An Online Conversation

3 June 2013 - A  A +

An online discussion with New Zealand writer, Alexander Bisley, December, 2012, Mr. Bisley later used some of this in articles he wrote for the Dominion Post and other New Zealand papers. His website is http://lumiere.net.nz

1) “What means the fact—which is so common, so universal—that some soul that has lost all hope for itself can inspire in another listening soul an infinite confidence in it, even while it is expressing its despair?” That’s The Man Within My Head’s engaging epigraph.  Is there a connection between Graham Greene, and Leonard Cohen, whom you’ve memorably written about in Sun After Dark and liner notes like Songs From the Deep?

I sometimes feel I’ve spent most of my recent life writing on Leonard Cohen—almost a book’s worth of essays and meditations now—and, indeed, the connections between him and Greene are so intense that I once had 20 pages in my book devoted to just that. (Later, they became among the 2,760 pages I wrote that I ultimately omitted).

Both men are clearly devoted for the duration to the spiritual life and to essential questions, but seem allergic to final answers, or settling to any fixity or category; both are clearly congregations of one, determined to take themselves away from the worlds they know (and could easily command), to places of challenge and even darkness. Both are known for their unease with commitments, for their mix of romanticism and realism, for their lifelong engagement with suffering, as it’s felt on the pulse.

And both are always rigorously honest about their failures in the realms of commitment and fidelity, yet deeply gracious to and supportive of others. Sometimes that combination of kindness towards the world and tough-mindedness towards the self might almost be my definition of the good life.

So indeed when you hear Cohen whispering his intimacies in the dark on stage, it’s not so far from Greene, in the confessional box of his novels, telling us about his guilts and insufficiencies. “My goal,” Cohen once said, “is to write with compassion about deceit in the human heart.” I can’t think of a better description of what Greene is doing. Both of them put honesty before comfort and questioning before belief.

2) When I interviewed you about Sun After Dark at Auckland 2007, and asked what you hoped the audience would take away, you replied: “Maybe to be surprised, taken aback, that’s the main thing I look for myself when I go somewhere, listen to somebody. I am happy to be moved and illuminated, but maybe the best thing is if something is set spinning inside me, that I got back to my room and I’m still thinking about it, maybe something I’ve never imagined. I try to bring back little timebombs from my travels so that people think differently, or at least are not so confident that they know everything.” (Also I note: “I think the main reason I travel, if I were to sum it up in one word, is for ambiguity. The reason I love travel is not just because it transports you in every sense, but because it confronts you with emotional and moral challenges that you would never have to confront at home. So I like going out in search of moral and emotional adventure, which throws me back upon myself and forces me to reconsider my assumptions and the things I took for granted. It sends me back a different person.”) How do you hope The Man Within My Head might surprise readers, set off little time-bombs, get them thinking differently?

My old sentences, now that I’m confronted with them, sound a bit high-faluting or pretentious, but it’s clearly true that I prefer questions to answers, ambiguity to Hollywood happy endings and challenge to complacency. So I did work really hard in this book to avoid any resolutions, to keep the narrative as unsettling as possible (as it jumps from place to place and past to present), even to write in very long sentences to startle the reader out of easy or instantaneous responses. Only because I feel all of us are getting conditioned to taking things in online nowadays, in snippets, a few simple fragments at a time; so if a book can do anything, it’s to shock us out of those enclosures and try to bring us back to the much more confounding and necessary flow of real life.

Thus I try hard, following Greene, not to show anyone as good or bad in my book—only a thousand shades of grey; not to try to take any fixed positions or ideological stances; and always to turn away from categories or clarities to a human reality that tends to be much more confounding and ever-shifting. I hope the reader may emerge from the book as she would after a trip in Haiti or Bolivia, not necessarily comforted, not always smiling, but knowing she’s been somewhere that forces her to rethink a thing or two.

3) You hope that certain younger people who don’t know about Greene will responds to the idea of someone who “occupies and haunts their imagination” like Jay-Z or Kanye West? Is there a rap song by either of these rappers that interests you?

I wish I knew more about their work (though I was just hearing about Jay-Z’s work with oldies, and listening to the wonderful Zadie Smith say that she loves gangsta rap and she loves old movie songs from the ‘40s, and she doesn’t see a contradiction between them; indeed, I would say part of the beauty of her work is that it represents an unprecedented meeting and mingling of the two).

