Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

“He sat there like a black ques­tion mark, ready to go, ready to stay, poised on his chair.” So the whisky priest is de­scribed in the early pages of what is per­haps Gra­ham Greene’s most fa­mous novel, The Power and the Glory (1940). It’s a beau­ti­ful ex­am­ple of the hu­man un­cer­tainty of Greeneland. I was re­minded of the breath­ing ques­tion mark, a re­cur­ring char­ac­ter in Greene’s fic­tion, this week while read­ing Pico Iyer’s mes­meris­ing The Man Within My Head: Gra­ham Greene, My Fa­ther and Me. “All his nov­els,” Iyer writes, “are un­re­li­able gospels for those who can’t be sure of a thing.” Iyer’s book was pub­lished in 2012 but it es­caped my at­ten­tion, even though Greene is my favourite nov­el­ist.

That favouritism is partly be­cause he was one of the writ­ers who first took me, as a boy, into adult lit­er­a­ture — and don’t we stay faith­ful to them. But more than that, I know I could read any Greene novel to­day and feel I was in an in­ter­est­ing place. And maybe even more than that, there is some­thing per­son­ally at­trac­tive and un­set­tling about Greene’s fic­tion, and his life. The un­set­tling in­flu­ence is some­thing Iyer pins down, to the point that I find his book a bit nerve-prick­ling. I’ve barely stopped think­ing about it. In a bril­liant sec­tion ti­tled “Fathers”, he writes: “We run and run from who we are — this was Greene’s theme from the be­gin­ning — only to dis­cover, of course, that this is pre­cisely what we can never put be­hind us.” “Fathers” goes to the deeper quest of Iyer’s book, which is ti­tled after Greene’s de­but novel, The Man Within (1929).

Iyer is a Bri­tish writer of In­dian ori­gin. Born in Eng­land, he was ed­u­cated at Eton and Ox­ford. His Bom­bay-born fa­ther, also ed­u­cated at Ox­ford, was a philoso­pher and po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist. Iyer’s book of­fers fas­ci­nat­ing thoughts on the un­real fa­ther fig­ure in­side his head, whom he de­lib­er­ately never met but did cor­re­spond with briefly. “I’m in­ter­ested in the things that lived in­side him,” he tells a friend. “His ter­rors and ob­ses­sions. Not the life, as it were, but what it touched off in the rest of us.” Greene the nov­el­ist “ap­peals to some of us, I think — even chal­lenges our sense of who we are — in part be­cause he is so acutely sen­si­tive to all the ways we can fail to un­der­stand one an­other, even those peo­ple clos­est to our­selves’’. True enough, but be­neath this in­sight­ful lit­er­ary-life study is Iyer’s med­i­ta­tion on his real fa­ther — and him­self. “A real fa­ther,’’ he writes at one point, “is too close for com­fort, or your vi­sion is too clouded in try­ing to see what of him is in you and what in you is just a re­ac­tion against him.” The clos­ing passages, where it seems Iyer un­der­stands his fa­ther bet­ter than be­fore, are deeply mov­ing. This book has set me to re­sume my re-read­ing of Greene, some­thing I used to do al­most an­nu­ally when younger. I will start with my favourite, the Congo leper colony novel A Burnt-Out Case (1960), to see if it still stands up. I can still re­mem­ber its har­row­ing end­ing, which touches on some­thing Iyer men­tions: “What makes one weep and what makes one break out laugh­ing are iden­ti­cal twins in Greene’s work, and it some­times seems al­most a freak of fate, pure ran­dom­ness, whether a char­ac­ter picks one or the other.” This week I also had the plea­sure of judg­ing the Guy Mor­ri­son Prize for Lit­er­ary Jour­nal­ism, worth $4000 and open to un­der­grad­u­ate and post­grad­u­ate stu­dents in jour­nal­ism, writ­ing or com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The win­ner will be an­nounced at the Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val on Fri­day.

The next day at SWF, Ir­ish poet Paul Mul­doon will talk about Sea­mus Heaney. That brings us to our quote of the week, from Colin Bur­row’s blos­som­ing Lon­don Re­view of Books take on Heaney’s just-pub­lished trans­la­tion of Aeneid: Book VI: “He thanks his Latin teacher, Fa­ther McGlinchey, for en­cour­ag­ing him to read Book VI by ‘for­ever sigh­ing’ over the A Level set book be­ing Aeneid IX rather than Aeneid VI ...”

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