THE MAN WITHIN MY HEAD
By Pico Iyer Knopf. 242 pp. $25.95
Artists are haunted by their influences. Picasso competed with Matisse, Jimi Hendrix tried to best Little Richard, and, after 50-plus books, Stephen King is still trying to outdo H.P. Lovecraft. For novelist and journalist Pico Iyer, one forebear looms so large that he’s written a book about him: “The Man Within My Head.”
“Graham Greene could never be a fantasy figure for me,” Iyer writes of the British author whose novels include “The Ministry of Fear,” “The Heart of the Matter” and “The Quiet American.” “If anything, as the product of the England where I grew up, he was part of all that I was trying to put behind me. . . . But there he is, in spite of everything.”
Don’t believe Iyer: It makes perfect sense that he would be a Greene superfan. Both felt out of place at boarding school; Iyer, a travel writer, calls Greene, who wrote many books about colonials, “the patron saint of the foreigner alone.” But the intensely serious and, occasionally, seriously ridiculous connections that Iyer traces between himself and Greene go beyond literary influence. Each saw his home burn down, feared dentists (for Greene a dentist was “really a priest in a different kind of white robe, administering suffering as a way . . . of keeping greater suffering at bay”) and lived in the shadow of his father. Greene’s was the headmaster at his boarding school, while Iyer’s was the Gandhi scholar Raghavan N. Iyer. Why wouldn’t a British-born, Oxford-educated Indian author transplanted to California relate to another self-conscious, terminally uncomfortable novelist?
“An adopted father can never die,” says Iyer, who once wrote an introduction to a Greene short-story collection and even corresponded with the author. “That’s one of the great advantages he has over a real one.” This jumbled, impressionistic tribute doesn’t succeed as memoir or biography, but offers a window on a classic author’s formidable legacy.