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.