Greene, Graham (Vol. 18)
Greene, Graham 1904–
A British novelist, short story writer, editor, children's author, essayist, and playwright, Greene is highly respected and widely read. His literary world is one of paradox and seediness where the sinner is often the saint, the idealist a destructive agent, and evil everywhere, while innocence is suspect. Greene's Catholicism figures prominently in his fiction, providing him with a system of concepts, situations, and symbols that he uses to dramatize human nature. (See also, Graham Greene Criticism and volumes 1, 3, 6, 9, 14 and 125.)
Graham Greene has been writing novels for half a century. His first novel, The Man Within, appeared in 1929, his … twentieth, The Human Factor, was published earlier this year. And as one reflects upon the impressive series of novels and stories which begin in pre-war England, travel during the next decades through areas of darkness over the world from Mexico and Africa to Haiti, Vietnam and Argentina, and finally return to the England of the 1970s, setting forward new intimations of trouble for the fragile, but still somehow surviving values of human love and pity, it seems extraordinary not to have seen earlier how arresting a product of the man and the moment this achievement really is….
Discussion frequently modulates into engagement with the hugely paradoxical question of his enormous success. No really good or serious writer, it has at times been felt, could possibly be as popular as that. (p. 9)
The prolonged co-existence of this popular interest with serious literary and scholarly attention, and the range and extent of both, must be regarded as something of a phenomenon…. Our last 'popular-and-serious' writer, it is said sufficiently often, was Dickens, who called out a response from a vast audience representing pretty well every area of the early Victorian and mid-Victorian reading public. If we set Greene beside Dickens for a moment, as a novelist reviving the breadth of appeal...
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[With] Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party, Greene's publishers have reopened an irrelevant issue by labelling this tautly written novella a 'black entertainment', but dealing as it does with despair, loneliness, suicide, death, and the paradoxes of religious belief, Doctor Fischer of Geneva could also serve as a microcosm of the themes which have infused Greene's fiction for half a century….
Doctor Fischer is capable of only a single emotion; he despises people and, with a maniacal will to power, he wants to find out whether there is any limit to human greed. His dinner parties are, then, little more than laboratory experiments during which he eviscerates his guests, stripping away all their pretentions to dignity….
As the Doctor admits, he, too, is avaricious. But his greed is of a different order; it is more like God's. Fischer doesn't so much want to create human beings as to debase them to the level of automatons or Pavlov's dogs….
In Greene's novels the dogmatist, the moral absolutist, is always a dangerous man, sometimes a deadly one. Usually, he is like the Lieutenant in The Power and the Glory or Pyle in The Quiet American, someone blindly committed to a cause which brings pain to the people he wants to help. In contrast, Doctor Fischer has no intention of helping anybody, but he is still a moralist of sorts, an inverted one. Acting out of rage at...
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A refined form of Russian roulette provides both the climax and the subtitle of Graham Greene's [Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party]—which, even in these days of publishers' short measures, must be described as a novella, rather than a novel. Dr. Fischer, an unloved and unloving Swiss who has made millions by inventing a toothpaste, gives a Bomb Party (his phrase) for the rich hangers-on whom his now dead daughter used to call his 'Toads' (toadies)….
Among the Toadies—who include an international lawyer, an alcoholic film-star, and a tax-adviser—is a typical Graham Greene middle-aged, déclassé failure, called Alfred Jones….
Alfred falls in love with Fischer's only daughter, Anna-Luise; and the account of their love-affair, before it is abruptly terminated by Anna-Luise's death in the accident, shows Mr Greene at his masterly best. As every novelist knows, happiness is, of all emotions, the hardest to convey; but Mr Green conveys it perfectly, with no sentimentality, even if with that poignant sense—a perpetual shadow of foreboding cast by the summer sun—that 'this is too good to last'….
This is an intensely interesting but hardly major work in the Greene canon. When writers grow old, become world-famous and know that their achievement is secure, it is not unusual for them to indulge in what is, in effect, a game of creative Russian roulette…. Mr Greene, with the...
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Love, greed and God: these are the subjects of Graham Greene's [Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party]. The first and the last of these his readers have come to expect. But it is greed that is here the centerpiece, and that gives this book its strangeness….
