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  • Written by Pico Iyer
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On Sale: January 03, 2012
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95746-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Reader Reviews


Ever since he first discovered Graham Greene's work, Pico Iyer has felt a haunting closeness with the English writer. In The Man Within My Head, Iyer follows Greene's trail from his first novel, The Man Within, to such later classics as The Quiet American, examining Greene's obsessions, his elusiveness, and his penchant for mystery. The deeper he plunges into this exploration, the more Iyer begins to wonder whether the man within his head might not be Greene but his own father, or perhaps some more shadowy aspect of himself.

Drawing upon experiences across the globe, from Cuba to Bhutan, and moving, as Greene would, from Sri Lanka in war to intimate moments of introspection, this is the most personal and revelatory book yet from one of our most astute observers of inner journeys and crossing cultures.



There were fires raging all across the hills around our house, and I was sitting in a downtown restaurant with my mother and Hiroko. I’d flown into Santa Barbara two days before, and, driving along the empty road that leads from the airport to our house ten minutes away, I’d looked up into the hills to where the lights of our home shine alone on our ridge, and my heart had stopped. There were two bright blazes of orange cutting through the darkness, with a speed and effi- ciency I remembered from the time when our home—in the same location—had burned down (with me beside it) some years before.

I accelerated wildly up the hill and started taking the curves along the mountain road leading up to our solitary house at a crazy speed. The air to the north was already red and full of smoke—infernal—and as I pushed the car to go faster, I saw sightseers along the side of the road gathering to watch the unearthly light show, great towers of orange, a hundred feet high, rising from the valleys just below our home and smoke turning the sky into a sickly pall.

I swerved, brakes screaming, into our driveway, and sum- moned my wife and mother out to see what was happening a mile or two away. It looked to be remote still, but I remem- bered how, during the previous fire, the flames had raced through the brush at seventy miles an hour, so that an orange gash in what looked to be a distant slope was suddenly a pillar of flames arcing over our living-room windows.

The next day we awoke to the sound of helicopters whir- ring overhead. The sky was a grisly blood-red color. The house felt hot already, and, although the smoke seemed to clear as the wind shifted and returned us to a placid blue midsummer day, as the afternoon went on the sky above the ridge next to us turned a hideous, end-of-the-world color, or discolor really, ash falling around us like snow.

I went with Hiroko down to the post office, and as we came out, after a short transaction, the whole suburb around us was black with coughy smoke. We looked up to the hills, to where our house and our far-off neighbors were, and all we could see were one, two, three slashes of orange angrily starting up across the slopes. We began to drive home and, switching on the radio, I heard that our house and the few up the road had been issued an “evacuation warning.” I turned into our little road and began driving up it, and the announcer on the local radio, frantic, said that the “evacuation warning” had been turned into an “order”: we had to leave now, or we would be forced out.

We drove the remaining five minutes at a crazy speed again, collected my mother, her dazed cat inside a little cage, gath- ered as many precious papers and photos as we could in five minutes and then tore down the road again, fire trucks coming past us in the opposite direction, plumes of smoke seeming to rise from all the valleys and the crevices in the hills, the air so thick we were choking already and driving out of what seemed to be an oven, the huge flames cresting above our house as if ready to engulf it.

Now, barely twenty minutes away, downtown Santa Barbara was dreaming through another placid blue-sky afternoon, a miracle of calm; the angry smoke and orange burns to the north seemed to belong to another universe. We had to go about our life as usual—the next day would bring a fireworks display along the beach, for July the Fourth, and the day after that, I was due to perform a wedding ceremony for a college friend who was flying over from England for the occasion. We needed dinner, preferably in some inexpensive place not far from the house where we were staying while technically homeless (the same building that had housed my mother and me for four months after our house burned down before).

