THE PAPERBACK edition of Pico Iyer's book The Man Within My Head, which is both a memoir and an essay on novelist Graham Greene (1904-1991), came out earlier this year. Iyer, a British-born essayist, reporter, travel writer and novelist, is the author of Video Night in Kathmandu and many other books. He has been described as "Thomas Merton on a frequent flier pass." I had a chance to talk to him about his interest in Greene's novels.
To what can we ascribe the durability of Graham Greene as not only a literary figure but a figure "within people's heads"?
That may arise out of his gift for intimacy on the page, the sense of vulnerability his characters incarnate and the fact that he seems to be as open in his fiction as he was guarded in real life. His novels read like confessionals, and to that extent they may speak to many readers--of any faith or none.
I was stunned at how many writers have been possessed by Greene, for better or worse. Paul Theroux, John Banville, Gloria Emerson and Alan Judd all wrote novels haunted by figures clearly based on Greene, who stands sometimes for prophetic wisdom (in Theroux's Picture Palace) or moral clarity (in Emerson's Loving Graham Greene), sometimes (in Banville and Judd) for almost demonic mischief making. David Lodge dedicated an early novel to Greene and yet included a parody of Greene in that same novel. Greene's official biographer, Norman Sherry, who spent 27 years trying to catch Greene, seemed to end up as Greene the figure of self-doubt and failure, not Greene the fearless adventurer (whom perhaps he'd hoped to become).
Is there a core to Greene's work?
I think it's precisely the fact that Greene doesn't sit easily or simply within any religious tradition that allows him to speak to so many. He read theology constantly and always refers to God, but it's a God he doesn't always claim to know and often doesn't even claim to believe in. He called himself a "Catholic agnostic" and often said that he had faith (the emotional pull that for many lies at the heart of religion) but not belief (the rational conviction).
To me, he always placed kindness before anything, and many of his novels are illustrations of how anyone can act compassionately and with understanding, even if faith is flagging. The whisky priest in The Power and the Glory famously does everything possible to violate the letter of his creed--drinking, taking on a mistress, being negligent in his duties--and yet in a moment of crisis acts with self-sacrifice and devotion, embodying the spirit of his faith in a way that even a cardinal or saint might envy.
Did Greene redefine what it might mean to be a religious person in a world without a set of defined markers?
As I see it, Greene was extending a forgiving hand toward even the most fallen person and noting how even if we --as he--can never quite make it to the belief we want, we can still try to act from the sense of compassion and sympathy that faith speaks for. If nothing else, he seemed to believe that religion gave stakes to events and turned …