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…

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