“There’s a story of the Buddha,” my mother began telling us now, perhaps to take our mind off the conflagration, and I listened to her, though usually all the wisdom that came from her, a teacher of comparative religions, I tried to block out because I was a son. “When his closest disciple, Ananda, asked him what was the greatest miracle,” she went on, “walking on water or conjuring jewels out of thin air, changing the heat of one’s body through meditation or sitting undisturbed in a cave for years and years, he said, ‘Simply touching the heart of another human being. Acting kindly. That’s the greatest miracle of all.’ ”

“The church of humanity, in other words,” I said, “like Gra- ham Greene.” I didn’t care that I was citing the very writer my mother had liked when I was at school and I had mocked. (“You remember,” she said, not unexpectedly, “who it was who told you to read Graham Greene?”). “It was what he always believed in, the human predicament, the possibility for kind- ness and honesty even in the midst of our confusions and our sins. He could never quite bring himself to believe in God; God was the Other with whom he played his incessant games of ‘He loves me, He loves me not.’ But in humanity he had the strongest, if most reluctant belief. In our fallenness lies our salvation.”

The other two looked at me blankly, nonplussed by this explosion. “He never could have much confidence in faith and hope,” I said, concluding a sermon that no one had asked for. “But charity was the one thing he couldn’t turn away from. Many writers try to take a journey into the Other. But in him it becomes a kind of creed, his version of religion, even when he’s just traveling into the Other in himself.”

What I really could have been saying was that we were now in the world he’d made so real to me in his books, at the mercy of much larger forces, pushed back to essentials, without a home. The only thing you could possibly do in such circum- stances was see that so many others were in a similar predica- ment and reach out towards them; what you shared was not faith, usually, but unsettledness.

Up in the hills, meanwhile, the fires continued to blaze.

Table of Contents

"A must-read book. . . . As he reveals his struggles to understand Graham Greene, Iyer reveals so much more than ever about himself. . . . Fascinating." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Lovely. . . . A book filled with insights, sadness, rumination and splashes of the dazzling travelogue that Iyer's readers have come to expect." —Los Angeles Times

"Sensitive and intelligent…What gives the book its peculiar distinction is the range of Mr. Iyer's sympathies—for a diversity of cultures, for varieties of religious belief and for opposed political positions—and his luminous intelligence.” —The Wall Street Journal
"Remarkable, grace-laden. . . . Part memoir, part literary excavation, part travelogue and existential inquiry, it’s a story about finding one’s voice as a writer and one’s place in the world (or lack of place).” —The Los Angeles Review of Books

"He has written the work that those who love Greene (as I do) have dreamt of writing and, in doing it so well, absolved us of the need. . . . Humbling and moving. . . . The Man Within My Head is one of a handful of magical books that I have read straight through." —Nicholas Shakespeare, The Daily Telegraph (London)
"Iyer is an absorbing writer. His gift lies in his ability to break through the sensory overload of an alien place, where the scents and sights can overwhelm those unused to them.” —The Christian Science Monitor
"Thoughtful and compelling…Insightful, eloquent and truthful, The Man Within My Head will delight all who wonder what is in their own.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“A thoughtful and impressionistic appreciation of Greene’s life and work. . . . More than a fascinating literary study of an admired author. Through its lucid insights, it shows us how engagement with literature can create a reality somehow more real than life itself.” —Bookreporter.org
“The product of more than a decade of Pico Iyer’s reflections about the dual influences his father and Graham Greene exerted upon him. . . . As The Man Within My Head demonstrates, there’s fellowship to be found in the community of eloquent strangers, an eternal literary companionship.” —The New York Times Book Review
"A captivating and intelligent hybrid..eloquent and intelligent.” —The Guardian (London)
"In truth, there are three men in this virtuoso memoir: Iyer comes to a better understanding of himself, the virtual man in his head and, movingly, the lifetime bond with his real father.” —The Times (London)
"A courageous, intriguing book, perhaps better described, generically, not as a memoir but as a confession,  of someone whose education and profession made him a privileged citizen of the whole modern world, but who found globalization spiritually unsatisfying.” —The New York Review of Books
“Offers a window on a classic author’s formidable legacy.” —The Washington Post
Pico Iyer|Author Q&A

About Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer - The Man Within My Head

Photo © Derek Shapton

Pico Iyer has written nonfiction books on globalism, Japan, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, forgotten places, and novels on Revolutionary Cuba and Islamic mysticism. He regularly writes on literature for The New York Review of Books, on travel for the Financial Times, and on global culture and the news for Time, The New York Times, and magazines around the world.

