Gotham Diary:
Greene and Pleasant Land
1 February 2012

If I were younger, I’d let myself be annoyed by Pico Iyer’s stab at memoir, The Man Within My Head. But I’m older, and it is no longer necessary to couple a lack of sympathy with a show of impatience. I picked up the book because I wanted to know who Pico Iyer is. I’ve been reading his pieces in the NYRB for ages, and I’ve wondered about his name and where he comes from. I didn’t recognize “Iyer” as the Tamil Brahmin surname that it apparently is. Now I know. As to how somebody of such lineage came to be named after a Florentine humanist, that’s an unusual story but it is plausible enough. (Anyway, his real first name is “Siddhartha,” no?) Pinning down Iyer’s roots seemed all the more important to me as his topics were far-flung, a globe-trotter’s in fact. What I didn’t know, until I was well into The Man Within My Head, is that the author worked for a decade or so, in exalted positions, at Time Magazine. When I learned that, the lack of sympathy that I’d been feeling as one well-written page followed another became perfectly explicable.

I can’t say much about Time; only that, like New York and, lately, The Economist, it was a publication that I wouldn’t allow in the house. New York is openly trivial, but, like The Economist, Time is a magazine in which good writing is deployed with the aim of preventing the reader from doing any real thinking.

You could say that he gained from school not just his schoolboy’s sense of adventure, his love of mischief, his uncertainty about what to do with the most foreign country of all (the other sex), but his almost superstitious revulsion from success.

I would argue that this sentence, in which “he” is Graham Greene, the eponymous man within Iyer’s head — or at least one of them, the other, possibly, being his father (he waits forever to raise this question) — is the key to the book. To write of women as “the most foreign country of all” is almost as clever as it is thoughtless. The summing up of the things that Greene learned in school reminds me of that notorious remark of John Ashbery (in a conversation with Kenneth Koch):

I am assuming that from the moment that life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions.

It seems that some people are simply wired that way — how sorry one is for them. Not that Iyer is at all like Graham Greene. He appears to have led a level, satisfying interior life with lots of exterior excitement. He writes of Greene as perpetually escaping the past; Iyer is always looking for new possibilities. His restlessness is the consequence of rootlessness — it’s the kind of freedom that Marilynne Robinson has in mind when she talks about the advantages of being a “deracinated” Westerner.

That’s what would be annoying about The Man Within My Head, if I were immature enough to let annoyance cloud the real pleasure that I took in Pico Iyer’s exotic but wholesome company (a pleasure dependent upon my invisibility as his reader). Iyer is bewitched, if only to a manageable degree, by “Graham Greene.” A writer and a man who, despite many personal failings, seemed to strike everyone who knew him as remarkable. Iyer, who grew up — well, that’s just it: he grew up flying back and forth between Oxford and Santa Barbara. When he was nine years old, and newly transplanted to California, he not only got homesick for England but figured out in currency-exchange calculations that it would be cheaper for him to return to his prep school and fly home for vacations than to pack his lunchbox every day for the American public school. Whether his parents proved these numbers to their own satisfaction, they acceded to his request, and Iyer became one super-cool kid, always and everywhere an ambassador from a highly intriguing elsewhere. (After all, he could have shuttled between Tulsa and Athens, say — two places with little curiosity about the other.)

In short: if Graham Greene had taken up residence inside Pico Iyer’s head, then he must have found there the peace that he sought in vain throughout his life. I suspect that what inspired Iyer to write this book was the allure of borrowing a measure of Greene’s troubles, with a view to complicating his own worldliness. But the graft doesn’t take, and, despite the intensity of his engagement with The Quiet American, which he can appreciate deeply from both sides, Fowler’s and Pyle’s, Iyer cannot contain Greene, much less house him in his head. It would have been much better to approach Greene’s as the life that Iyer was, through luck and constitution, spared.

All right: here’s what’s unpardonably annoying about The Man Within My Head: the refusal to name “Eton College,” at least until the very end of the book, when we see that Iyer has saved it up for a joke — he has been holding it back so that it can be mentioned for the first time by the Bishop of Potosí, of all people, in the most unlikely circumstances. The joke is not very funny, and it does not dispel the annoyance piled up by a string of references — our distant patron Henry VI; the book that Cyril Connolly wrote about our school; between Slough and Windsor; New Buildings/oldest classroom in the world; eighteen prime ministers and the nineteenth taking office as I write — that act as shibboleths, designed to distinguish the sophisticated from the parochial. It seems almost rude. I was never for a moment mystified; I saw through each hint as it appeared. But I drew no satisfaction from this knowingness; quite the reverse. I was embarrassed; I felt like a know-it-all.

Grahame Greene, of course, did not attend Eton. His father was housemaster and eventually headmaster at Berkhamsted School, in an outer suburb of London. Greene took a second-class degree in history from Balliol and then jumped into journalism, from which the success of his fourth novel, Stamboul Train, delivered him for life. He married and had two children but did not live with his family. He had amazingly clear eyes. If you’re interested in his elusive charm, captured by a great writer who spent time with him over many years, by all means seek out Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri, a book that I think it’s slightly churlish of Pico Iyer not to mention.