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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.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2159
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 hideousnesses of Haiti and Vietnam are to The Comedians and The Quiet American. They form part of how things are carried on now. (pp. 13-14)
But within this dehumanised public and political world are seen the outlines of another, private, world which is obedient to a different order of being. The 'human factor' is found in Maurice's love for his wife Sarah, her child Sam, whose natural father is dead, and their friend and rescuer, the Communist Carson, 'eliminated' in a South African gaol. For these Maurice becomes what he is, a self-limited double agent acting for Communism against apartheid but without sympathy for the activities of Communist Russia anywhere else. 'Hungary' and 'Prague' haunt his memory and it is Dubcek's 'Socialism with a human face' (and behind that again, perhaps, Blake's 'Pity has a human face') which Greene recalls to us in the apologia which Maurice addresses to Sarah. (pp. 14-15)
Is the 'human factor', then, the irreducible surd element in the mathematics of things entire? The book's epigraph from Conrad, 'I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered his soul', might be to the taste of Muller and Percival, for whom the 'factor' constitutes a threat to the mathematical purity of their designs…. The ironies surrounding the theme of longed-for but unattainable separation from the need to feel pity and pain are hinted at in Greene's choice of title. The 'human factor' may be seen bitterly as no more than an element to be reckoned with in the public and political programming which governs 'the way we live now'; or it can direct attention to a vaster mystery in which Muller and Percival—like Victory's Mr Jones and Ricardo—represent factors of quite another kind, to be 'computed' in a pattern of good and evil beyond the reach of their own or any other order of human comprehension. It is no surprise to learn that Greene in these years has been particularly drawn to Ivan Karamazov's Grand Inquisitor legend…. The legend's creative temper reminds us that the morality pattern has always been apparent in Greene's novels and this interest in Dostoevsky's fable, together with the obvious feeling throughout for Conrad's Victory (whose allegorical effects are largely centred in Jones and Ricardo), may account in part for the figures in this late novel being even more than formerly kinds of people—basically humane or inhumane—rather than the bundles of idiosyncrasy and circumstantial detail associated with the 'round' characters of a different novelistic tradition. Descriptive detail in the drawing of even the central figures, whether Sarah, Davis or Maurice himself, is noticeably sparse, though the particulars of the London and Berkhamsted 'here and now', while still economical, are attractively familiar and concrete…. (pp. 15-16)
The economy is in keeping with the novel's entire procedure, which reworks, though with renewed stringency, methods familiar since It's a Battlefield (1934) when Greene finally broke away from the 'historical' settings of his first three romantic novels (The Man Within, The Name of Action and Rumour at Nightfall, published respectively in 1929, 1930 and 1931). The Human Factor reaches towards its universal themes through a studied poetic structure, into which are built the particulars of 'here' and 'now'. Its action, moving between the African department of the Foreign Office in the West End of London and Maurice Castle's Berkhamsted home, is set out in six parts, each with a closing cadence which helps to dance out the novel's meanings. These take us from the chilling remarks of Doctor Percival—to whom Greene assigns what are in more than one sense the curtain speeches at the end of parts I and II—to the dying fall of Maurice's reflections at the close of parts III, IV and V, and his final phone call to Sarah from Moscow which closes the book: 'She said, "Maurice, Maurice, please go on hoping", but in the long unbroken silence which followed she realised that the line to Moscow was dead'. To this choreographical scheme also belongs the characters' troubled dreams; the book's contrasts of light and dark; the telephone ringing intermittently, its messages in code addressed to unknown listeners or perhaps sounding uselessly in empty rooms; and the sortes Virgilianae from War and Peace used by Maurice for what he hopes will be the last of his coded messages to Moscow. (pp. 16-17)
