“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 ...”