Graham Greene Possessed
- Doctor Fischer of Geneva. Or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene
Bodley Head, 140 pp, £4.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 370 30316 4
What can have possessed Graham Greene? The answer, I suspect, is the ghost of Thomas Mann. The Swiss setting of Doctor Fischer of Geneva might be determined by some generic effluvium of Mann, a compound of his Magic (Swiss) Mountain, his post-war return to Switzerland and, perhaps, his rather landlocked position at the centre of European letters. But the Dybbuk that seems to have taken over Mr Greene’s imagination is specific: German Mann, pre-war Mann, long-short-story Mann (author of, in particular, that other piece of magic-making, Mario and the Magician) and, positively and peculiarly, Mann in translation.
Indeed, apart from its taking place in the Seventies (of which, however, it purveys no flavour), Mr Greene’s new story might be a late candidate for inclusion in the Everyman selection of Mann’s work that was published, as Stories and Episodes, in 1940. Perhaps a half-memory of that wartime volume ordained that the narrator in Doctor Fischer should have lost his left hand to a bomb dropped on London in, precisely, 1940. By what he calls ‘a curious coincidence’ and Lady Bracknell would call carelessness, he lost both his parents, too, in the same raid, though to a separate bomb on a different part of London. By the time of the story’s action he is an expatriate, living and working – for a chocolate firm – in Switzerland, a man in his fifties, with a dead wife and a stillborn child in his past. His lost hand has been replaced by a plastic substitute. By way of replacement for parents, he acquires, at his second marriage, a new father-in-law, the super-rich and reputedly horrible doctor (whose doctorate he thinks may be a mere honorific) of the book’s title.
His work for the chocolate firm consists chiefly of translating – from languages he claims to have picked up during a childhood spent in France, Turkey and Paraguay. By one of the story’s few plausibilities, this has evidently ruined his English. Much of the narrative resembles the translations at very high-class international conferences. It is so unnaturally idiomatic as to be stilted. As idiom (‘But he couldn’t be satisfied with one final blow. It had to be the death of a thousand cuts’) flows meltingly into idiom (‘her small wrists which were as strong as whipcord’), you begin to wonder not only what exactly whipcord is and whether you can get it at the ironmonger’s but at what pitch of commonplaceness an idiom turns into a cliché. The (yes, indeed) milk-chocolate blandness of the general texture makes it odd, not exciting, when you suddenly bite on an idiosyncrasy, such as ‘There were five expensive cars lounging in the drive,’ and painful when you come on veritable grit. There is a skiing accident; a crowd gathers at the ski lift; the narrator asks what has happened. The narrative goes on: ‘An Englishman said, “Some kid has fallen a cropper.” ’ No, he didn’t, you feel like saying – or, if he did, he wasn’t an Englishman. I think the member Mr Greene’s expatriate narrator really lost in the Blitz was an ear.
From the hypnotic magician who torments Mann’s Mario Doctor Fischer has borrowed a taste for displaying his power by inducing people to submit to public humiliation. The tale is realised, however, only to the extent proper to a Mann-length short story. Spread to novel length (just, and with help from short chapters and a fresh page for the beginning of each) and over a series of dinner parties given by Doctor Fischer to his acquaintances, including his new son-in-law, where he bribes the guests by expensive but unimaginative gifts to abase themselves, the invention never gathers force enough to suggest psychological evil. Merely, there is a drizzle of nastiness – over the story itself rather than its theme. It is probably, as a similar nastiness often is in more confessedly tripey books, the result of under-realisation. Disappointingly for moralists, the moral impression writing makes, whether nasty, sincere, brave, charming or whathaveyou, is almost always the result of technical triumphs or errors. The humiliated people in Mr Greene’s story are merest sketches, and stock ones at that: a lapsing male sex symbol, a cripple, a token woman (American and blue-rinsed, of course). Their reaction, a pretence of enjoying the doctor’s little joke, is as uniform as their motive, which according to the doctor is the typical greed of the already rich. And the humiliations he imposes on them seem, for the most part, either childish, like the dinner that consists entirely of cold porridge, or cruel to beings other than the intended targets, such as the lobsters whom each guest is obliged to cook and kill for himself.
