The Man Within My Head [NOOK Book]


We all carry people inside our heads—actors, leaders, writers, people out of history or fiction, met or unmet, who sometimes seem closer to us than people we know.
In The Man Within My Head, Pico Iyer sets out to unravel the mysterious closeness he has always felt with the English writer Graham Greene; he examines Greene’s obsessions, his elusiveness, his penchant for mystery. Iyer follows Greene’s trail from his first novel, The Man ...
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The Man Within My Head

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We all carry people inside our heads—actors, leaders, writers, people out of history or fiction, met or unmet, who sometimes seem closer to us than people we know.
In The Man Within My Head, Pico Iyer sets out to unravel the mysterious closeness he has always felt with the English writer Graham Greene; he examines Greene’s obsessions, his elusiveness, his penchant for mystery. Iyer follows Greene’s trail from his first novel, The Man Within, to such later classics as The Quiet American and begins to unpack all he has in common with Greene: an English public school education, a lifelong restlessness and refusal to make a home anywhere, a fascination with the complications of faith. The deeper Iyer plunges into their haunted kinship, the more he begins to wonder whether the man within his head is not Greene but his own father, or perhaps some more shadowy aspect of himself.
Drawing upon experiences across the globe, from Cuba to Bhutan, and moving, as Greene would, from Sri Lanka in war to intimate moments of introspection; trying to make sense of his own past, commuting between the cloisters of a fifteenth-century boarding school and California in the 1960s, one of our most resourceful explorers of crossing cultures gives us his most personal and revelatory book.
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Editorial Reviews

Liesl Schillinger
…Iyer writes that he was "never much interested in Greene the man of politics or Greene the Catholic, Greene the rumored spy" because in his estimation Greene was not "much interested" in such questions himself: "all were mere symptoms of some more fundamental trembling." Diagnosing this trembling, in Greene and in himself, is the work of this contemplative, idiosyncratic book, a kind of side trip that diverges from the routes of Iyer's usual writing.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Graham Greene isn’t the man essayist and novelist Iyer (Sun After Dark) would choose to take up residence in his head—“I would most likely fasten on someone more dashing, more decisive, less unsettled”—but it’s his lifelong fascination with Greene that fuels this deeply personal journey that crisscrosses the world and his own past. As much a catalogue of Iyer’s extensive travels as a musing on Greene’s themes of foreignness, displacedness, and otherness, the text moves seamlessly between Iyer’s days as a schoolboy in England and adventures in Bolivia, Ethiopia, and Cuba. For Iyer—who was born in England to India-born parents, moved to California at eight, but soon returned to the U.K. for boarding school—Greene’s oft-repeated theme of the foreigner resonates deeply. Like an “adopted parent,” Greene is forever by his side: a hotel in Saigon reminds him of The Quiet American, a seminal text for Iyer; his first trip to Cuba brings to mind the author; and even Iyer’s old Oxford neighborhood is reminiscent of Greene, as his ex-wife lived nearby. As he explores his obsession, Iyer cautiously peels back the layers of his relationship with his own father, a brilliant philosopher whose belief in mysticism Iyer did not share. In the hands of a lesser writer, the dueling father figures would dissolve into melodrama, but Iyer weaves them brilliantly, reminding us that “we run from who we are.., only to discover, of course, that that is precisely what we can never put behind us.” (Feb.)
From the Publisher
“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.” – 

“[Iyer] is masterful at describing travel…a rewarding read.” – 
“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 

Library Journal
Having taken us around the world in books like The Open Road and essays in venues like the New York Review of Books, Iyer now goes on an inner journey, showing us how he was profoundly influenced by Graham Greene while acknowledging the less clear influence of his father. For the intellectually hungry; with a six-city tour.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist, essayist and travel writer Iyer (The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, 2008, etc.) examines his life through the lens of his lifetime preoccupation with the writing of Graham Greene. Greene's The Quiet American epitomizes for the author some of the major themes of his life: "foreignness, displacedness…innocence, chivalry." Greene's book, which takes place in Saigon during the buildup to the Vietnamese war, describes how the rivalry between a cynical British diplomat and the eponymous naïve American over a Vietnamese woman plays out on the larger stage of imperial politics. Iyer compares his own sense of divided identity to characters in Greene's book. "I went back and forth, in my life and then my head," he writes, "between unquiet Englishmen who were often more compassionate than they let on and quiet Americans who were not quite so innocent as they liked to seem." Though of Indian descent, Iyer was born in England, where he attended Eton and then Oxford. His father had left India and settled at Oxford, where he taught for eight years before moving to California to continue his brilliant academic career. The author is a wonderful wordsmith, and he provides engaging stories: about the fires that twice burned down his family's homes in Santa Barbara, landing in Sri Lanka in 2006 amid a violent upsurge while on assignment to write a travel piece on Marco Polo, his school days at Eton being trained to run an empire that no longer existed. Unfortunately, the disconnected chronology may leave many readers adrift. Those unfamiliar with the writings of either Greene or Iyer may have trouble following the thread of this memoir.
The Barnes & Noble Review

It's difficult for an American to read Graham Greene without feeling insufficiently skeptical of the world. Compared to his world-weary Brits, we're such Pollyannas! We keep believing, more or less, in our families and our friends and even, fitfully, our country. Almost as though we're constitutionally resistant to disenchantment, we're cheerfully undefended against the countless layers of darkness that were Greene's chosen realm to dwell in and write about.

