The Man Within My Head Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Jan 3 2012
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“Resonates deeply…In the hands of a lesser writer, the dueling father figures would dissolve into melodrama, but Iyer weaves them brilliantly.” –Publishers Weekly
“[Iyer] is a wonderful wordsmith, and he provides engaging stories.” –Kirkus
“It may be that Iyer’s beautifully contoured sentences embody all the landscapes he’s absorbed as he’s traveled the world, pen in hand. Iyer is always present in his celebrated books, but never to the extent he is here in this captivating memoir of an unsought, often unnerving affinity…Iyer’s deep-diving expedition also illuminates the mystery and spirit of the literary imperative: ‘A writer is a palmist, reading the lines of the world.’” –Booklist
“A contemplative, idiosyncratic book, a kind of side trip that diverges from the routes of Iyer’s usual writing…as “The Man Within My Head” demonstrates, there’s fellowship to be found in the community of eloquent strangers, an eternal literary companionship.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A courageous, intriguing book, perhaps better described generically not as a memoir but a confession.” –The New York Review
“As Iyer investigates Greene’s life, he finds more parallels with his own, some superficial and some profound, which Iyer susses out in his usual composed, flowing prose.” –The Daily Beast
“Iyer’s rich and provocative book invites us to see the world in which we find ourselves today in a new and revealing light, and that’s the real measure of his accomplishment. ‘A writer is a palmist, reading the lines of the world,’ Iyer says of Greene, but he could be describing himself just as well.” –JewishJournal.com
“[Iyer] is masterful at describing travel…a rewarding read.” –Livemint.com
“This book is an original, a literary feat, a kind of counter-biography and shadow-autobiography. I can’t think of another quite like it...The Man Within My Head is Iyer’s richest, wisest book to date.” –The Hindu
“Iyer writes admiringly and persuasively about Greene in ways that the novelist may have approved…an engrossing read.” –Commenweal Magazine
About the Author
Pico Iyer has written nonfiction books on globalism, Japan, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and forgotten places, and novels on Revolutionary Cuba and Islamic mysticism. He regularly writes on literature for The New York Review of Books, on travel for the Financial Times, and on global culture and the news for Time, The New York Times, and magazines around the world.See all Product Description
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"[T]here is a mystery, fundamental and unanswerable, in ourselves as in the world around us, which is in fact a part of what gives life its sense of hauntedness", Iyer writes. It is this sense of hauntedness that Greene captures in his novels and makes them meaningful to Iyer. Through Iyer's exquisite writing we learn here not only about Greene, but also about Iyer, a man who lives between cultures. We also learn about ourselves through his ruminations. What more could any reader ask?
He opens the book during a visit to La Paz, Bolivia, and I can picture being back there myself, along the main streets with cholas selling M&Ms and lottery tickets, bowler hats perched on their heads. I picture a simple hotel room--and that's where Iyer is: sitting at a desk thinking about Graham Greene and writing, always writing or reading. When he was at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge in February 2012, Iyer said he had been working on this book for more than eight years, and had accumulated more than 2,700 pages in drafts: the words kept spilling out of him. (Happily, he trimmed it down to its current 238 pages.)
The man within his head is Graham Greene. Like Iyer, Greene was a bit too popular to be admitted into the literary establishment, and a man who was always an outsider, more by choice than anything else. Greene spent many years toward the end of his life in a small apartment in the Antibes, far smaller and almost hidden compared to his neighbor, Somerset Maugham, not too far a way in an impressive mansion. Iyer, too, willfully sets himself apart: he's lived for years in a small two-room apartment outside of Kyoto.
Iyer recounts his childhood: born to Indian parents, initially growing up in Oxford; a move to California in the 1960s, where his father teaches and accumulates acolytes; traditional boarding school back in England; always split between worlds. Much like Graham Greene, who never quite felt at home anywhere, and whose characters had the same experience of, well, not exactly alienation, but a clear sense of being apart. Iyer returns often to Greene's The Quiet American, and its prescient understanding of how the British and Americans are swapping not just positions of dominance in the world but also those of certainty and doubt. Iyer travels to Vietnam, and we see how the types Greene writes about linger on still. (Readers would probably get more out of this book if they are familiar with the Greene originals; maybe it will inspire me to read him again.)
"A man within your head whispers his secrets and fears to you, and it can go right to your core," Iyer writes. For much of Iyer's life, that man is Greene, but he comes to realize there's another man he really barely knows who has also taken up residence in his head: his father, with whom he's never been very close. It's that old inheritance: we are our father's sons, even if we'd prefer to think that our literary heroes are our pole stars. In the book, Iyer slowly learns these lessons, and he tells the story with ease.
At the Harvard Book Store reading someone in the audience pointed out that while Iyer was slowly writing and rewriting this book over those eight years, he also wrote The Open Road, his book about the Dalai Lama. Iyer was amused and taken aback. He said he just realized that both those books' titles could be interchangeable: there are clearly many men within Iyer's head, and all are trying to point him in the direction of useful wisdom, useful for living one's life in this wide open world.
Especially if you are also a reader of Graham Greene you will enjoy this book. If you have enjoyed Pico Iyer's other travels through the worlds his mind has encountered, you will get something out of this too.
I expected more of a memoir here than I got. The book's blurbs suggested it was much about Iyer and his father, who had been a much respected university professor and lecturer in California, after achieving notoriety for his brilliance even as a college student in India and England. But there's not really that much about the elder Iyer, or much more, really, about the author himself. Nevertheless this is an at times fascinating account of the importance of Graham Greene as a role model and an influence in Iyer's life. I would classify it as a literary anyalytic work on a very personal level, as Iyer managed to find many parallels between his own life and that of the much older Greene, who he never met. But his knowledge of Greene and his oeuvre is encyclopedic, enhanced as it has been by not just close readings of his books but also by by talks with many people who knew Greene and also with some of Greene's family members.
So while I was a bit disappointed in the book as a memoir, it did manage to reignite my interest in Greene and his many books. Although I've already read THE QUIET AMERICAN, now I kinda want to read it again, given the emphasis Iyer puts on that one particular book. Other Greene books I personally loved were THE POWER AND THE GLORY, THE HUMAN FACTOR and A BURNT-OUT CASE. There are certainly plenty more Greene books to keep me busy for a long time and I may eventually get around to them. And who knows? I may take a look at Iyer's other books too. Recommended for Graham Greene enthusiasts. Three and a half stars.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER