As for Graham Greene, I have to admit that, if asked to state what Pico Iyer has to say about him in this book, I couldn’t come up with any hard and fast answer. One quotation does stick in my mind. “There are no bad guys in his books … but no one’s entirely good either.” And there are fascinating details — that Kingsley Amis called him “grim grin”, and that he once entered a competition for a pastiche of the Greene style and won it. His relations with his various lovers are also treated with sensitivity and insight. Yet the overall picture remains indistinct.
At one point Iyer states that he’s not interested in Greene and politics, Greene and religion or Greene the alleged spy. So what is he interested in? He certainly makes Greene out to be elusive, but his own reasons for taking him as the subject for half a book remain essentially elusive as well.
The shadowy nature of Iyer’s picture of his father is important — Greene is, in some way, a substitute father for him. He certainly makes it clear that Greene was a mentor when it came to spending lonely nights in foreign hotels, in being in some way essentially homeless. His father, an academic enthusiast for Neo-Platonist philosophy, was very different.
But it was Iyer’s literary persona that rankled with me. This book contains episodes in Bolivia, Ethiopia, Bhutan, California and the UK, but the style is unvarying. It’s a pastel, even watercolor, style which gives the impression of the gifted adolescent, full of promise, who can’t put a foot wrong. After a time this evokes a world where nothing ever causes too great a sensation. Even the burning down of his California house doesn’t upset this author unduly. And though there’s a certain drama in a New Year’s Day road accident in up-country Bolivia, it doesn’t count for much when considering the work as a whole.
The book’s title suggests an illuminating comparison — with J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself (1968), an utterly extraordinary account of someone discovering the truth about a parent. But we learn little about Iyer’s father, let alone his connection with Graham Greene (someone Iyer says he never mentioned). This mix of soft-focus subject matter and bland style results in my wondering if I haven’t missed the point of this strange book entirely.