In using that reference, I was just trying to suggest that the examples change—two generations ago it might have been Greene and Maugham who haunted readers, now it might be David Mitchell or Zadie Smith (both heroes of mine)—but the fact of being possessed by a writer, singer or artist you’ve never met endures. The power of writing is that it puts another writer inside you—puts you inside a stranger’s head—and you may soon lose track of where the other ends and you begin.

4) Like Greene, you’ve written about film. “Rambo had conquered Asia,” Video Night in Kathmandu begins.  You wrote 3000 words for Monsoon Wedding’s DVD. You’ve written memorably about The Quiet American and Kundun, and when we met in 2007 you said you’d like to write more about film, particularly Scorsese.  Is this still the case? I am still taken by your reading about a Scorsese set: “like a monastic environment. Every now and then he explodes.”

Thank you. It’s funny how, whenever one puts something out in public, an image very quickly settles around one and becomes a kind of corset, or even straight-jacket (exactly what both Leonard Cohen and Graham Greene constantly fought against in their very different, restless ways). So because my first book, as you say, was about pop culture and the dance of East and West in ten different countries in Asia, many people assume, 25 years on, my great interest is pop culture, travel and ten countries in Asia—when in fact, it’s probably not (if only because—I hope—I’ve moved on a bit).

So I often get asked to write about travel and Asia, and almost never about film. Which is wonderful, because film thus remains my secret passion, one I’m always holding forth about to myself, and to my friends, but rarely am asked to discuss in public.

Which is fine, because there are lots of brilliant writers on film around, and literature is more of an abandoned orphan these days, which perhaps is in greater need of champions and protectors to take care of it in its retirement home (or old age at least). Even such purely literary writers as Naipaul say that film replaced the novel, sometime in the middle of the last century, as the narrative form of choice, and the one that most people wanted to follow.

But I love directors such as Scorsese for their deeply questioning, alert, even literary ability to put the essential issues of any life onto the screen in such palpitating ways. It’s no surprise that Scorsese, former seminarian who once wanted to become a priest, and who famously said, “You don’t work your sins out in church. You do so on the streets,” once wanted to make a film of Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter. It wouldn’t be hard to see Scorsese as the direct heir to Greene, when it comes to Catholic self-questioning and unsparing moral realism—and when once I did an onstage conversation with Scorsese (one of the most humble and self-questioning and impressive people I’ve met), all we talked about was religion and the Greenian questions, much to his delight, I think.

I sometimes tell myself that all my writing is a feeble attempt to echo the vision of Terrence Malick, whose Days of Heaven, seen 33 years ago, remains the great, life-changing art-work of my time. Certainly I love the way that very accomplished professional philosopher and reader of everything from the Bible to Huck Finn was able to tell so straight a story, and to distill his many ideas into images that affect us in some post-verbal way, entirely sensually. As a writer I have to take the too many ideas swarming around my head and somehow distill them into character, story and music, so that the reader isn’t even consciously aware of their presence.

5)I was impressed to read: 8 years of work, 3000 pages, distilled to 250. How was the film connection you and Greene share cut down?

Greene visibly learned economy, structural subtlety and how to use dialogue as a form of action from his work in film (most notably in writing The Third Man, which he first wrote out as a novella, in order to distill it down into a screenplay). I was just reading his celebrated novel, The Heart of the Matter, from the late ‘40s. And if you compare it with The Quiet American, only a few years later, they might be written, stylistically, by different people (even though the themes and the signature touches are very much the same).

By the time of the later book, he was keeping scene-setting—even anguished reflection– to a minimum, learning the dramatic effectiveness of starting a story at the end and focusing in at certain critical moments just on two voices in the dark, the kind of cinematic close-up that showed his gift for intimacy and intensity to greatest advantage.

I haven’t worked enough in film, alas, to master all those skills, though I do think it’s a wonderful way to learn story-telling and dialogue (as Raymond Chandler also found). The attempt at compression you may see in this new book of mine really comes more from my 25 years of living in Japan, and my wish to temper my teeming Indian mind with a bit of Japanese austerity and quiet. In any Japanese room, as in a haiku or a brush-and-ink painting, the central space is as empty as possible, with perhaps just one object on display so as to train the visitor in attention and to move her to find everything she wants and needs in just a single object. One thing seen well can take one much deeper than a thousand things seen glancingly.

So in writing 3000 pages and distilling them down to 240, I was trying to honour some of the principles of my neighbors here in Japan. My instinct as a writer—a bad one—has always been to try to squeeze in as much as possible; I thought there might be a value in trying to leave things out.

