Under the glass saucer dome ceiling in the Celeste Bartos Forum, as part of the series LIVE at the NYPL
, Iyer mused upon the provocative questions posed by host Paul Holdengräber (Read WRR’s Interview with Paul Holdengräber)
about his own unexpected ‘father’–the subject of Iyer’s latest book, The Man Within My Head
. In this work of non-fiction, an inquiry of sorts, Iyer probes the inexplicably profound connection he feels to the literary presence he never knew in the flesh, the long-deceased British novelist, Graham Greene.
“What is it about his sensibility that strikes such a resonance?” Iyer said with subdued awe and a glint of curiosity in his eyes. “Why do I feel that he knows me better than my friends and family do? Why do I pick up one of his books and know even on first reading what the character is going to say?” Despite spending ten years reflecting on these questions, they haunt Iyer as much as they ever did.
Part of this kinship can be explained by a similar upbringing: Both writers were raised in upper-middle class England, where they attended stern boarding schools. When they were older, they explored the world, venturing to Haiti, Saigon, and Paraguay, among other far-flung locales, and became known for their insightful writings on exotic places (Read WRR’s interview with Iyer on being a global writer
). While parallels exist, Iyer reiterated that he still cannot understand how Greene became such a formidable presence within his head. But it is precisely because the reasons elude him that he is haunted and mesmerized by Greene. “Not knowing is a kind of intimacy,” Iyer said. “Greene, I think, had a very acute sense that all the important things in life by definition can’t be reduced to explanation, whether it’s love or faith or terror.”
Iyer started reading Greene’s literature — enthralling stories of duplicity and redemption — when he was traveling Latin America in his twenties. During his early adventures, Iyer carried Greene’s mailing address, treating it as a talisman. Yet when Iyer later wrote a letter to the reclusive British writer, he did not receive a response. Only years later, when Iyer pitched the idea of a profile forTime did he get an answer, and it was a polite decline.
“I never wanted to meet Graham Greene, I often told myself,” Iyer wrote in The Man Within My Head. When Holdengräber asked Iyer to expand upon this sentiment, the writer explained in his soft-spoken manner, “To have met him would not just have complicated my sense of him, but in a more fatal way, simplified, and I would have reduced him to those external characteristics.”
Besides, Iyer explained, he did not need to meet the man to know him–through Greene’s writing, he had access to the writer’s intensely personal inner life, perhaps more so than if he knew him as a friend or relative: “I feel — and I think I’m not the only one — when you’re reading his book, somebody trembling, kneeling by a bed, while mortar fire explodes all around, praying to a god he doesn’t believe in, terrified. And that degree of vulnerability is what invites one in,” Iyer reflected.
Through this emotional resonance, Iyer is able to feel close to this otherwise private writer, as if he were kin. Ever observant, Holdengräber commented, “This is not a book about influence.” Iyer smiled at this remark, and responded that rather, it was a book about friendship. “Really, he’s like an old friend,” Iyer said, “And the more I read him, the more I want to spend time with him.”