Stalking Graham Greene

Lee Polevoi

The Man Within My Head

Pico Iyer


244 pages


In The Man Within My Head, British-born travel writer Pico Iyer attempts to uncover the source of a nagging, lifelong obsession. Why does Graham Greene, one of the 20th century's most accomplished writers, continue to haunt his life years after the great man’s death?


Greene, the author of classic novels like The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and The End of the Affair, has gone in and out of literary fashion in the past 20 years. Films continue to be made from his work, most recently “Brighton Rock” and “The End of the Affair,” but his Catholic leanings and themes of guilt and innocence don’t resonate with readers as deeply as during the height of Greene's fame in the years following the Second World War. It’s unclear whether Iyer’s oddly structured work will do much to change this.


The Man Within My Head seeks to combine memoir with travelogue, meditation, biography and literary criticism, with limited success. The narrative ranges from memories of Iyer's early education at a boarding school in England (while his family lived in California) to his travels in Europe and Africa as a young man, and more recent excursions in South America. Given Iyer's achievements as a travel writer, in such works as Video Night in Kathmandu and Tropical Classical, this is a natural extension of his well-known interests.


The difference here is that interspersed throughout these accounts is a looping, somewhat amorphous reflection on Graham Greene's influence on him both as a writer and as a man in motion:


"Graham Greene the novelist appeals to some of us, I think—even challenging our sense of who we are—in part because he is so acutely sensitive to all the ways we can fail to understand one another, even those people closest to ourselves . . . He becomes the caretaker of that part of us that feels that we are larger and much harder to contain than even we can get our heads around, and that there is a mystery in ourselves as in the world around us, which is part of what gives life it's sense of hauntedness."


An intriguing notion, but one that is increasingly lost among accounts of growing up in California and (much later in Iyer’s life) of terrible fires that ravaged the area around his home in Santa Barbara. He also writes with great feeling about his father, Indian-born philosopher Raghavan Iyer. But as the memoir flits back and forth between these accounts and further descriptions of Greene's life and loves, it's difficult to connect the rambling narrative with these attempts to "corral" the notoriously elusive and contradictory novelist. When no particular element emerges to define The Man Within My Head more clearly, we are left to guess at the book's higher purpose. The mystery of the author's obsession grows into a larger mystery of what can compel the reader to keep on.


Still, Iyer's admiration for Greene is never in question. In fact, those sections exploring the legendary realm of “Greeneland” (a seedy, dangerous fictional territory peopled by whiskey priests, unregenerate misfits and self-questioning spies) are the most vividly described in the book.


Greene, the author of deeply felt and visionary novels (The Quiet American anticipated U.S. involvement in Vietnam with frightening prescience) as well as so-called "entertainments," clearly haunts the travel writer in ways that can't be fully resolved:


"The Greene I carried in my head . . . longed to disappear into the larger world, I always felt, and he liked to think that shared doubt drew men together more than common faith did . . . We can run and run from who we are—this was Greene's theme from the beginning—only to discover, of course, that this is precisely what we can never put behind us."


Author Bio:

 Lee Polevoi, the author of The Moon in Deep Winter, is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic.


For Highbrow Magazine


Photo credit: FOTO:FORTEPAN / Magyar Hírek folyóirat (, Creative Commons)


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