Author Q&A

Q: What is it about Graham Greene that interests you?

A: Well, it’s easy to point out some of the things we have in common: we both grew up in the same kind of English boarding-schools, and so developed an interest in going to places as different as possible from that, from Saigon to Havana and Port-au-Prince to South Africa. We both grew up with fathers who were teachers and so tried to rebel against that, and refused to settle to the faith of our fathers—even though we knew we couldn’t write it off entirely. We both, probably, sit a little on the outside of things, while seeing that to do so is untenable.
But really I wouldn’t trust any explanation I could give you: the beauty of affinity is that you can’t explain it away, any more than you can say why the color green appeals to you, and not the color orange, or why you fell for this fiery redhead and not that one. There are plenty of other writers with whom I have more in common, yet I don’t really feel close to them at all.
But I do like the way Greene was always more interested in questions than in answers, and always suggests that it’s what you do that’s more important than what you believe. Kindness is more vital to him than doctrine. I like his sense of mischief, his loyalty to his friends, his sense of fun and, mostly, his wisdom about himself: I always feel that he brought as much sympathy and understanding to others as he brought unsparing honesty to himself.
He saw the point of life, as Thomas Merton has it, as not becoming more rich, more powerful or more famous, but “more real,” better able to understand the self and the great world. Much like, in fact, one of my other lifelong interests and affections—I once had a whole long section in this book on the connections between them—Leonard Cohen.
Both of them remind me of a sign I saw up in the Nobel Peace center in Oslo last summer, from Virginia Woolf: “You can’t find peace by avoiding life.”

Q: What first got you interested in him?

A: I think I’ve always been fascinated by secret correspondences, as you could call them, the way you see a stranger across a crowded room and feel you know her better than you know some of the people you’ve been talking to for twenty years. The way you dream about a place you’ve barely seen, though the house you live in never once appears in your dreams. The way you pick up a book—this is how I am with Greene—and feel as if you know, word for word, what the main character is going to say or do three pages from now. And you do.
These invisible connections are often just as interesting as the connections we can explain—and, of course, they were a constant preoccupation with Greene, too, because of his lifelong interest in dreams and the subconscious. I continue to find it fascinating that his boyhood was divided between a very traditional English boarding-school, of the kind I know too well, where his father was headmaster, and six wild and free months with a Jungian spiritualist. In some ways you could explain much of what followed through his two competing fathers—one an upstanding, pious, rather innocent teacher, the other a maverick explorer of everything murky and unexplained.
At various points in my research, I came up with all kinds of uncanny correspondences with Greene: I’d find out he was confessing to a Father Pilkington, and remember that my housemaster in school was called Father Pilkington, not such a common name; I’d see him plotting to write a play on the rather obscure 19th century Romantic painter and diarist Benjamin Robert Haydon and recall how I’d once planned to write a doctoral dissertation on the rather obscure 19th century Romantic painter and diarist Benjamin Robert Haydon. I’d find that he revered a little-known old French work of theology that turned out to be the same little-known old French work of theology around which I once based a whole novel. But finally I came to think that those kind of affinities are the least interesting kind; what was fascinating was how I’d see his responses to a Cuban rogue, I’d note the games he played with faith, I’d watch his relations with women in his books, now dangerously chivalrous, now bewildered, and realize, not always very happily or comfortably, that he was describing me better than I could do myself.
The more I looked at it, the more I came to see how the central dynamic in a book like The Quiet American—between England and America, and between a jaded skeptic from an old culture and a wide-eyed idealist from a younger one—might in some ways be the story of my life, traveling as I did between my parents’ home in the hippie California of the ‘60s and an English boarding-school that hadn’t changed much since its founding in 1441. (Nowadays, of course, I continue the same commute going back and forth between cosmopolitan Santa Barbara and rural, quite traditional Japan).

