Dr. Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party by Graham Greene. Simon and Schuster, 156 pp. $9.95.
From Graham Greene we have come to expect a sense of reality, often enough a shabby, sordid reality, but a strong image of the real world just the same. A sense of menace, of despair: Greene is — much to his regret — known as a Catholic novelist, and as much as any writer he conveys the image of a fallen world, one in which something has gone terribly wrong and where paradise is so far gone that no one even looks for a little pleasure anymore. His technical skills are enormous, and to this atmosphere of menace and despair he adds a tightly-knit plot, that of a thriller, or crime novel, or an adventure of international intrigue, though probably the heavy atmosphere is as responsible for his stories’ excitement as their plots. In the midst of this background his characters deal with meta-physical and theological questions, never in the abstract, but always with a direct bearing on their situation. All this seems an unlikely enough combination, but has produced some of the finest novels in contemporary fiction. Greene is a novelist — rare in the twentieth century — who satisfies as much with his storytelling as with his themes.
It is its failure to convey just this sense of reality that makes Dr. Fischer of Geneva a disappointment. Early readers of the book have sought excuses for Greene, most often saying he has turned from realistic fiction to try his hand at allegory, but such an interpretation seems to misread the second half of the book; characters who early in the story did seem the one-dimensional figures of allegory are eventually developed as human beings, with more than an allegorical significance. It is hard to understand why Greene has produced this small book, thin in more ways than just its number of pages. In one interview he said that at his age — seventy-six — he did not want to begin a book that might take some years to finish. Greene the man seems enough of a grim realist to feel that way, but it is hard to imagine that Greene the artist would publish an inferior work for such a reason.
The most troublesome scene occurs early in the novel. Dr. Fischer of Geneva is a wealthy man with a shadowy past and a menacing presence. He has surrounded himself with an odd collection of other wealthy people — toads, his daughter calls them — for whom he has thrown a long series of bizarre dinner parties; if his guests put up with his eccentricities in the course of the dinner they are rewarded with favors at the end. Fischer’s thesis — it also seems to be a theme of Greene’s novel — is that the wealthy are infested with such greed that they will endure any humiliation in order to increase their wealth. Fischer has chosen a likely group to humiliate, all people with noticeable deformities: one man is a hunchback, a high ranking army officer lacks courage, a movie actor has advanced his career on good looks instead of talent . . . Fischer’s thesis may, for all I know, be true, but the early scene in which it is embodied is unconvincing, perhaps because we don’t know more about the guests; they sit around choking down cold porridge and suffering Dr. Fischer’s insults in order to receive in the end such gifts as an eighteen-karat-gold watch. It does seem a scene of allegory, the mad doctor and his deformed suffering subjects, and a theological message is added as well: Dr. Fischer is a dark God who grants us favors only at the cost of our humiliation, who eggs us on with snatches of happiness only in order to degrade us. He is a greedy God, as greedy as his creatures: he is greedy for our humiliation.
The one character at the party who skips the porridge and receives no favor, is not wealthy and is not humiliated, is the novel’s narrator, Alfred Jones. He is one of Greene’s shabby, lonely protagonists, who translates letters for a large firm in Geneva and, because of a deformity of his own — he lost a hand in the London blitz — has given up on life. Early in the novel, by chance, he meets Dr. Fischer’s daughter, a woman young enough to be his own daughter, and out of a sense of pity, and loneliness, and because they are kindred spirits, they marry, and are happy for a time. It is through Anna-Luise Fischer that Jones hears the story of Dr. Fischer’s early life, begins to discover how he has become the man he is. Thus also the novel moves away from allegory: we begin to perceive a human face behind what had seemed an embodiment of pure evil.
It would be unfair to deal in further detail with the events of the story, because the small surprises of plot are among the most enjoyable features of Greene’s fiction, but his theme would seem a bleak one at best. The life of Jones with Anna-Luise in an odd way parallels Dr. Fischer’s early life, and Jones comes to see why Fischer is a man who hates and despises, desires to humiliate. The story becomes less an allegory about pure evil than a narrative which identifies the core of evil in us all. What Greene seems to be saying is that good fortune in this life-success, or the acquisition of wealth, or a lucky love affair — is always a curse; the happiness you find is often taken away, and in any case it gives you a taste for more happiness, and renders you subject to further humiliation. One of the most puzzling phrases, endlessly interpreted, from the Christian gospel is that of Jesus, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”; Greene seems to be saying that the words are literally true, that it is only those who have little and hope for less that are really blessed. Better to be Jones before he met Anna-Luise, who in his bleak life found little to look forward to, than to be the man who by the end of the novel has learned to hate.
It is an idea, and a theme, which I cannot much agree with — I prefer that part of the gospel which emphasizes life’s abundance — but it is the fruit of a far vaster experience than mine, and it has been embodied in some wonderful works of art. I do not think that Dr. Fischer of Geneva is among the more successful of these works, though I hardly think Greene’s powers are failing; his two most recent novels, The Honorary Consul and The Human Factor, are among his best. To readers unfamiliar with Greene’s work, I cannot recommend Dr. Fischer of Geneva (Greene fans, of course, want to read it all), but I can without qualification recommend his major works — The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, the Collected Stories; my list goes on and on.