us their best and deepest selves in their books. In life, or on the surface, they're often as scattered and unremarkable and superficial as the rest of us.
With Greene, moreover, I always felt that I could have the most intimate conversations with him on the page, in silence. He read me perfectly without ever seeing me. Were I to have met him, it's not just that the public Greene might not have matched the unflinching soul I met on the page; it's that that surface self, making small talk, might actually detract from, and would certainly complicate, the soul beneath the personality I regularly met in the books.
Have you found other writing that approximates Greene's ability to help you recognize and clarify parts of your inner life?
At one point, I realized that I could write an entire book-length work, even called The Man Within My Head, on Leonard Cohen, with whose work I've intensely identified for more than 40 years; indeed, at one point, this book had a long section discussing the many connections between Cohen and Greene, as fearless investigators of the heart's treacheries and doubts and terrors. I could have written—and sometimes have written—chapters on the sense of connection I feel with Thoreau, who has been my talisman since my teens (and it's no coincidence that the epigraph to this book, as to my book on the Dalai Lama, and my book on Iran, and my book on Japan, comes from him). I was once stunned to find words that I'd just written, scenes I'd recently concocted in a novel, word for word the same in a novel by John Fowles—and wrote a 4,000-word essay on what lay beneath these unsettling coincidences (it wasn't just that we had a similar background, I felt, but more a common slant, the mental equivalent of the way two strangers may brush their hair off their forehead in the same way).
So probably I'll continue writing these—and other similar—books about affinity forever, even if I never publish them; I do believe, as this book suggests, that we can see ourselves more clearly in the books of others, often, than in our "real lives." I've learned a lot about myself, not always flatteringly, from reading Philip Roth and John le Carre and Derek Walcott and even President Obama's two books.
But I felt that to explore my sense of connection with Thoreau would have been to travel again into my optimistic side; and to look at the correspondences with Fowles would be to get lost in a certain kind of Englishness. With Greene, the kinship lay in some more shadowy ground that was deeper and more unsounded in me: the contradictory feelings many of us have with fathers who were teachers; the school that seems to have shaped me, for better and worse, for life; the unease with commitment that can become a distinct liability. Greene would push me into the abysses I otherwise avoid.
Greene has the sovereign virtue of never giving himself the benefit of the doubt. I thought that the best way of paying tribute to that was trying to do the same in return.