Q: How did you actually feel about your boarding-schools? They’re such a strong presence in the book, but it’s not always clear what you think about them. You describe all these grueling, violent rites and customs, and then you say they were the best days of your life. Are you a masochist?

A: Let's hope not! But I know what you mean. My friends in California look at me as if I were mad when I describe our cold showers at dawn, and getting beaten by other boys, and long runs through the rain, and sucking an occasional Coke through a rusty bottle-top to make it last—boot camp, in effect—and then say how grateful I am to that world. But I do think boarding-school has been the best influence in my life, if only because it’s a system refined over centuries to prepare boys for business or war—or, in fact,  what I do, which is spend long days alone at my desk and then go out into the more difficult parts of the world.
Going to boarding-school means you’re acting out in adolescence with men who are trained to deal with that, and your relations with your parents are relieved of a lot of strain; and going to one of those classic old schools means that you’re going to enjoy really talented classmates and teachers and will never be impressed by an old school again, or its name.
Of course there are shadow sides to this, as I mention in the book: the classic English boys’ school doesn’t teach you how to deal with girls; and not all the toughness is for the good. I have friends who’ve never recovered from their days at school, and one of our teachers had to serve time in prison for his abuse of boys. But I don’t think I could have been a writer—or traveler—if I hadn’t gone through the training that, in the case of our school, produced, for example, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Cyril Connolly in a single generation; one reason so many of the world’s great travelers come from English boarding-schools—even now—is that after five years in a tiny, unheated, 15th century cell, the caves of Afghanistan, or the food you’ll eat in the Sahara, don’t seem too bad at all.
As I wrote this book, I kept reminding myself that the world doesn’t need another account of life in a 15th century English boarding-school. And I also kept telling myself that the world doesn’t need another account of California in the ‘60s. But the interaction between them, the way each projects its own dreams or longings on the other, the effect it might have on a little boy to move, in less than 24 hours, from a student revolution to singing the Lord’s Prayer in Latin in a classroom built in 1441—that might all be interesting. It’s certainly unprecedented, as humans could not cross such vast distances at such great speed before. And that’s been my theme in all my books so far—the mutual romance, the vexed fascination, between cultures, Old World and New, Eastern and Western. What it is to grow up not in London and not in the hills of California and not in Bombay, but in constant passage between them, the spaces between.

Q: This book may be a hybrid, but it is non-fiction, no?

A: Yes. I worked really hard to try to give it something of the flavor and the texture of fiction, with recurring characters and vivid scenes in Saigon and Havana and elsewhere, and with something of a story; but it’s all true, or at least strongly rooted in one person’s very qualified and partial vision of the truth. So often memoir is a kind of fiction, I think—but one that doesn’t acknowledge it’s fiction. People are never less trustworthy than when writing about themselves and the people around them!
But one thing I’ve always admired about Greene is that he’s so unremittingly honest, about precisely the things most of us like to hide or evade. His own memoirs hide behind charm and anecdote and childhood memories, and his books of travel are feats of ill temper and needless suffering; but get him to write fiction, and he crafts close, dark, rending confessionals, which air his most intimate terrors and betrayals.
If you write books observing the world, as I have done, it’s very easy to try not to look at the things that give you trouble; but if you read Graham Greene, as I have done, you hear him telling you to look precisely at where the hurt or vulnerability lies. Writing is one of the few ways you can address it; self-therapy without a price tag. It’s like recounting your dreams, a way of collecting concrete evidence for what is otherwise free-floating and inward and vague. I probably began this book writing mostly about Graham Greene, but my editor was wise and sharp enough to tell me to try to look closer to home, at what was making me interested in Graham Greene. He’s always alert to where I try to deflect things from myself.