The present closes in even as Maurice Castle reads to Sam the lines from Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (another of Greene's childhood recollections) about the lawless crossing of borders, an obsessive theme for both the hero and his creator which has gathered through the postwar years something more than a private significance. Childish memories of a 'pleasing terror' generated in the poem about the mysterious horseman, with its unanswered questions ('Why does he gallop and gallop about?'), are transformed into something more sinister. The small boy imagines the horseman 'black, black as my hat, black as my cat'. (pp. 17-18)
I find that much of what I have said in this short essay underscores, and to some degree extends, ideas expressed long ago in The Art of Graham Greene…. [The chapter headings] 'The terror of life', 'The divided mind', 'The fallen world' and 'The universe of pity' do, after all, still stand up pretty well as indications of stages in the development of a creative imagination which has preserved unity in difference and created a mythology through which a series of obsessional preoccupations are expressed and universalized. The 'terror of life', Greene's preoccupation with what life can do to the young, the loving, the trustful and the innocent, still haunts about the child Sam and his gentle-natured mother. Her husband inhabits the 'universe of pity', the 'horrible and horrifying emotion' which we saw developing into an obsessional preoccupation in the novels of the 1940s…. Castle is one of Greene's non-Catholic heroes who nevertheless assumes the same burden of responsibility towards those whom he loves and, in a similar way and for comparable reasons, is at once drawn to and held away from commitment to that which is not human. 'Perhaps I was born to be a half-believer' he says, and Christ for him is 'that legendary figure he would have liked to believe in'…. [He] won't have it that it is pity which he feels: 'It wasn't pity … when he fell in love with Sarah pregnant by another man. He was there to right the balance. That was all.' Refracted as it is through this kind of sensibility, which resorts to whatever distancing devices it can find to render bearable feelings of pity, pain and love, the conception of a 'fallen' world is perhaps still more important than it was even in earlier novels…. 'The divided mind' is another conception which seems still more crucial than before. Graham Greene used the phrase at a Catholic conference, where he appeared in 1947 on the same platform as François Mauriac…. Thirty years later, in Maurice's uncertainties, Hargreaves's troubled conscience and Daintry's solitary anxiety, Greene once again sets forward this tentative conception, associating it clearly enough with the 'human factors' of pain, pity and love. But he does so now with the utmost circumspection, as if carrying with painful care a vessel containing the few remaining drops of a liquid as precious as it is volatile. This sense of the precarious, together with the ominous public and political events which have helped to foster it, suggest that—if one were to devise a sequel for that early study—'The way we live now' might be as good a title as any for a discussion of the tragi-comic austerities of 'late Greene'. (pp. 18-20)
Miriam Allott, "Graham Greene and the Way We Live Now," in Critical Quarterly (© Manchester University Press 1978), Vol. 20, No. 3, Autumn, 1978, pp. 9-20 (revised by the author for this publication).
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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 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.
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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 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.
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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 has the look of an early draft, sprouting with possibilities that await development or deletion.
Perhaps Greene's greatest gift has always been his power of figurative language, and apparently no number of books will exhaust it. We meet, for example, Mr. Kips, one of the Toads, "a thin old man in a dark suit bowed almost double. He projected his head forward and looked, I thought, rather like the numeral seven. He held his left arm bent at his side, so that he resembled the continental way of writing that number."…
Greene is wonderful, too, at summing up the experience of a lifetime in ways that make it suddenly comprehensible….
For graces such as these, anything by Graham Greene rewards the reading, even a novel that, like this one, seems the work of the author's left hand.
Jonathan Penner, "Rites of Greed and Death," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), May 18, 1980, p. 3.
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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 Greene in that mauve light. He missed how Greene sets such evil in a context of human ordinariness and even tedium; how he examines Hell's night club, as it were, in glamorless daytime.
