One of the unanticipated benefits of British rule in India is the body of distinguished writing in the English language coming from the Indian diaspora — Naipaul, Seth, Rushdie, Mistry, Mishra and Pico Iyer.
Iyer, however, is atypical in that he was born in Oxford, lived in California, and was educated at Eton and Oxford. Thus he is less an Indian than a global author.
He is coy about having been to Eton, which he does not name: it is the ‘high school near London’, ‘somewhere between the grey towns of Slough and Windsor’, which was founded by a king, has the oldest classroom in the world, and has provided Britain with 19 prime ministers. He also makes clear that, contrary, perhaps, to his parents’ expectations, he has not reached the pinnacles of the establishment on either side of the Atlantic but is now, in his mid-fifties, ‘a scruffy mongrel living in Japan’ with his Japanese wife in ‘a rented two-room cell in an anonymous Japanese suburb’, earning his living as a novelist, journalist and travel writer — always off to some far-flung corner of the world: ‘so long as I was loose in the world, uncompanioned, I was never bored or at a loss’.
Is it this rootlessness that led to his obsession with Graham Greene? Greene is the man within his head, an alter ego, ‘the patron saint of the foreigner alone’. Iyer intersperses his thoughts about Greene with passages of autobiography — dramatic episodes, such as a near fatal accident in Ethiopia, and the burning down of his parents’ home in Santa Barbara in a forest fire — and meditates on his relationship with his father, the academic philosopher — ‘a mystery I could never solve’.
Although there are many references to Greene’s novels in Iyer’s book — particularly to The Quiet American — it is not a work of literary criticism. His admiration is for Greene the man whom he sees as a kind of humanist saint. Graham had ‘no patience with missionaries or sermonisers’: ‘it’s the good who do all the harm’. ‘Perhaps all the best of us are sinners and the worst are saints.’ ‘Acting kindly, that’s the greatest miracle of all.’
As a hagiography, however, the book fails. Iyer quotes my mother, who knew Greene, saying that he was ‘a precocious schoolboy with … depths one doesn’t enquire into’. By depths, she meant mainly his sex-life which was not as well-known then as it is now. Greene’s promiscuity, his sentimentalisation of prostitution, and the insouciance with which he, the world’s most celebrated lay Catholic, slept with other men’s wives is somehow made into a virtue by Iyer. He ‘moved from one woman to the next as if to tell them, as well as himself, that there was less danger that way of hurting anyone.’
Iyer tells us of Greene’s support for the traitor Philby, but does not go into the leftist posturing of the best-selling author whose royalties were paid into secret bank accounts in Lichtenstein. He lists his acts of personal generosity to other writers such as R.K. Narayan and Muriel Spark, the houses he bought for his discarded mistresses, the car for his French agent, the ranch in Canada for his daughter Caroline; but he concedes that some of this munificence was in some sense guilt money. Greene had been ‘by his own reckoning, a very poor parent, leaving his children effectively fatherless’. And it is easier to be generous if one lives abroad to avoid tax.
Iyer’s childhood friend Louis, after converting to Christianity, ‘had little time for Greene and his many doubts’. Evelyn Waugh, too, was exasperated by the perverse theology behind some of Greene’s novels. It certainly seems at times that Greene was less interested in what he could do for God than what God for do for him. Like a champion surfer, he caught the wave of religiosity that broke over Britain after the second world war with novels such as The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair; and then the backwash of doubt that followed with A Burnt-out Case in 1960. The scepticism of the world’s leading Catholic author, and his insistence that God, if he did exist, preferred the sinner to the saint, provided an apt preamble to the decades of permissiveness and de-Christianisation that followed.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.