Friday 15 November 2019

Review: The Man Within My Head by Pico Iyer


Ronan Farren

THERE have been many books, academic and popular, on the great English novelist Graham Greene since his death in 1991, led by the massive three-volume Life by Norman Sherry (1989-2004), and including an egregious piece of character assassination, Graham Greene: The Man Within, by a minor academic from Oklahoma who, without any supporting evidence, accused the recently dead author of everything from paedophilia and anti-Semitism to murder.

The Irish angle, including Greene's Achill Island sojourns, was well covered in The Third Woman (2000) by William Cash, and a memoir by Greene's companion for the last 32 years of his life, Yvonne Cloetta (In Search of a Beginning) was published in 2004. Perhaps the best of all is a short book -- a mere 145 pages -- by the Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard, published in 2000. Greene on Capri describes the novelist's visits to the island (he had a tiny house there) where she and her writer husband Francis Steegmuller knew him from the late Sixties until his death. Her memories of the mercurial Greene are shrewd and lively, and it's clear their relationship tended to the volatile.

Now Pico Iyer's book, subtitled Graham Greene, My Father and Me, appears, at first glance, a bit of a curiosity, or at least a literary hybrid. But as a study of an obsession, with stretches of autobiography and reflections on Iyer's brilliant academic father, veering from Oxford to Santa Barbara, with visits to more exotic spots (he's a travel writer, among other things), it offers keen analysis as well as a sympathetic appreciation of the man who affected bafflement at the 'Greeneland' tag.

The melancholy, solitary nature of Greene is part of the fascination; after his marriage broke up, he spent his remaining 42 years living alone, incapable of tackling the bonds or bounds of domesticity.

Iyer can't work out why he's so preoccupied with Greene. It is not, he indicates, a matter of choice, Greene is not for him a glamorous figure, but there he is: "Not a hero or a counsellor or the kind of person I would otherwise want to claim as kin ... I see the high colour in his cheeks, and the pale, unearthly blue eyes that speak to everyone of the troubled depths he's both concealing and perceiving in the world."

Iyer discusses Greene's uncanny gift of prophesy: In The Quiet American, published in 1955, he foresaw American involvement in Vietnam and the catastrophic consequences -- he even wrote, 10 years before the event, of "napalm bombings".

Greene, the solitary, haunted man who restlessly travelled the world -- preferably to "trouble spots" -- was also remarkably generous. He bought houses for his Swedish mistress and the daughter of his long-time companion Cloetta, an American ranch for his own daughter, and he donated thousands of pounds to the Society of Authors. He directed his Russian royalties to the wives of political prisoners.

This is a short, intense book, full of philosophical musings, rich in insight; a small but worthy addition to the growing library of works about the always elusive Graham Greene.

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