The structure of Doctor Fischer is a simple thing, and permits easy showing of what I mean. The novel is the story not only of Fischer but of his son-in-law Jones (as in "ordinariness"), whose unhappy life is nearly proof that God is indeed greedy of our humiliation…. Jones is not Toad material—because he's not rich enough, Fischer thinks at first, giving the impression that the mere Joneses of the world are not even worth the trouble to humiliate. But Fischer comes to respect Jones. When Jones shows disgust at the humiliation of the Toads, Fischer comes to feel that he must explain himself, which is the occasion for some of the cleverest, most Satanic repartee that Greene has ever written…. The story of the novel, its graceful, disturbing thread of narrative, leads to two notable results. First, it confirms Fischer's sardonic hunch that God has given Anna-Luise to Jones only to keep him on the string a little longer. She dies a death that is at once picturesque and revolting, and Jones is plunged deeper than ever into loneliness. Second, it reveals the hidden romantic history of Doctor Fischer himself: a wife, Anna-Luise's dead mother, who rebelled gently against his tyrannical ways. Now there will be readers who feel that the humanization of Doctor Fischer, by means of giving him familiar human causes for his evil, is a falling-off from the gorgeously fictive, allegorical plane on which the entertainment is set. Such a reaction fails, as Orwell's did, to see the radical bifurcation of the mundane and spiritual that makes for Greene's particular effects. Though he is a moralist, you don't get in Greene any unanchored evil or fleshless good: they are always limbs on a mordantly familiar human body (or corpse). This is why, in the end, he doesn't hate sin enough for Brother Somebody's taste: because it "smells of mortality," like Lear's hand.
Doctor Fisher of Geneva or the Bomb Party (the bomb party is an allusion to the spectacular finish) is not one of Greene's most impressive books. It's too sketchy, even for a novella, to support the weight of its own themes. Perhaps Greene is temporarily tired—his recent The Human Factor is arguably his masterpiece and must have been a mammoth undertaking. But though it is not Greene's very best, Doctor Fisher does reveal as clearly as any of his works the terribly consistent direction of his creativity. That direction is always toward a mapping of the places in the contemporary landscape where the idea of God (and Satan) used to be, the lacunae left by God's demise, and by the demise of faith in God. Secular readers are made to discover the sources of the religion they don't have, the exigent spirit that inhabits (or inhabited once) the temples they don't go to. Greene shows the religious need as existing independent of the God who doesn't exist; he does this by staking out the point at which materialist accounts of ordinary experience fail. This is a project of almost unique importance among the work that novelists do these days—but you have to prepare yourself to have to do with a novelist who has something important to discuss with you, as well as a will to entertain. (pp. 30-1)
John Romano, "Books and the Arts: 'Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 23, June 7, 1980, pp. 29-31.
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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 beside the point. Certainly its emblematic aspects are heavily underlined. Except for the narrator (a tattered hand-me-down), the characters are like a set of figures from a crude sixteenth-century woodcut illustrating a morality play. (p. 22)
The allegorical elements seem obvious: Pride, Avarice, and Despair, supported by Anger and Gluttony, march across the pages, opposed by Love and Innocence and, at the very end, by Pity, which is capable of enfolding even the detestable Doctor. Readers will catch many echoes of the quasi-Jansenist, quasi-Manichaean version of Catholicism that has animated some of Greene's finest work. But do these elements add up to a coherently embodied truth or message? Here I must admit bafflement.
By making Jones a nonbeliever (though wistful for belief), is Graham Greene attempting a negative or backdoor approach to Christianity? Is he suggesting that the absence of faith in God renders a merely earthly love hopelessly vulnerable to an accident like Anna-Luise's? Jones's despair at her loss is so final, so irremediable, that even the prospect of his own death loses its point. Is Jones, in his despair, as damned as Doctor Fischer is in his? And suffering (always a loaded issue with Greene)—is suffering for others necessary for the development of a soul?… Ordinarily I would be happy to leave such matters to an exegist or apologist more knowledgeable than I in the subtleties of the Faith, but the schematic arrangement of Doctor Fischer, together with the thinness of its more strictly novelistic substance, forces these thematic considerations into the open.