Q: And then, suddenly, there’s all this stuff about your father.

A: Yes. I deliberately made that shadowy and brief, even perhaps frustrating for the reader; this isn’t a memoir, as I state explicitly at one point. One thing we were told, over and over at school, was that the world at large is much more interesting than our petty little dramas or concerns.
But I did want to try to catch that sense that there was another man within my head knocking at the door, coming to the surface, beginning to make his presence felt the longer I looked at my literary godfather Greene; and the very fact that I wasn’t keen to write too much about my father—where I could go on about Greene all day—was part of the point. I wanted him to be a presence sneaking in at the corner of the picture.
I’m guessing this is something that many a reader can relate to: we all have parents, and sometimes we’d rather think of anything but them. They are our lifelong blind spot and soft spot and Achilles heel, not least because we know we cannot run from the fact that we’re very similar to them, and that what tormented us in them is very likely in us, too. What we don’t talk about, what we shy away from, what we put at the margins may be at least as interesting as what we happily rattle on about all day. Parents are like cabin attendants or doctors, I sometimes think; we only notice them when something goes wrong. But unlike cabin attendants or doctors, they’re with us for life; you can’t really escape them, even if you try to close the door on them. And the malpractice suits known as memoirs have almost got out of hand.
What's doubly interesting in this context, of course, is that I can feel, with a writer like Greene, that I know all his most intimate fears, guilts and habits, because he put them all down so strongly on the page; yet sometimes, with the people who should be closest to us, we can feel that we don’t actually know them at all. The man within my head is much clearer than the man within my blood.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I try to make each book as different as possible from the one that’s come before, at least on the surface—its opposite or refutation. So I’ve been collecting notes (for many years) for a book on Japan, and my nightly games of ping-pong with the local grandmas there, and how this interacts with the steadying gospel of the autumn and the question of what changes and what doesn’t change as the years go by Since this book is rather cloudy and slippery and about hauntedness, I want the next to be warm, funny, very human—a series of scenes, really, in the Japanese way, just depicting the madness and sanity of the neighborhood around me. No analysis, just people being people.

Q: On a different note, were you affected much by the earthquake and nuclear fallout? Do you think Japan has been?

