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Cautionary Tale

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party

by Graham Greene
Simon and Schuster, 156 pp., $9.95

Graham Greene’s new novel must certainly be the most curious he has ever written. In it he has abandoned, as if impatient with the impedimenta of fictional realism, that density of specification which made his agonized concern with trapped and victimized humanity so moving in his best work—moving even when we sometimes felt that we (and his characters) were being dealt a hand with marked cards. Signs of a fatigued, self-parodic, even farcical handling of familiar materials had appeared earlier in some of the novels beginning with Our Man in Havana (1958); but his most recent fiction—The Honorary Consul (1973) and The Human Factor (1978)—reassured his admirers that the old mastery of setting and suspense, and the capacity for sympathy, were still intact. To say that they do not touch greatness (as do Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory) is not to belittle their solid achievement. By contrast, Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party is hardly a novel at all but rather a cautionary tale—almost an allegory—dealing in the most schematic fashion with the deadly sins of greed, pride, and despair.

The narrator is one of those tired, seedy, middle-aged Englishmen that Greene has so often used as a protagonist. Having lost his left hand and both parents in the London blitz and his first wife in childbirth, Alfred Jones, now in his fifties, leads an isolated, dispirited existence in Switzerland, where he ekes out his meager pension and inheritance by working as a translator of business letters in a giant, glassy chocolate factory in Vevey. We are not told why a man of his acerbic temperament and intelligence was reduced to taking such a job. During a lunch-break Jones meets a beautiful woman thirty years younger than himself: Anna-Luise Fischer, the neglected daughter of Doctor Fischer of Geneva, who has made millions through his invention of a toothpaste called Dentophil Bouquet; Doctor Fischer has also acquired a certain notoriety because of his parties. Overlooking Jones’s mutilation, comparative poverty, and age, the motherless Anna-Luise, a girl as kind and loving as she is beautiful, moves out of her father’s mansion and into Jones’s tiny flat. Much in love, they decide to get married, and Jones feels an obligation to inform Doctor Fischer, who has apparently failed even to notice his daughter’s absence from home.

After an ominous build-up (Anna-Luise warns her lover to be careful, saying that her father is “hell”), Jones’s first visit is abortive. Thwarted by an insolent manservant, he does not see the Doctor: instead, he encounters, while waiting, one of the “Toads” (Anna-Luise’s English for “toadies”) who attend the famous parties—in this case an elderly, blue-haired American widow, Mrs. Montgomery, who speaks unctuously of the “dear man.” When Jones does at last meet his prospective father-in-law, he is treated with contemptuous indifference but asked a curious question about porridge—on the Doctor’s mistaken assumption that porridge is a Welsh dish which Jones, with his Welsh name, must know something about. Shortly thereafter Jones receives a printed invitation to one of the Doctor’s parties and decides to attend, despite the pleadings and renewed warnings of Anna-Luise, who has not been invited. Meanwhile, we learn that Doctor Fischer’s “infernal pride” and jealousy caused Anna-Luise’s mother, whom he accused of having a lover, to pine away and die and that since then he has taken pleasure only in humiliating the Toads who cluster round him.

At the party we meet the assembled Toads (all of them rich and greedy) and quickly learn the significance of the porridge: it is Doctor Fischer’s “little joke” to force his guests to eat cold porridge while he guzzles caviar. If they refuse to eat the stuff—and then to have seconds!—they won’t receive the extravagantly expensive presents that he regularly hands out to those who submit; in this instance the presents are eighteen-carat gold quartz watches with computers for the men and an emerald and diamond set for Mrs. Montgomery, the only female Toad. Jones, who declines the porridge, has a discussion with his host about the greediness of God.

Now God—or Whoever—deals Jones a terrible blow: Anna-Luise dies after a skiing accident, an event hinted at from early in the novel. In his despair, Jones attempts suicide by whiskey and aspirin and fails. There is a final, climactic party at Doctor Fischer’s—a hellish mid-winter party, with extravagant food and wine this time but staged outdoors on the snow-covered lawn; the Toads and the newly widowed Jones are kept warm by huge bonfires that turn the snow to slush underfoot. The presents are party crackers which the guests must draw from a barrel of bran; five of the six crackers contain checks for two million francs apiece, while the sixth contains a small charge of explosive, probably lethal to the person who pulls the cracker. How powerful is the greed of the rich—will they risk death for two million francs that none of them really needs? Will Jones, who is still hungry for death, participate?

Doctor Fischer seems to me a work of fatally mixed intentions. I would feel easier about the book if it were possible to take it simply as Greene’s little experiment with religious allegory, a fable in which questions of verisimilitude are beside the point. Certainly its emblematic aspects are heavily underlined. Except for the narrator (a tattered hand-me-down), the characters are like a set of figures from a crude sixteenth-century woodcut illustrating a morality play. In the center is Doctor Fischer, wreathed in sulphurous smoke. From the opening line of the novel, when Jones says, “I used to detest Doctor Fischer more than any other man I have known,” the reader is invited to see the Doctor as diabolic in his attributes, though Jones stops short of making an absolute identification with Satan.