But of course Greene wants the book to be read as a novel as well, wants the reader to participate in—not merely register—the love between Jones and Anna-Luise and the cruelty of her death; evidently he wants us to take these things as "seriously," in a novelistic sense, as we would in a sentimental novel like A Farewell to Arms. The scene in which Jones sits at a window table in a hotel restaurant, impatiently waiting for Anna-Luise to return from the slopes, is the most memorable in the novel—far more impressive than the luridly lit party scenes; it reminds us what Greene can do when he imagines his way fully into an episode and respects its inner logic, so to speak.
The effectiveness of the writing here makes all the more puzzling the perfunctoriness of the treatment elsewhere, especially with regard to the characterization of Anna-Luise. Greene seems to be relying on a kind of emotional shorthand: postulate a young woman of perfect beauty, goodness, and tenderness; kill her off abruptly, and then let her lover voice his grief in angry or laconic phrases…. Alas, the shorthand doesn't work. Anna-Luise amounts to little more than an adolescent daydream of the all-gratifying female, a lovely doll whose destruction seems as gratuitous as Jones's much-vaunted despair seems hollow.
In both its aspects I found Doctor Fischer about as nourishing as a communion wafer to a nonbeliever. (p. 23)
Robert Towers, "Cautionary Tale," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 10, June 12, 1980, pp. 22-3.
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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 Doctor Fischer of Geneva—can remind us of Kafka's major, unfinished books, The Trial and The Castle. Just as Kafka banishes all virtues but Hope from his characters' moral repertoire, so Greene banishes all but Love. And in both cases, the odd and fascinating allegories that result are in fact acts of a distinctively modern, existential Faith in the very center of the abyss.
To say this much is to say the by-now predictable, that Doctor Fischer of Geneva is another masterwork in what has to be the most astonishing literary career in English since Joseph Conrad's. Greene has achieved the stature where his quotations from and allusions to his own earlier books are a central part of his meaning. And Doctor Fischer of Geneva is rife with such allusions and glancing, tantalizing half-references. But if the book's exploration of "Greeneland" (the landscape of the Fall) is familiar, it is also radically innovative, discovering new and more forbidding promontories and crevasses in that landscape than he has mapped before. Greene, who has flirted with suicide his whole life long, has frequently said that writing for him is primarily an alleviation of the great bane of existence, boredom. But he has never, till now, shown us quite how profoundly "boredom," in his sense, is the elementary burden of consciousness itself, or how much the act of writing, for him, is, like charity, the art of moral survival.
It would be reductive, even silly, to call this a "great" book. It is simply the latest installment in this painfully honest man's fifty-year dialogue with his demons. And, since his demons are so largely ours also, and since he is more honest than most of us let ourselves be, his book is not "great," but in a deep sense, essential. (p. 376)
Frank McConnell, "Everything Banished but Love," in Commonweal (copyright © 1980 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVII, No. 12, June 20, 1980, pp. 375-76.
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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 mentions the joys of his faith. He only tells us of—nay, he drenches us with—the sorrow brought on by transgression.
In spite of all this, Doctor Fischer has many great assets. Though it is not quite so beautifully written as most of Mr. Greene's prose, the tale is unfolded in a masterly fashion. The art of narrative writing is, from the first page, to lead the reader into thinking he foresees a climax and not to cheat him by simply offering him something different but to fulfill his expectations in a manner and to a degree worse than he could ever have dreamed. This is precisely what happens here. The Bomb Party turns out to be an anticlimax far more deeply wounding than the awaited climax would have been. On the road to this disaster, we pass all the author's well-known obsessions like milestones—the longing for death, the ambivalent flirtation with suicide, the triumph of worldliness over all else, the brevity of carnal love…. Mr. Greene is not contemptuous of happiness, but he mistrusts anyone who seeks it too eagerly, and he despises those who claim to have found it.
As soon as you begin reading this book, shuddering slightly as though you were stepping into an icy and dangerous sea, you will be drawn deep into this bizarre fable. But do not hope to identify yourself with any of its participants; do not expect to weep at their misery or rejoice in their brief triumphs. (pp. 33-4)
Quentin Crisp, "Books: 'Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party'," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1980 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 29, July 28, 1980, pp. 33-4.