Sunday, August 14, 2011

Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene

I think I used to detest Doctor Fischer more than any other man I have known just as I loved his daughter more than any other woman. What a strange thing that she and I ever came to meet, leave alone to marry.

Both James Wood and Gabriel Josipovici have invoked Graham Greene as a sort of bogeyman of realism, terrorizing the modern consciousness with his inert prose. Waugh accused him of lacking a "specifically literary style at all." It is true that Greene is no great experimentalist, but I have always thought these charges were trumped up, and inadequately appreciative of some of the more startling bits of The Power and the Glory or The Heart of the Matter, among others. But Greene put out a lot of work in his life, and I think it might be fair to say that much of it is inconsistent, and it may be accurate even to say that some of it is lazy.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party is a remarkably weak Greene novel, mostly because it relies, crutchlike, on a rather brilliant premise. The protagonist, Alf Jones, marries a wonderful woman many years his junior, and comes to find out that her father, Doctor Fischer, is a wealthy psychopath who likes to throw parties where he humiliates a set of cronies. These cronies--his daughter, Anna-Luise, calls them the Toads--put up with the Doctor's savagery because at the end of each party they receive a ridiculously extravagant present. Fischer channels all of his genius until these humiliations:

"Of course you don't know what Mr. Kips looks like."

"I do. I saw him when I tried to see your father the first time."

"Then you know he's bent almost double. Something wrong with his spine."

"Yes. I thought he looked like the number seven."

"He hired a well-known writer for children and a very good cartoonist and between them they produced a kind of strip-cartoon book called The Adventures of Mr. Kips in Search of a Dollar. He gave me an advance copy. I didn't know there was a real Mr. Kips and I found the book very funny and very cruel. Mr. Kips in the book was always bent double and always seeing coins people had dropped on the pavement... The book--I suppose most children are cruel--became a popular success. There were many reprints."

And yet, Mr. Kips comes faithfully to every one of Doctor Fischer's party, in the promise of receiving an eighteen-karat gold lighter or a piece of expensive jewelry. Doctor Fischer's wealth gives him great power, and Greene's narrator is always pausing to note that Fischer is, in his own way, like God. In what should be a really striking moment, Jones is waiting for his wife at a ski lodge when he discovers that she has been in an accident. The waiter at the lodge, not knowing what has happened, is angry at Jones for reserving and abandoning his table:

The waiter was more surly than ever. He told me, "You reserved this table for lunch. I have had to turn away customers.

"There's one customer you'll never see again," I told him back, and I threw a fifty-centime piece on the table which fell on the floor. Then I waited by the door to see if he would pick it up. He did and I felt ashamed. But if it had been in my power I would have revenged myself for what had happened on all the world--like Doctor Fischer, I thought, just like Doctor Fischer. I heard the scream of the ambulance and I returned to the ski lift.

Yes, there is a nice symmetry here when Jones--having just parted the side of his dying wife!--waits to see if the waiter will endure the humiliation that Jones, in his despair, wants to inflict. But must we have it explained to us so plainly? Do we need awkward little bon mots like these?:

"He didn't invite your to a party?"


"Thank God for that."

"Thank Doctor Fischer," I said, "or is it the same thing?"

Many of the book's flaws are redeemed by the last scene, in which Doctor Fischer throws one last party. Each guest gets to pick out a Christmas cracker, all of which save one contain a check for two million francs. The last contains a bomb. Fischer's cynicism tells him that his guests will endure the enormous personal risk for the money, and he is right, except in the case of Jones, who, ravaged by his wife's death, seeks out the cracker with the bomb in it.

This is rich stuff, but it is only a small part of a short book that seems wrought with too little care. The most interesting part about it may be the way that it ends, on a note that is uncharacteristic in that it is both rather upbeat and insistently agnostic:

Evil was as dead as a dog, and why should goodness have more immortality than evil? There was no longer any reason to follow Anna-Luise if it was only into nothingness. As long as I lived, I could at least remember her. I had two snapshots of her and a note in her hand written to make an appointment before we lived together; there was the chair which she used to sit in, and the kitchen where she had jangled the plates before we bought the machine. All those were like the relics of bone they keep in Roman Catholic churches. Once as I boiled myself an egg for my supper, I heard myself repeating a line which I had heard spoken by a priest at the midnight Mass at Saint Maurice: "As often as your do these things you shall do them in memory of me." Death was no longer an answer--it was an irrelevance.

Doctor Fischer was one of Greene's final novels. Are these words an insight into a man whose long attachment to his faith had waned, or lost power, for whom death and what comes after had become an irrelevance? And is it possible that the weakness of the novel is not unrelated?

Perhaps not. More likely it is Greene's long tendency to slip into pulpiness that, in his best works, is overcrowded by his talents. Greene himself made the distinction between his more literary works and "entertainments," though it is unclear which Doctor Fischer is meant to be. If you're looking for a masterpiece lurking in Greene's minor works, though, I'd suggest skipping Doctor Fischer and going for A Burnt-Out Case.


Christopher said...

Power and the Glory >
Brighton Rock >
A Burnt-Out Case >
The Heart of the Matter >
Travels with My Aunt >
The End of the Affair >
Our Man in Havana >
Doctor Fischer of Geneva >
The Comedians

Brent Waggoner said...

This review sums up almost exactly my thoughts. It's such a great premise and I feel like Greene doesn't really know what to do with it. As far as minor Greene masterpieces, you really should check out Monsignour Quixote. It's a little heavy-handed at points, but it has some of Greene's most affecting writing and really tackles his late-life misgivings about faith head on.

Brent Waggoner said...

Oh, and you didn't include the collected stories in your list.

Christopher said...

Yeah, that's kind of hard to rate as a whole. It was very satisfying, but it ranges from really amazing to really weak.