A: Somewhat to my embarrassment, I flew out of Japan the day before the earthquake rocked it. So the one time when my adopted home was in the news, and every media outlet from Vanity Fair to the Wall Street Journal was coming to me for inside information, I was sitting in Santa Barbara, California, looking out over the Pacific and unable to say anything useful or interesting about it.
But I’m not sure how much the calamity of March 2011 has really affected the country: it’s been around for 2600 years, after all, and most of those years it’s been ready to take on some dread event, whether through war or typhoon or fire or earthquake.
You could almost say that, like many old cultures, it’s been set up to deal with disaster forever; it doesn’t see pain as the opposite of happiness (and sometimes sees happiness as the way you find to accept and live with pain). I’ve always felt that Japan is a country defined not by the pursuit of happiness but by the Buddha’s first rule, of the reality of suffering.
That said, I did go up to the area of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in October, with the great war photographer James Nachtwey, and it was really moving to meet the guys who are still laboring in the plant, just regular workers from all over Japan in need of money or a job, but worried about their radiation levels, and not quite sure what they’re getting into (as they asked passionate questions of the American doctor Robert Gale, who is a leading expert in radiation after his work around Chernobyl and who accompanied us up there).
And in November I went up to the tsunami-stricken area with the Dalai Lama, with whom I travel across Japan every November, and witnessed a really moving scene as he traveled to a fishing town that had been completely wiped out and began to shed tears himself as sobbing women clutched at him and said, “Thank you, thank you.” It was shocking to see pieces of washing still hanging outside shattered houses, a single chair in a hollowed-out living-room. Cars were still lying upside-down under water, telephone poles were tilting at 45-degree angles. Whole areas where there had been neighborhoods were now nothing but rubble, mountains of scrap metal rising behind fences.
Yet I don’t think Japan will be transformed by these events so much as the world’s perception of Japan may be. I’ve often felt a bit wistful that the country where I’ve chosen to live has some of the worst P.R. on the planet and has allowed itself to be seen in terms of its machines and its freakiness and its impassive, often impenetrable surfaces. It continues to seem more alien and unfathomable and remote to most of the rest of us than any country on earth, China and Korea included.
But during the disaster of 2011, its great human virtues, of patience and resilience and kindness, were finally evident on screen, and I'm really glad if one small thing that has come out of all the loss is that Japan wears a more human face to us now.
Certainly, this is what I’ll be trying to point up in my next book. My Japanese wife’s family comes in large part from Hiroshima, so, for as long as I’ve been in the country, I’ve been hearing stories of the effects of the atomic bomb on my father-in-law and other close members of my new family—and, interestingly, also witnessing their unembarrassed passion for America. I took my father-in-law for his first and only foreign trip since the war (when he’d served in Manchuria and ended up in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp) to California. He still sleeps with his pictures of Santa Barbara by his bed, and dreams, aged 90, of moving there.
I suppose these are the kind of unwritten stories, and unexpected “contradictions,” that have always been the center of my curiosity. Geopolitical pundits talk about the “clash of civilizations,” but I’ve always been more interested in a “fascination of civilizations,” sometimes even a romance, as each side of the world looks to the other for what it doesn’t have.
Which brings us back to Greene, I suppose, and the way, growing up, I saw my ancient England fascinated with fresh, young California—and California seeming to hunger for some of the stability of Great Britain.



“Resonates deeply…In the hands of a lesser writer, the dueling father figures would dissolve into melodrama, but Iyer weaves them brilliantly.” –Publishers Weekly   

“[Iyer] is a wonderful wordsmith, and he provides engaging stories.” –Kirkus
“It may be that Iyer’s beautifully contoured sentences embody all the landscapes he’s absorbed as he’s traveled the world, pen in hand. Iyer is always present in his celebrated books, but never to the extent he is here in this captivating memoir of an unsought, often unnerving affinity…Iyer’s deep-diving expedition also illuminates the mystery and spirit of the literary imperative: ‘A writer is a palmist, reading the lines of the world.’” –Booklist
“A contemplative, idiosyncratic book, a kind of side trip that diverges from the routes of Iyer’s usual writing…as “The Man Within My Head” demonstrates, there’s fellowship to be found in the community of eloquent strangers, an eternal literary companionship.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A courageous, intriguing book, perhaps better described generically not as a memoir but a confession.” –The New York Review 

“As Iyer investigates Greene’s life, he finds more parallels with his own, some superficial and some profound, which Iyer susses out in his usual composed, flowing prose.” –The Daily Beast

“Iyer’s rich and provocative book invites us to see the world in which we find ourselves today in a new and revealing light, and that’s the real measure of his accomplishment. ‘A writer is a palmist, reading the lines of the world,’ Iyer says of Greene, but he could be describing himself just as well.” –JewishJournal.com 

“[Iyer] is masterful at describing travel…a rewarding read.” –Livemint.com 
“This book is an original, a literary feat, a kind of counter-biography and shadow-autobiography. I can’t think of another quite like it...The Man Within My Head is Iyer’s richest, wisest book to date.” –The Hindu 

“Iyer writes admiringly and persuasively about Greene in ways that the novelist may have approved…an engrossing read.” –Commenweal Magazine
Pico Iyer

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Pico Iyer - The Man Within My Head

Photo © Derek Shapton

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