The alternate titles have a comic ring, and much of the novel is lightly told. Fischer and the Toads are grotesques of the sort that we accept only in comedy. The love story of Jones and Anna-Luise, by contrast, asks to be taken seriously; it comes from a different fictional world, where people matter and wounds really hurt. The attempt to make warp and woof of these two fictional worlds, each with its own conventions, each demanding to be seen as whole, doesn't work. Greene weaves no density of texture. His several strands lead on and on with an effortlessness that becomes peculiar, as though across an emptiness more pure than the nature we know will bear.
The novel's unity is not helped, either, by ponderous comparisons of Fischer (a name that asks too loudly to be read as Christian symbol) to God and to Satan, nor by ingenious, irrelevant speculation on the nature of the soul. Nor is it helped by subplots that spring up only to vanish inconsequentially. For instance, Jones is asked to translated (into Turkish) a secret letter than has to do with international military sales. He does—and we never hear a word more about it. In such places the novel...
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[Maybe] it's necessary to have read … Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party, to see, once and for all, the full strangeness of Greene on sin. Far from hating evil with that good clean hatred one feels it deserves, Graham Greene contrives to honor it by installing it at the center of every interesting question about human beings and their little lives. He can't endorse evil, and wouldn't if he could—that is, he can't say bad is good—but he gives it the place of honor at his table, literally, in Doctor Fischer: this despite Greene's keen social conscience, immense political awareness, and broad international experience in these frightful times of ours. (p. 30)
Fischer himself, in his glittering palace on the lake, with his lofty and bitter metaphysics and epicurean, black-tie cruelty, is a lovely improbability; he is an artifice that, most of the way through this short book, makes no claim to resembling anything one could find in nature. He is posited for the sake of argument, and posited delightfully: this is decidedly one of those works Greene himself calls his "entertainments." His suavity and panache bring to mind George Orwell's remark about Greene: "He appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class night club…." A useful insight, but Orwell was mistaken in seeing all of Graham...
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Graham Greene's [Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party] 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….
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...
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Doctor Fischer is not only a short novel, but an unsettingly spare one. I doubt if there is a detail in it, from lines of dialogue to what characters order for lunch, that does not contribute to the book's onrush to its final, and grim, moral point. (p. 375)
C. S. Lewis observed in Perelandra that truly Satanic evil is not romantic, black-caped, and thrillingly dark, but rather moronically, cruelly mindless and petty. And there is certainly a strong admixture of this kind of diabolism in the mysterious Doctor Fischer. But there is something else. His "experiments," godlike in their moral autonomy, are like the tests of a vengeful Jehovah eager to see, not who might be saved, but whom he can damn. At least since Brighton Rock Greene, good Gnostic that he is, has insisted that blasphemy and despair are at least second best to love and hope. It is the Laodiceans [in this novel], from Ida Arnold to the Toads, who are really lost….
Jones is a failure (Greene has always been obsessed with failure) and, in surviving his wife, a betrayer (Greene has always been obsessed with betrayal). But because he is those things he is also the storyteller of Doctor Fischer of Geneva, and his bitter voice is like a reluctant blessing on our common burden of charity.
To compare great things with great, Greene's last three novels—The Honorary Consul, The Human Factor, and...
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Somebody once told me that Les Liaisons Dangereuses was the greatest novel in the world. This opinion amazed me. I thought the hero of that book ludicrously improbable. He seemed to think of evil as something for the long winter evenings; for him, gratuitously ruining the lives of others was a hobby. This same flaw lies at the heart of Graham Greene's [Dr. Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party]. Perhaps we should think of it not as a novel but as an allegory—a nice word, which if it does not wholly explain at least excuses a great deal. Though the characters have ordinary names and do ordinary—indeed humdrum—jobs, and though they live in towns the names of which we have heard, they are not so much people as personifications of contrasting attributes in human nature. Dr. Fischer is not just spiteful; he is Wickedness itself. His daughter is not merely good; she is Virtue.
The book is cold. For this reason, I enjoyed it less than other stories by the same author. At the same time I was aware that we ought to find it in our souls to be glad of this change in Mr. Greene's way of writing. Though the narrator within this tale does not subscribe to any organized religion, and the Almighty plays a less active part in this drama than elsewhere in Mr. Greene's work, the boldness and the baldness of its style bring us ever nearer to the final and most direct statement of the author's moral philosophy…. Mr. Greene never...
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