6) One terrific passage from Chapter 7 of The Man Within My Head. “When I heard critics drone on about how Phuong in The Quiet American was “objectified,” or two- dimensional, the product of a man’s boyish fantasy, I wondered how they could speak so coldly about the mysteries of human kindness and affection. A companion is someone who refuses to take the things we fret about too seriously—starting with ourselves—even though she cares for us entirely. Phuong offers the unquiet Englishman exactly the sense of peace and acceptance he longs for—and cannot find—in church.” Could you expand on this?

I think—maybe Greene thought too—that many of us are far too ready to impose judgements, ideological filler and prejudices on everything we see, and so deny them their richness and ambiguity, while denying ourselves the chance to really engage with them. Whenever someone prattles on about how “sexist” or “racist” or “imperialist” or any “ist” Greene (or many another person from another age) is, I wonder if they’re just trying to avoid sincerely dealing with them, to put them into a box because a struggling, inconsistent, squawling realty is so much harder to contain and to describe. Greene, after all, works constantly to try to see his characters in terms much larger and more mysterious than their race, their colour or their gender. All his beings, Phuong not least, are souls at sea amidst the complexities of life, wavering (as we all do at times) between realism and romance.

I also felt that it would be easy, if you’ve never been to Asia, to assume that Phuong was a stereotype or a two-dimensional portrait of a certain kind of Asian woman, submissive, adaptable and sweet; having been with my Japanese wife for 25 years now, living in Japan, I can see that the way surface plays off depth, the importance of a role (which may have nothing to do with who you are), the relation of compliance to conquest are all much different from the way they are in the West, or, indeed, from the way I might have assumed when first I arrived on this side of the world. I feel, here in Japan—or in Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines—as if I’m moving through a world of Phuongs, and the fact that I can’t begin to understand them, and to see where the lines of innocence and calculation run in them, is a large part of a fascination of the place.

So I suppose I admire agnosticism and open-endedness in anything, and I hope to have learned a little about them from Greene. That’s wht I love Zadie Smith, of course: her Shakespearean gift for seeing every situation through the eyes of all the people in it.

7) Derek Walcott, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salmon Rushdie, Pankaj Mishra, yourself, there’s an extraordinary wave of postcolonial writers who have energised literature? The Empire Strikes Back with the Booker Prize going to colonials. I don’t want to excuse colonial sins, and I have significant respect and admiration for the alternative perspective and fierce intellect of sharper postcolonial theorists like Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. However, I think among a certain zeal of postcolonial academics there’s a relentless, reductive focus on ferreting out the bigotry of the past that lacks the same empathy it is so righteous about (even JM Coetzee has been raked over the coals on some university campuses!). Thoughts?

I think I probably just began to answer this, albeit inadvertently! I am a great admirer—and to some extent beneficiary—of post-colonial literature. As the only dark-skinned boy in all my classes in England, growing up, I was thrilled to be steeped in Beowulf and Chaucer and Shakespeare and Hardy; but when I came out into the world, in the early ‘80s, I was no less thrilled that its new realities were being given such invigorating voice by Rushdie, Ondaatje, Ishiguro, Tan and so many others. It was as if the stuffy old house of English letters—and the guest-house of the English Language—were suddenly having its doors and windows thrown open, to admit fresh smells, new spices, intriguing sounds, new histories and new ways of telling history.

And, of course, when I began writing about the world, I was writing in the hope (which is surely Naipaul’s hope and Rushdie’s hope) that when I wrote about India or England or Japan, I was writing not just as a typical Indian might, or as a typical person born and raised in England might, but as an ever-shifting mix of the two who didn’t fit into any of the traditional categories. Later, I wrote a lot, as you know, about post-colonialism as one deeply grateful for all the fresh air and new stories and combinations it continues to bring into our midst.

But I wouldn’t want to read Rushdie and neglect Greene or Hardy entirely, and I wouldn’t want to say or think that my kind of travel-writing was better than that of the imperialists of old; it’s great that we now have both and can set the two against each other and come up with new fusions (as Ondaatje does so majestically in works like The English Patient, which honour both the forms of Graham Greene and the new realities of Sikhs called Kip being the ones who fight for the British army and sometimes seem more English than their English masters do).

So I wouldn’t want post-colonialism itself to become its own dogma or imperialism, its own way of shutting the door on great writers of the past.