He wants you to join the Toads,” [says Anna-Luise, trying to dissuade Jones from attending the first party].

But I’ve got nothing against the Toads. Are they really as bad as you say?”

They weren’t always Toads, I suppose. He’s corrupted all of them.”

A man can only be corrupted if he’s corruptible.”

And how do you know you aren’t?”

I don’t. Perhaps it’s a good thing to find out.”

So you’ll let him take you into a high place and show you all the kingdoms of the world.”

I’m not Christ, and he’s not Satan, and I thought we’d agreed he was God Almighty, although I suppose to the damned God Almighty looks very like Satan.”

Oh, all right,” she said, “go and be damned.”

Like the fallen Lucifer, Doctor Fischer is as despairing as he is evil. He is persuaded that God is greedy:

…the believers and the sentimentalists say that he is greedy for our love [he tells Jones]. I prefer to think that, judging from the world he is supposed to have made, he can only be greedy for our humiliation, and that greed how could he ever exhaust? It’s bottomless. The world grows more and more miserable while he twists the endless screw…. A cancer of the rectum, a streaming cold, incontinence…”

And like the Devil he derives a perverse pleasure from “playing God” by inflicting humiliation upon others.

Surrounding the fiendish Doctor are the Toads, arranged in fixed attitudes: the widow fingering her jewels, the tax consultant with his twitching eyelid, the Swiss general (“Divisionnaire”) who has never fired a shot, the lawyer bent double as if looking for money on the pavement, the film actor who is perpetually drunk. Collectively, they represent the insatiable greed of the rich and as such are fit subjects for the sadistic jokes and banter of their host. Even their dialogue is collective: a chorus of sycophancy that conceals self-contempt and rage.

The allegorical elements seem obvious: Pride, Avarice, and Despair, supported by Anger and Gluttony, march across the pages, opposed by Love and Innocence and, at the very end, by Pity, which is capable of enfolding even the detestable Doctor. Readers will catch many echoes of the quasi-Jansenist, quasi-Manichaean version of Catholicism that has animated some of Greene’s finest work. But do these elements add up to a coherently embodied truth or message? Here I must admit bafflement.

By making Jones a nonbeliever (though wistful for belief), is Graham Greene attempting a negative or back-door approach to Christianity? Is he suggesting that the absence of faith in God renders a merely earthly love hopelessly vulnerable to an accident like Anna-Luise’s? Jones’s despair at her loss is so final, so irremediable, that even the prospect of his own death loses its point. Is Jones, in his despair, as damned as Doctor Fischer is in his? And suffering (always a loaded issue with Greene)—is suffering for others necessary for the development of a soul? (“I doubt if small children have souls any more than dogs”—says Jones. “Small children don’t suffer, or dogs, except for themselves.”) Ordinarily I would be happy to leave such matters to an exegist or apologist more knowledgeable than I in the subtleties of the Faith, but the schematic arrangement of Doctor Fischer, together with the thinness of its more strictly novelistic substance, forces these thematic considerations into the open.

But of course Greene wants the book to be read as a novel as well, wants the reader to participate in—not merely register—the love between Jones and Anna-Luise and the cruelty of her death; evidently he wants us to take these things as “seriously,” in a novelistic sense, as we would in a sentimental novel like A Farewell to Arms. The scene in which Jones sits at a window table in a hotel restaurant, impatiently waiting for Anna-Luise to return from the slopes, is the most memorable in the novel—far more impressive than the luridly lit party scenes; it reminds us what Greene can do when he imagines his way fully into an episode and respects its inner logic, so to speak.

The effectiveness of the writing here makes all the more puzzling the perfunctoriness of the treatment elsewhere, especially with regard to the characterization of Anna-Luise. Greene seems to be relying on a kind of emotional shorthand: postulate a young woman of perfect beauty, goodness, and tenderness; kill her off abruptly, and then let her lover voice his grief in angry or laconic phrases (“For God’s sake go and piss off,” he says to an apologetic English bystander at the accident). Alas, the shorthand doesn’t work. Anna-Luise amounts to little more than an adolescent daydream of the all-gratifying female, a lovely doll whose destruction seems as gratuitous as Jones’s much-vaunted despair seems hollow.

In both its aspects I found Doctor Fischer about as nourishing as a communion wafer to a nonbeliever. Devoted followers of Greene will probably want to read it; when they have finished, they may well want to reread one of the books that place him in the very top rank of English novelists of the last half-century.

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