The Man Within My Head
“Mr. Iyer’s words are moving, though minimal. Perhaps this is because, as he writes, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of every writer,” with a detached, clinical approach to prose that may be as necessary for a writer as it is a surgeon. Mr. Iyer’s writing is so deeply personal, his mind so inquisitive, it is a privilege to share his words as he seeks a true peace with himself.”
The dustjacket of Pico Iyer’s book The Man Within My Head informs us that “we all carry people inside out heads—actors, leaders, writers, people out of history or fiction, met or unmet, who sometimes seem closer to us than people we know.”
This is a sweeping statement but when applied to this author, it aptly captures his character: a man who, in an interview with Angie Brenner in 2007, described himself as someone who “will always be an outsider.”
The omnipresent guest in Mr. Iyer’s cranial cavity is the late, great English writer Graham Greene. The book gives a tremendous and fascinating insight into his works and his character, but the reader anticipating a biographical volume on Greene soon discovers that, although they never met, there are parallels in the two writers’ lives that reveal as much about the writer as the subject.
Mr. Iyer describes how “walking through a book by an author long dead is not a comforting experience; I began to feel I was just a compound ghost that someone else had dreamed up, and his novels were my unwritten autobiography.” The origins of both men run in tandem: both educated at public school and university in England, both relentless travelers; there is even an instance of them both watching their homes burn down. But the dominant feature common to both men is their ease at living as “foreigners” wherever they find themselves.
As the reader accompanies Mr. Iyer on his journeys around the world, there is a sense that Graham Greene could have been in the train just departed, the taxi just ahead. So absorbed in the life of another is Mr. Iyer, that when his handwriting is analyzed in a Vancouver bookstore, the result is perhaps not surprising. With a signature that has a much bigger first name than surname, he is described as trying to define himself by himself.
As the book evolves, it becomes clear that the man inside Mr Iyer’s head is also a substitute—or “chosen”—father. “A real father is too close for comfort,” he observes; indeed fathers frequently haunt Greene ‘s books, whereas a chosen father “need never age . . . (is) always at the stage you need him to be.”
The structure of this book, which is more like a collection of essays, and Mr. Iyer’s alluring prose, draw in the reader; however, it is not always an easy or comfortable read: like magnets, what attracts can as easily repel, and there are deeply emotional elements of his writing that probe the reader’s own darker perceptions on life.
One such moment details one of his last encounters with his own father, soon after the publication of an essay on Graham Greene by Mr. Iyer was published in TIME magazine. His normally eloquent father left a message on his telephone; after a few broken words about having read the piece, he dissolved into sobs. Weeks later, his father was dead at the age of 65.
Mr. Iyer’s words are moving, though minimal. Perhaps this is because, as he writes, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of every writer,” with a detached, clinical approach to prose that may be as necessary for a writer as it is a surgeon.
Mr. Iyer’s writing is so deeply personal, his mind so inquisitive, it is a privilege to share his words as he seeks a true peace with himself.