Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back on the Shelf

Back on the Shelf


Exhaustingly hot days can be just as good as cold snowy ones to justify lolling quietly on the sofa on a weekday afternoon, thinking about what books to read, what new ones to buy, and, yes, which ones to weed out to make way for the new. I have to force myself to do this every now and then or life would be unlivable in my small house, and my husband and I don’t want to go the way of the Collins brothers.

            The bookshelf that got my attention this afternoon is the one to my immediate left, behind my desk, where I keep books on writing. I’m something of a junkie for these, and keep all of them no matter how slight or trivial. This makes it hard to find something to cull, but it does make for an enjoyable half hour while I poke among old friends and rediscover the pleasures of a particularly good but forgotten writer.

            Stephen King’s book always leaps out at me, and I enjoy leafing through it. But next to it sits an old standby that I like for many reasons. Technique in Fiction by Robie Macauley and George Lanning is a quiet, thoughtful work that guides the writer through all the stages of writing including the most mysterious one, the conception of a story. Lots of writers do this in their how-to books, some well and many less well. But what I like especially about Robie’s book (I use his first name because I had the good fortune to meet him a few times, including when he visited a class I taught in Boston) is the tone. He brings to this book his many years of experience as an editor with Houghton Mifflin but also he brings his own character and personality. He is thoughtful, precise, firm in his opinions but also equally clear why he has them.

            Too many books in this category are written with a sense of breathlessness, a chase headlong to the finish, to produce the perfect book, the absolutely best, rip-roarin’ mystery anyone ever wrote. They are all passion and opinion and way too much of the author and not nearly enough of other writers who have left us exceptional work.

This leads to another reason I still admire this book and return to it often. Robie was extremely well read, and this is evident on every page in every example. He puts John Updike and Alberto Moravia on the same page (literally) in discussing setting, place and milieu. He moves gracefully from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ann Beattie. We pass through Russian literature and the Norse sagas, and consider the views of other critics—E. M. Forster, Chekhov, and Madison Smartt Bell, among others.

The last reason I’ll give will definitely seem quirky to some. This is that each chapter ends with footnotes. I love footnotes. I love the tidiness of them, references all arranged in a row, numbered and neat, the listing of publishers I may not know, the promise that each idea is tied to reality and can be found once again in another form in another book. I love the orderliness of footnotes, particularly coming after a discussion of the disorderliness of characters and their behavior. For me a footnote demonstrates the writer’s implicit regard for the reader, as well as the care the writer has taken in his own work. And I love the promise in each note that there is more and here is where you’ll find it.

All of this derails my afternoon of good intentions. I will read a few more pages, enjoy the voice of quiet authority and erudition, and put the book back on the shelf one more time. Then I’ll go find something else to do while the sun is too hot and the humidity too high to hear the call from the garden.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva

Graham Greene’s Doctor Fischer of Geneva; or, The Bomb Party (1980)


Graham Greene is one of those writers who tend to be pigeonholed as this or that type of writer because it makes things easier for the reader or critic. In Greene’s case, two of the categories I have come across are Catholic writer or popular writer with political themes. Both of these descriptions are true in a literal sense. Greene converted to Catholicism when he fell in love with the woman who would later become his wife, and his novels certainly have political themes. But these categories don’t interest me. What grabs me is the way Greene tells a story.

            The trend right now is to stories that are more and more extreme—more violence, more murders, more outrageous behaviors. Writers who work to develop interesting characters with some depth are urged to abruptly toss in a serial killer, an assault or rape, or something worse. The story lurches forward. This is not true of all writers working today, but of enough so that I found myself struck by the differences when I picked up one of Greene’s lesser works, Doctor Fischer of Geneva; or, The Bomb Party, which appeared in 1980.

            Doctor Fischer is a retired millionaire living in Geneva with his daughter, who despises him. His wife is dead and she holds him responsible. She falls in love with the narrator, Alfred Jones, a man in his fifties who lost his hand during the Blitz and now works as a translator for a chocolate company in Switzerland. The story revolves around the dinner parties Dr. Fischer gives, to which he invites only his select group of so-called friends.  His daughter calls the friends toads, an apt error for toadies. The rules of the dinner party are that the guests must tolerate his insults and humiliations in order to receive a gift at the end. These guests are not poor, but they will endure anything to add to their wealth. This is one of Greene’s themes—about the level of corruption among those who already have everything and the true nature of violence, the psychological damage it does to the human spirit that is greater than physical harm to the body.  Evil is intentional but also pathetic. There are no murders, although Alfred’s young wife dies in a skiing accident, but the cruelty is so intense that nothing more is needed. The story holds the reader, as we watch the simple, subtle ways Greene removes layer upon layer of self-deception and the power of the bully who is himself miserable.

            As I finished the novel and laid the book on the stack to be returned to the library I could still see each dinner scene vividly. This is what I look for in crime fiction or thrillers or whatever we call them—a character whose intent in this world drives the story, is the story, and remains alive and riveting long after the book is finished.

            Graham Greene is admired for many things in his fiction, but I most admire him for never pulling any punches—he sees his characters as they truly are through to the bitter end, and he never comes up with a happy ending, nor a gratuitously violent or dark one. The ending is true to the character.