8 ) The Lady and the Monk and The Man Within My Head seem especially personall?

I think they only seem that way; I warned a lot of my friends that The Man Within My Head deliberately lacks a subtitle as a way of showing readers that it’s a hybrid, something that is designed to float somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. I’ve never liked the memoir form because I think we’re least reliable, least to be trusted, when we’re talking or writing about ourselves; it’s the subject on which we’re most inclined to be covert or deceiving or fictional. That’s why the great memoirs, for me—the ones that remake the form—are all presented to us as fiction (by Roth in The Facts, by Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival, by Coetzee in a whole series of books, by le Carre in The Perfect Spy, by Paul Theroux in My Other Life and The Secret History).

For a certain kind of person, especially one raised in traditional England, it’s easiest to be personal when writing about something else. My writing tends to be most personal, I’d say, when I’m writing on Cohen or Greene or the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, or Japan, or anything I passionately care about, not least my longtime sweetheart. But ask me to write about myself and I’ll be evasive and coy and probably find it hard to say anything interesting or true.

That’s part of the syndrome I’m interested in and try to explore in The Man Within My Head. Graham Greene wrote two memoirs and they are full of charming stories and colourful characters and childhood memories. But you put them down knowing less about him than when you began. Essentially, both are brilliant exercises in camoflage and subterfuge.

Yet give him a cover, by calling a work fiction, and he presents himself with a harrowing nakedness and vulnerability on the page, the very nakedness that moves readers like myself to feel we’re very close to him.

9) Appropriately, your next book is a 25-year follow up to The Lady and the Monk (what changes, and what never changes in the greater Kyoto region)?

Perhaps. But I may end up never writing it. I have more than 1,000 pages of notes accumulated over my many years of living in Japan, but sometimes, the more you know of a place or person, the less you’re interested in saying anything about it. The deepest relationships mock words, I sometimes feel, and underline their redundance.

So it was much easier to write about my Japanese sweetheart and the country that I love after one year of their acquaintance than after a quarter of a century. I’ll only persevere with that book if I can make its theme fresh and new to me, come up with a sense of discovery.

10) From The Man Within My Head? At 33. “By the time the Californian wildfire had reduced our house and everything in it to rubble, I had decided to make my sense of belonging truly internal and go to the most clarifying society I knew, Japan.” Still?

Still, and always. Interestingly, perhaps, I spent two or three years working on that single word “clarifying.” There are so many other words I could have used, and did use in the eight years I was working on my recent book. But finally, maybe last year, I decided on “clarifying,” so it’s my most up-to-date assessment of Japan and its place in my life.

Maybe a few years from now I’ll come up with something deeper.

11) How far is where you live in rural Nara from central Kyoto?

It’s ninety minutes away—by bus and then train and then second train and then third train: in other words, a safe distance for keeping the sense of wonder and excitement alive. A part of me is glad not to live in the city that moves me most, and not to burden and complicate it (and myself) with bills and laundromats and the small print of the daily. It’s still an event for me to go to Kyoto—as I do maybe every two or three weeks (and therefore pehaps ten times in a year). I still bring real excitement to the place and can’t take it for granted. And I bring curious eyes to it and a sense of occasion and register its changes a little, as perhaps I couldn’t do if I lived surrounded by it.

Perhaps it’s a little like the process whereby I never really wanted to meet Graham Greene. If I had met him, I’d have come away with a few sensory impressions, an anecdote or two, a tiny sense of fulfillment. But I’d probably have lost much more, by encountering only the urbane public man who was very skilled at keeping admirers at a distance. On the page, I feel, I’m getting his soul, or bits of it, not just his social persona. His suboconscious, what makes him special, and not the surface and persona that belong very much to a certain class and a certain age.

12) I love your illumination of Emerson’s Universal Soul in The Global Soul, and discourse on relentless global flux. “The temptation in the face of all this can be (as the great analyst of the modern condition, Graham Greene, saw) to try and lay anchor anywhere, even in a faith one doesn’t entirely believe, just so one will have a home and solid ground under one’s feet. To lack a centre, after all, may be to lack something essential to the state of being human; “to be rooted,” as Greene’s fellow admirer of Catholicism, Simone Weil, said, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Pico Iyer is rooted in a strong internal life

You put it perfectly here. The more movement we have in our lives, the more we need stillness, to put the movement in perspective, to make sense of all we’re going through. And the current age of distraction and fragmentation places a particular emphasis on clarity,  concentration and spaciousness I feel.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have access to many cultures have to work long and hard to make sure we know where we belong, internally, what guides and sustains us, who we are. Home, after all, is not the place where you sleep; it’s the place where you stand.

