Graham Greene Greene, Graham (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Miriam Allott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 lamented for lost by James in the 1890s, it is easy to see that besides their capturing narrative verve the two novelists possess in common, on the one hand, an entirely individual tone of voice which makes it impossible to mistake their work for anyone else's (including that of even the best of their imitators and parodists) and, on the other, an uncanny, sensitised-plate responsiveness to the actualities of the world they inhabit, to how it looks and feels as they walk its streets, to the driving day-to-day preoccupations of its harrassed inhabitants as they make their way, solitary in crowds as often as not, through the discomforting maze of their life and times. (pp. 11-12)

In Greene the dual gifts promote the creation of an imaginative universe which is at once sharply individual ('Greeneland') and yet unquestionably of this time and of this place, with the definition of the 'time' and the 'place' informed by an acute and active social, political and religious sense. In creating this universe, Greene's individual beliefs and attitudes, his private 'imagination of disaster', exact allegiances, release insights and heighten the drama of his characters' inner life in a way resembling as much as anything the pressures exerted in their novels by George Eliot's devout scepticism or—perhaps more clearly apparent to the general reader—Conrad's pessimism and Hardy's 'crass casualty'…. The uncanny topicality which I referred to just now has to do in Greene's case with the diagnostic skills which these intellectual and emotional commitments remarkably serve to heighten, sometimes to the point where the work appears to forecast with alarming clairvoyance, rather than report with dazzling up-to-the-minute flair, matters which are to become a familiar part of everyday consciousness. Painfully, one has to recognise, time has again and again proved him right. (p. 12)

[The Human Factor] is about the way we live now. It is no coincidence—on the contrary it is a characteristically funny and sad piece of irony, lightly but firmly situated in the narrative structure—that Trollope's The Way We Live Now is read by the head of the Foreign Office, an elderly spy working for Communist Russia, and the double agent Maurice Castle…. He tries to read it in the garish hotel, one of the steps in his escape route to what Mr Halliday calls 'home', but finds that 'it was not a book which could distract him from the way we lived now'. Nor does it calm the Foreign Office man Sir John Hargreaves, who usually finds Trollope reassuring: 'the sense of a calm Victorian world, where good was good and bad was bad and one could distinguish clearly between them'. Trollope's Melmotte, 'the swindler as his fellow-member in the House judged him', confuses the issue by arousing pity—'Poor devil, he thought, one has to grant him courage'—and disturbingly recalls the harmless and still more pitiable Davis, whom Hargreaves has permitted himself to label, too readily, 'the traitor' and has allowed to be 'eliminated' by his colleague Doctor Percival, who poisons him in efficient up-to-date style…. The alarming frisson generated by this portent of everyday things to come is reinforced by 'Uncle Remus', the projected nuclear pact between Britain, South Africa and America designed to preserve Western mineral interests (and consequently apartheid along with them), and which, in a matter of months after the book's publication, is only too easily seen to have its bearing on the politics behind recent events in Zaire. These, and not the familiar Le Carré-Deighton spy-story components (which belong to an already familiar literary tradition, helped on long ago by Greene's own The Confidential Agent and The Ministry of Fear of 1939 and 1943), are to The Human Factor what the blatent...

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Michael Mewshaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 man's weakness, expecting greed of everyone, he systematically creates conditions which are bound to expose people at their worst….

Because of its brevity, there is at times something a bit schematic about Doctor Fischer of Geneva and, no doubt, many will read into it much that comes from a knowledge of Greene's previous books. But the novella stands well on its own. The characters, even minor ones, have a palpable reality and the prose often takes on the compression and evocative power of poetry….

Michael Mewshaw, "Multiple Greeds," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2558, March 28, 1980, p. 477.

Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 restlessness of an actor too often type-cast, here decided that, come what might, he wanted to do something totally different.

The result is a bitter little parable about the subservience of the rich to riches; about the despair that 'deepens so much every day one lives, that death in the end seems to lose its point'; about the ephemerality of happiness; and about the way in which a man may finally come to despise himself so much that life becomes intolerable for him. Through this parable shines not merely the incorruptible stoicism of Alfred but the incorruptible stoicism of his creator.

Francis King, "Despairing," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 244, No. 7916, March 29, 1980, p. 24.

Jonathan Penner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Romano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,...

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Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Quentin Crisp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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