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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

Literary heroes and compound ghosts

he title of Pico Iyer's The Man Within My Head seems straightforward if you know beforehand that this book is about his longtime obsession with the English writer Graham Greene. Almost from the first page, Iyer convinces us that he feels constantly haunted by the author — not just because of the themes of self-discovery and foreignness in his work but also the little coincidences that seem to link their lives together: watching a fire burn his house down, just as Greene had done decades earlier; discovering that Greene's son had gone to the same elementary school as he, Iyer, did. "I began to feel I was just a compound ghost that someone else had dreamed up," he writes.

But continue reading and it becomes clear that the man Iyer is searching for — the man within his head — isn't just Greene. This book, written by one of the major travel writers of our time, is in many ways a voyage of self-discovery.

At one point Iyer quotes from Edward Thomas's poem "The Other", about a man following someone like himself. The lines go: "I pursued / To prove the likeness, and, if true / To watch until myself I knew." This seems like a reference to Iyer as a Greene-stalker, but there's a deeper layer: the poem was a favourite of Greene's himself, and in the epilogue to his memoir Ways of Escape he described a mysterious doppelganger — someone he never met — who passed himself off to people as "Graham Greene the writer".

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The relationship between fathers and sons (real and notional, biological and literary) soon emerges as another major theme, with Iyer’s reflections on his “adopted father” (Greene) moving alongside his attempts to understand his own real father.

If all this sounds a little complicated, it is. Real life and fiction continually inform each other in Iyer's book, and the narrative contains many sets of doubles. (Early on, we learn that Greene's maternal uncle was Robert Louis Stevenson, who created Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.) One remarkable passage is an account of an "Englishman always on the move", who is referred to from one sentence to the next only as "he". ("Hollywood continues to make films out of even his lesser works, and suspicion attaches to him because of all the work he did for British Inelligence; he wrote spy novels as well as exotic entertainments.") The natural assumption is that it is Greene being discussed; only after two pages does one realise that it the passage is about Somerset Maugham, whose life was uncannily similar to Greene's in many ways.

But this isn't just a playful connecting of dots. Iyer comments on Greene's own disavowal of Maugham's influence, "the way some of us stress how different — how very different — we are from our fathers, the ones we've spent our lifetimes defining ourselves in opposition to." The relationship between fathers and sons (real and notional, biological and literary) soon emerges as another major theme, with Iyer's reflections on his "adopted father" (Greene) moving alongside his attempts to understand his own real father.

Mesmerising in parts but also, by its very nature, uneven, self-indulgent and meandering, The Man Within My Head is many books in one. It is a tribute to (even a part-biography of) an enigmatic writer. It is an often insightful work of literary criticism, full of such observations as "What makes one weep and what makes one break out laughing are identical twins in Greene's work, and it sometimes seems almost a freak of fate, pure randomness, whether a character picks one or the other." It is a contemplation of the relationship between readers and their cherished writers, and between writers and the world. ("The man who bares a part of his soul on the page soon finds that his friends are treating him as strangers, bewildered by this other self they've met in his book. Meanwhile, many a stranger is considering him a friend.")

But it is also, alongside all these, a sort of autobiography written by a man who can only approach the subject of himself tangentially. "I'd never had much time for memoir," Iyer writes in a telling passage, "It was too easy to make yourself the centre — even the hero — of your story and to use recollection to forgive yourself for everything." By making someone else the ostensible hero of his story, he has written one of the most unusual memoirs you'll read.

 
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