That's why it's particularly enlightening, and only somewhat vexing, to read about Greene from a lifelong devotee whose background is both British and American. Pico Iyer, who has accumulated an increasingly complex and questioning body of writing himself, and who spent a good portion of his youth commuting between frigid boarding schools in England and the incessantly sunny climes of his Los Angeles-based parents, writes of the man in his head with the charged perception of a long-lost son. Could he have chosen a more self-contradictory, shadowy father figure?

As Iyer puts it, Greene is "the patron saint of the foreigner alone, drifting between certainties [whose] territory is the small apartment in the very foreign town, the passion that is temporary, the border crossing that seems the perfect home for the man who prays to a God he's not sure he believes in." Noir-ish descendant of Somerset Maugham and antecedent of John le Carré, Greene habitually sets his scenes in treacherous, morally murky circumstances. Men and women are usually at odds — "they don't share the same anxieties" — with "identities they change at every moment and no real friend or family to hold them to their word." Everyone is on the run, not least of all from themselves.

Quite a bloke Iyer has chosen to be obsessed with: tortured Catholic, fugitive husband and father, rumored spy, over-punctilious man of probing conscience who was capable of disloyalties of every stripe. Greene cannot write a page without conveying the ever-mutable doubleness of things, and Iyer's dual vantage, having grown up on both sides of the pond, positions him well to generate brilliant insights like the following three:

All Greene's work is about the conundrum of feeling someone else's position too acutely, to the point of not being able to hear, or act on, one's own. And that natural sympathy for the other's point of view is made more agonized?because one can have so little faith in oneself. Greene could write with harrowing compassion for every character except the one who might be taken as Graham Greene. Greene could not bring himself to believe in God and so, by his own lights, he was cursed. But he could not entirely believe in himself or his own positions, including his arguments against God, and so there was always a small chink of hope. Greene's great theme was always innocence, if only because he could never disguise how much he missed it?. None of the characters was entirely cynical, able to write off all belief, and yet none of them can be a simple believer, either. They're all trembling in the balance.
All of these observations, and a lot more besides, go a long way toward nailing down an elusive subject as precisely as anyone has — a deep deconstruction of one of modern lit's most puzzling specimens. Where Iyer gets in trouble is when he over-identifies with his subject, veering a bit too far out of his way to underscore a (quasi-mystical?) connection between them. Even when some of the parallels do seem eerie — both watched their homes burn down, both had chance encounters with bishops in southern Bolivia, and so forth — ultimately these coincidences prove less nourishing for the reader than they seem to be for the author. Why force parallels when each life is more than riveting in its own right?

Certainly Iyer's is turning out to be. He has stockpiled enough color from forays in Bangkok, Bhutan, and Belgravia — to choose just the second letter of the alphabet — to never again need to mix it up with Greene. Of particular fascination is the material he draws upon from his early years at an English boarding school: "Every morning, at 6:45, a white-coated retainer of sorts, Mr. Gower, knocked on each door, and opened it a crack — "Morn, sir!" — and then we trudged down the icy stone spiral staircase to where a vat of tea and our copies of The Times awaited us." Reconciling this to life in a California that had "exiled history" and "didn't know what to do with the dark" gives the writer a privileged perspective on two worlds — shuttling back and forth between "unquiet Englishmen who were often more compassionate than they let on and quiet Americans who were not quite so innocent as they liked to seem."

As long as the author keeps producing sentences of this caliber, it is entirely possible to imagine a younger writer thirty years hence writing a book about the man in his head — one with the unlikely name of Pico Iyer. Let's hope it's half as smart and sharp as this one, and just a touch less over-identifying.

Daniel Asa Rose is the author of Larry's Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China with My Black- Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant...and Save His Life, named one of the top books of the year by Publishers Weekly.

Reviewer: Daniel Asa Rose

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307957467
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/3/2012
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,144,139
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Pico Iyer
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.
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    1. Hometown:

Read an Excerpt


There were fires raging all across the hills around our house, and I was sitting in a downtown restaurant with my mother and Hiroko. I’d flown into Santa Barbara two days before, and, driving along the empty road that leads from the airport to our house ten minutes away, I’d looked up into the hills to where the lights of our home shine alone on our ridge, and my heart had stopped. There were two bright blazes of orange cutting through the darkness, with a speed and effi- ciency I remembered from the time when our home—in the same location—had burned down (with me beside it) some years before.

