Pico Iyer's eloquent and graceful book about Graham Greene is also about fathers, and travel, and feeling at home - or not - in the world.
When I last encountered Pico Iyer, he was in Burma. Or India. Or China. Somewhere I haven't been, but always in a book, traveling so I didn't have to. Now I discover, in his book about Graham Greene (but also about fathers and travel and being and fleeing oneself), that travel means something different to Iyer than it might to me. Of Greene and himself, he says, "Both longed, as most of us do, for precisely the world they never knew," and I realized that either I am unusual (not "most of us" in this case) or Iyer is traveling on an unusual intellectual passport.
"We travel, initially, to lose ourselves," Iyer wrote in 2000 in an essay for Salon.com, "and we travel, next, to find ourselves." And apparently, in his travels, Pico Iyer has been looking to lose himself or find himself in the peripatetic sensibility of Graham Greene. Greene, it seems, has always haunted Iyer. Though very much a product of England and the British educational system, Greene wrote extensively and eloquently about being an outsider; the moral complexities and perplexities of Empire (of being the insider on the outer edge) figured in most of his works, from "The Power and the Glory" to "The Quiet American" to "Our Man in Havana."
Iyer, on the other hand, was a product of that empire, son of Indian parents, raised first in England, then California, and finally settling (not quite) in Japan, always feeling himself at once an outsider, a privileged insider and a citizen of the world. In Greene, he found an insider-outsider whose moral ambivalence and dilemmas spoke to him. "If you grow up between cultures," Iyer says in this book, "if you get accustomed to traveling, it's easy to find yourself always on the outside of things, looking in. This can be ideal for a writer -- or a spy; you've always got, analytically, a ticket out." But if you're honest, he goes on, "and my Greene was, to a humbling degree -- you have to take the measure of what's lost when you're not committed."
And Iyer's work, an odd memoir-cum-literary biography, is elegiac, strangely enough a book about loss even as it searches out the connection between Greene's haunted travels, in writing and in life, and Iyer's own. "The Man Within My Head" (Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $25.95) -- a play on Greene's "The Man Within" -- is, Iyer says, a "counterbiography ... interested in the things that lived inside him. His terrors and obsessions. Not the life, as it were, but what it touched off in the rest of us."
What it touched off in Iyer, so eloquently documented here, is a lifelong reflection on not just the meaning of Greene's work, but, more poignantly, its meaning for Iyer's life. When he says, "All of 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," Iyer is performing a fine and philosophical sort of literary interpretation -- but he is also describing his own book, which, despite its acute sensitivity to Greene's position, nonetheless emerges as Iyer's own story, in which the ambivalence of being an outsider can be recognized for the gift that it is.
Ellen Akins is a Wisconsin-based writer who teaches in Fairleigh-Dickinson University's MFA program.