Pico Iyer on The Man Within My Head

First aired on On the Coast (20/2/12)

pico-iyer-175.jpgAuthor and essayist Pico Iyer has lived in numerous places around the world, including Japan, Britain, Bolivia and Canada, and has written extensively about travel and global culture. His latest book, though, is a bit of a departure: The Man Within My Head focuses on Graham Greene, and explores the kinship that Iyer feels with the iconic British author.

In a recent interview with On the Coast, Iyer said he never met Greene in person, but he's glad he didn't. "I met him through his words, and I think I met the deepest and most intimate part of him in his books," he told host Stephen Quinn. " If I'd met him in real life, something would have been diminished, maybe."

What's the connection between them, then? "Anybody who travels quickly finds that Graham Greene is really the patron saint of the person in a hotel room in a very foreign country, alone," Iyer pointed out. "So, suddenly he was shadowing and stalking me."

There are parallels between the two: both grew up in Oxford, England, and attended boarding schools, and they travelled to some of the same places. But the surface similarities weren't what drew Iyer. "I think the real connection is more mysterious, and deeper than explanation, just the way I might walk out onto the street and see a stranger and feel that I know her better than my own friends and family."

In his book, Iyer writes of regarding Greene as a kind of "adopted parent." But he realized that putting Greene in that position meant that he also had to bring his actual father, a philosopher and academic, into the picture.

"I think Graham Greene was the father I created in my head, as an alternative, not because I was rebelling against my father so much, but because I was in boarding school," Iyer explained. " I was growing up 6,000 miles away from my parents, who were in California then, and I was going back and forth six times a year from the time I was nine years old."

Iyer found that the journey involved more than covering a lot of miles, because it also meant moving between two distinct worlds: the strict, old-fashioned boarding school and the counter-culture of 1960s California. "It was like journeying between these two different realms inside me," he said.

The paternal figures in the book came to personify that split: Graham Greene represented the classical values of sceptical, middle-class England; his father, on the other hand, was a mystic.

Iyer said that he'd never thought or written about his father very much, "and this book forced me to confront that." He went on to say: "The book is not so much about my father and me, as about every son and every father and the way that all sons rebel against their fathers until they turn into their fathers."

Iyer spent eight years writing The Man Within My Head. It began as fiction, and he wrote 3,000 pages of sketches of an imagined Graham Greene and his encounters. But Iyer decided to use the fiction only as back story; and as it turns out, the published book is just 240 pages. Iyer calls it "a strange kind of mutant form. It's not really memoir or biography, it's not fiction or non-fiction. I like that. It hovers in some dream space, the way Graham Greene does in my head."

The Man Within My Head.jpgThe Man Within My Head
by Pico Iyer

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From the publisher:

""We all carry people inside our heads -- actors, leaders, writers, people out of history or fiction, met or unmet, who sometimes seem closer to us than people we know.

In The Man Within My Head, Pico Iyer sets out to unravel the mysterious closeness he has always felt with the English writer Graham Greene; he examines Greene's obsessions, his elusiveness, his penchant for mystery. Iyer follows Greene's trail from his first novel, The Man Within, to such later classics as The Quiet American and begins to unpack all he has in common with Greene: an English public school education, a lifelong restlessness and refusal to make a home anywhere, a fascination with the complications of faith. The deeper Iyer plunges into their haunted kinship, the more he begins to wonder whether the man within his head is not Greene but his own father, or perhaps some more shadowy aspect of himself..."

Read more at Random House Canada.