And clearly someone like myself, who has had a lot of movement in his life, comes to a place like Japan to learn rootedness, continuity and, as you perfectly say, the wisdom of the seasons, which are essentially a lesson on changelessness and change.

13) I am fond of the idea of “a counterbiography. It hovers in some dream space, the way Graham Greene does in my head.”

You note that Greene’s “unfortunate biographer” Norman Sherry was so possessed by his subject that he ended up as Greene “the figure of tormented self-doubt”.  How did you deal with self-doubt on this long project?

I embraced it. I thought self-doubt—a remorseless self-questioning and attempt at candor and refusal to settle for evasions—was one of the things I could most usefully try to learn from Greene. Not that I succeeded; but this is the challenge he throws at the reader—to look at himself as unsparingly as Greene looks at himself, and to put his conscience to the test, whether he’s committed to a belief or not.

My first book has a lot of confidence in it, and something of the brashness and the too easy assurance of a kid in his twenties taking on the world for the first time and passing judgments on it after a few minutes’ acquaintance. There’s a place for that, and for someone writing a long book in three months, in his twenties, on a leave from Time magazine, it was probably the best I could do. But I think there’s a benefit in another kind of writing as well, in which one takes oneself to task, doesn’t give oneself the benefit of the doubt and assumes one’s in a near-perfect state of ignorance. That’s what both Leonard Cohen and Graham Greene do, and maybe that’s a little of what I was aspiring towards in The Man Within My Head.

15) Phillip Roth is another favourite writer of yours. I see a possible Greenian apostle; for example, both write honestly and eloquently about succumbing to temptation?   Both thoughtfully mock conventional, simple morality.

Wonderfully said. Certainly Roth, especially in his troubled relations with women, resembles Greene’s literary godfather, Somerset Maugham. Of Human Bondage reads to me very much like early Roth, albeit translated to a much more uncensored, furious, ravening, post-war American voice.

And you’re absolutely right that both seem to hold, with glee and mischief and fury, that a too-simple morality can be as dangerous as amorality or even immorality. They realize that our deepest moral dilemmas can’t be solved on the page or in the head, and will only be resolved after we’ve probably gone a long way in the wrong direction.

And certainly there is no shortage of Greenian apostles: while writing my book, I came across at least seven other writers who had more or less abandoned their own lives in order to lead, or recreate, Greene’s, and they were male and female, British and American (Gloria Emerson, the fearless American war correspondent, wrote only one novel, and it’s called Loving Graham Greene; David Lodge dedicates an early novel to Greene, yet includes a parody of Greene in the same book; Paul Theroux saw Greene as a kind of father, and featured him in a novel; John Banville portrays Greene as a kind of demon, a treacherous liar, in his novel on the English spies of the 20th century, and Alan Judd depicts Greene as literally a devil, a devouring dark spirit who possesses a young English literary man in The Devil’s Own).

William Cash set aside his life to pursue Greene’s love life in The Third Woman, and Norman Sherry, Greene’s official biographer, seems more or less to fall in love with Greene’s American mistress, while also taking on Graham C. Greene, the writer’s nephew, as his literary agent for the project and managing to contract dysentery in the same tiny Mexican mountain village where Greene had contracred it thirty years before.

One of the questions animating my book was why and how Greene has this gift for possessing people, for getting under the skin and into their souls, in a way that perhaps more highly regarded contemporaries of his—George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh—do not. It’s an interesting fact that the most influential writers, in this way, are not always the greatest writers.

16) Some of my favourite lines from Video Night in Kathmandu follow. These views still hold? “That the country of my dreams is still Japan,”/Returned to Californa: “Homesick—not just for the gentleness and grace that I had found in many parts of Asia, but also, and more deeply, for the gentler self it had found in me.”/Purity “Lanterned nights in Kyoto so lovely that I almost held my breath for fear I might shatter the spell.”

Thank you. I took a lot of trouble over those lines because, unlike much in that speedy book, they really came from the depths of me. So they are the rare lines that I could happily live with 28 years later, now. They are just how I still feel—though by now I perhaps feel them so deeply that it might be hard for me to put words to them.

All the photos on this site, other than the one on the Welcome page, are taken by Pico Iyer.