On the outskirts of some sprawling and disheveled city in a remote corner of the world, a man in a hard-to-define state of discomfort - more existential than physical - falls asleep and wakes again in the early hours of the morning. He is a alone in his hotel room and for a moment he cannot remember where he is. Then, all in a rush, it comes back to him. He gets out of bed and goes to the window. The chill of night is still in the air, but beyond the hills the sky is beginning to lighten. He thinks about the circumstances that have led him to this place and wonders, not for the last time, if he was wrong.
A character in a Graham Greene novel? Graham Greene himself? Or maybe Pico Iyer.
“The Man Within My Head,’’ Iyer’s latest book, is his tribute to the British novelist Greene, author of such classics as “The End of the Affair’’ and “The Quiet American.’’ The title of Iyer’s book is a reference to Greene’s first novel, a virtually unknown work called “The Man Within,’’ which begins with the sentence, “There’s another man within me.’’ But it also, more importantly, refers to Iyer’s decades-long sensation that Greene has, in some weird sense, been inhabiting his psyche.
“He was never,’’ writes Iyer, “a writer I dreamed of becoming.’’ And yet Greene’s settings and characters, and the predicaments and dilemmas in which they find themselves embroiled, are so uncannily familiar that at one point Iyer writes, “I might, again, have been walking through a plot he’d dreamed up years before.’’ The actual links between the two writers are many, some quite superficial but others profound. They lived within minutes of each other in Oxford; Iyer was born in the same hospital as Greene’s daughter and attended the same primary school as his son.
Both, by a queer coincidence, saw their houses go up in flames: Greene during the Blitz and Iyer, decades later, in a California wildfire. More significantly, both were inveterate travelers - Greene once proposed the title “110 Airports’’ for his autobiography, while Iyer’s books have titles like “Falling Off the Map’’ and “The Open Road’’ - and as travelers both were drawn to “the shabby, forgotten margins of the world.’’ Above all, because this is ultimately what seems to define them, both ultimately ended up as expatriates: Greene in a one-bedroom flat in Antibes, France, Iyer in a two-room apartment in Japan.
The essence of the connection between them, however, lies less in these patterns of action than in the feeling of unease or ambivalence that underlies them. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is Iyer’s account of a youth spent traveling between his boarding school in England and his parents’ home in Santa Barbara, shuttling back and forth between a rigidly regimented world of Greek and gowns and Old Boys, and the bright, anarchic, chaos of ’60s California. “Each time I flew back . . . to visit my mother and father, it was like stepping out of a formal, intimate dance, a costume drama in a garden maze, and into absolute emptiness again.’’ Or, even more wonderfully, “like moving through some allegory between the City of Hope, where history has been abolished, and a City of History, where hope can be slipped in only as a contraband, a highly illegal substance.’’ I have never read anyone before who was both so well equipped to make this comparison and so sensitive to its semiotics.
In a way it’s interesting that Iyer, who is like a poster child for postmodernism - his own parents came originally from Bombay - should feel this profound connection to so quintessential an Englishman. And yet, as Iyer quite rightly points out, Greene was really the embodiment of England’s unraveling, a writer so utterly of his time and place that he came to define the type. “Greene,’’ writes Iyer, “got into people’s heads and souls - under their skin - as contemporaries of his who were often more highly regarded (Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell) rarely did with quite the same intensity.’’ Iyer observes that he knows of at least six other writers who have imagined themselves to be possessed by Graham Greene. But Greene is the 20th-century writer it is easiest to imagine being haunted by because his themes of passion and regret and alienation - indeed, hauntedness itself - have proven to be the themes of the 20th century.
But what one keeps coming back to in this fluid and, in some ways, rather slippery book is that for all the talk of Graham Greene, “The Man Within My Head’’ is really a book about Pico Iyer. “Was it only through another that I could begin to get at myself?’’ he asks early on. It is not a question Iyer ever really answers, though he does manage to tell us quite a lot about himself in the course of discussing Greene. We see him reading and writing and traveling in Bhutan and Bolivia, in Ethiopia and Easter Island, in Cuba and Vietnam. We see him trying to understand his father and negotiating the hierarchy of his school. We even learn a little about the woman to whom he’s married in Japan. But I think what we finally understand best about the author - and in fact what he wants us to understand - is that the key to him is, as one of his friends says of Greene, “He’s a hard person to pin down.’’Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All’’