Where Mann achieved a thunderstormy concentration, Mr Greene makes an effect only of ellipsis – to the point, in one instance, of being baffling. The first time the narrator takes Doctor Fischer’s 20-year-old daughter to bed, ‘she pressed me down on to the bed,’ he records without further explanation, ‘so that her blood was smeared on my legs and my stomach’: evidence, are we to take it, of her virginity, of her having started a period unexpectedly or of his being so bony that when she pressed him down he grazed her skin? And where Mann built to a frightening, because carefully engineered, climax, Mr Greene can only add a final dinner party, where the greedy have to risk their lives as well as their pride because, in a version of the Russian roulette that he has written about elsewhere, the gifts are this time in a bran-tub and the guests are warned that one of the packages may contain a bomb. Well before publication, a writer in the trade press was wondering whether the book’s subtitle gave too much away, and he implied that reviewers should take care not to spoil the suspense. But since the narrative is in the first person it is hard to feel much uncertainty, let alone concern, about whether a private bomb will or won’t complete the dismemberment begun by the Blitz.
Imaginative writers are no more responsible than mothers for the character of what they conceive. Their duty stops short at, and their huge value to civilisation consists in, their guaranteeing the thing as an authentic conceit: not a manufactured or commercial article but an organic creative idea deposited in the author’s mind from, seemingly, nowhere. Doctor Fischer bears every mark of having been thrust up from the unconscious as authentically as a dream – and with little more artistic coherency or power to command general, as distinct from psychoanalytical, interest. Indeed, it bears a dedication that sketches in brief a Jamesian anecdote about the arrival of the idea. ‘To my daughter ... at whose Christmas table ... this story first came to me,’ it reads – which, given the character of the dinner parties in the story, must be the most two-edged dedication since Alfred Einstein dedicated his book on Mozart, in which he insisted that the Queen of the Night and, by implication, the Three Ladies who abet her are personifications of the powers of darkness, to ‘my “Three Ladies” ’.
Unlike potential mothers, writers and dreamers cannot prevent themselves from conceiving. But they need not publish. By doing so, Mr Greene presents his admirers with a puzzle (why should his imagination, at this moment in his creative career, thrust on him the material for a Mann pastiche?) which they are unlikely to have the necessary information to solve in psychoanalytic terms. Given that the novel works so badly and seems so shamblingly designed on the realistic and narrative levels, I am forced to hope the opposite of what I normally hope about novels, namely that some allegory is intended underneath. There are no signs of political perceptions embedded, as in Mario, in the story. I am afraid that the extra significance must, if it exists, be religious. And the narrator does indeed have something of that immoral frame of religious mind which considers catastrophes to others, the deaths of, say, lobsters or wives (it is his wife who turns out to have died in the ski accident), as troubles sent to try us. The death of Anna-Luise seems an incident in and an intensification of the narrator’s hostile but strongly emotional relationship with Doctor Fischer – which suggests that, in taking on a new father-in-law, he has taken on belief in an omnipotent but malevolent God. The little circle of sycophants (a congregation?) continues to flatter and cultivate this God, despite the humiliations placed on them by, they believe, his hand, because they are greedy, not for money, but for life, which they believe it is in his power to grant or withdraw. The narrator, who loves himself even more coolly than he does his wife, lacks this greed, and he alone outfaces Doctor Fischer. After the bomb party, it is the doctor who dies, by suicide.
Perhaps this represents the death of that concept of God with whose ‘anthropomorphic associations’ Mr Greene declared himself disenchanted in his autobiography. If so, I wish the deed had been more elegantly done. I can feel grateful for only one stroke of satire: Doctor Fischer owes his fortune, and thus his power over people, to his invention of a florally fragrant toothpaste which, the narrator says, is ‘supposed to hold at bay the infections caused by eating too many of our chocolates’. But of course this is satire only if the book is allegorical and Doctor Fischer does represent the God whose forgiveness is supposed to deodorise the sins of the flesh. Of that I am by no means sure. For literary sins there is no redemption; but happily I am sure that Mr Greene had, long before this errant excursion, established his literary sainthood.