I accelerated wildly up the hill and started taking the curves along the mountain road leading up to our solitary house at a crazy speed. The air to the north was already red and full of smoke—infernal—and as I pushed the car to go faster, I saw sightseers along the side of the road gathering to watch the unearthly light show, great towers of orange, a hundred feet high, rising from the valleys just below our home and smoke turning the sky into a sickly pall.

I swerved, brakes screaming, into our driveway, and sum- moned my wife and mother out to see what was happening a mile or two away. It looked to be remote still, but I remem- bered how, during the previous fire, the flames had raced through the brush at seventy miles an hour, so that an orange gash in what looked to be a distant slope was suddenly a pillar of flames arcing over our living-room windows.

The next day we awoke to the sound of helicopters whir- ring overhead. The sky was a grisly blood-red color. The house felt hot already, and, although the smoke seemed to clear as the wind shifted and returned us to a placid blue midsummer day, as the afternoon went on the sky above the ridge next to us turned a hideous, end-of-the-world color, or discolor really, ash falling around us like snow.

I went with Hiroko down to the post office, and as we came out, after a short transaction, the whole suburb around us was black with coughy smoke. We looked up to the hills, to where our house and our far-off neighbors were, and all we could see were one, two, three slashes of orange angrily starting up across the slopes. We began to drive home and, switching on the radio, I heard that our house and the few up the road had been issued an “evacuation warning.” I turned into our little road and began driving up it, and the announcer on the local radio, frantic, said that the “evacuation warning” had been turned into an “order”: we had to leave now, or we would be forced out.

We drove the remaining five minutes at a crazy speed again, collected my mother, her dazed cat inside a little cage, gath- ered as many precious papers and photos as we could in five minutes and then tore down the road again, fire trucks coming past us in the opposite direction, plumes of smoke seeming to rise from all the valleys and the crevices in the hills, the air so thick we were choking already and driving out of what seemed to be an oven, the huge flames cresting above our house as if ready to engulf it.

Now, barely twenty minutes away, downtown Santa Barbara was dreaming through another placid blue-sky afternoon, a miracle of calm; the angry smoke and orange burns to the north seemed to belong to another universe. We had to go about our life as usual—the next day would bring a fireworks display along the beach, for July the Fourth, and the day after that, I was due to perform a wedding ceremony for a college friend who was flying over from England for the occasion. We needed dinner, preferably in some inexpensive place not far from the house where we were staying while technically homeless (the same building that had housed my mother and me for four months after our house burned down before).

“There’s a story of the Buddha,” my mother began telling us now, perhaps to take our mind off the conflagration, and I listened to her, though usually all the wisdom that came from her, a teacher of comparative religions, I tried to block out because I was a son. “When his closest disciple, Ananda, asked him what was the greatest miracle,” she went on, “walking on water or conjuring jewels out of thin air, changing the heat of one’s body through meditation or sitting undisturbed in a cave for years and years, he said, ‘Simply touching the heart of another human being. Acting kindly. That’s the greatest miracle of all.’ ”

“The church of humanity, in other words,” I said, “like Gra- ham Greene.” I didn’t care that I was citing the very writer my mother had liked when I was at school and I had mocked. (“You remember,” she said, not unexpectedly, “who it was who told you to read Graham Greene?”). “It was what he always believed in, the human predicament, the possibility for kind- ness and honesty even in the midst of our confusions and our sins. He could never quite bring himself to believe in God; God was the Other with whom he played his incessant games of ‘He loves me, He loves me not.’ But in humanity he had the strongest, if most reluctant belief. In our fallenness lies our salvation.”

The other two looked at me blankly, nonplussed by this explosion. “He never could have much confidence in faith and hope,” I said, concluding a sermon that no one had asked for. “But charity was the one thing he couldn’t turn away from. Many writers try to take a journey into the Other. But in him it becomes a kind of creed, his version of religion, even when he’s just traveling into the Other in himself.”

What I really could have been saying was that we were now in the world he’d made so real to me in his books, at the mercy of much larger forces, pushed back to essentials, without a home. The only thing you could possibly do in such circum- stances was see that so many others were in a similar predica- ment and reach out towards them; what you shared was not faith, usually, but unsettledness.

Up in the hills, meanwhile, the fires continued to blaze.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2012

    Fascinating for a Few

    I am a big fan of Graham Greene and of Pico Iyer, so I approached this book with a great deal of excitement. Iyer's insight into his own life and into Greene and other writers of note was fascinating. Also, Iyer's writing style is clear and accessible. I did feel that Iyer had to stretch to fit this concept into one book. In other words, parts of the book felt somewhat padded to gain length. I think this book is a must read for hard core travelers and for Graham Greene fans.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2012

    Recommended for Graham Greene fans

    Iyer describes his idolization of Graham Greene as an author and human being. Iyer describes his lifelong reading and rereading of Greene novels through his prep-school days in England and in Santa Barbara where his father was a professor of humanities and Gandhi-influenced studies. The book reads well, although I was not terribly interested in the author's school days, but it primarily would result in reading more Graham Greene and the his biography by Norman Sherry.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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