Sunday, September 13, 2020

Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene

The only Graham Greene novel I didn’t at least like among the 11 I’ve read before this one is The Quiet American. I know a lot of people love that one, but for some reason when I first read it in 2009 it fell flat. I gave it another whirl in 2018, but it still didn’t work for me. Most of these I read from around 2006-2011, but I trust my positive memories of the others despite the intervening time because I reread The Power and The Glory in 2016 and it reaffirmed its place on my favorites list. When I was in the throes of my first pass through some of Greene’s work I ended up picking up copies of other books by him that I didn’t get around to reading then. Earlier this month I read his final novel, The Captain and the Enemy and really enjoyed it despite not caring for the ending. That book also reaffirmed my love for the feel and tone of Greene’s work. I’ve been going back and forth on Doctor Fischer, though. On the one hand it does have Graham’s excellent prose, some great humor (especially early on), and his wrestling with existential issues and the idea that God might be cruel. But on the other, it’s Greene at his most cynical and I can’t quite decide how I feel about the deliberately grotesque and exaggerated characters. 

It opens with the narrator, a British man in his 50s who lost a hand in the war. He works translating letters for a chocolate factory in Geneva. He falls in love with a woman about half his age and they get married. This is another point on which I’m not entirely certain. If the man had been in his thirties, I don’t think it would have changed the plot substantively and would have reduced the awkwardness that the narrator himself admits to early on. Nevertheless, her father, the titular Doctor Fischer, is a millionaire who made his fortune by creating a toothpaste company. He has hangers on who the narrator and his wife call the Toads (based on her initial malapropism for toadies) who he invites to elaborate parties in which he humiliates them by dint of the gifts they receive if they follow the rules of the party. They are all borderline caricatures; exaggerated avatars of Greene’s hatred for certain types of wealthy people (all wealthy people?). The narrator’s wife has broken contact with her father and tries to keep him from going to the parties, but he is drawn into that world.

I’m going back and forth on this one. Is it the grotesque, cynical parody of a comedy of manners about the cruelty of God that seems to have been Greene’s intention? That book I may have been uncomfortable with but would have really liked, I think, in the same way I liked the movie Nightcrawler; great work that makes me really skeptical of humanity. Or is it merely unearned nihilistic grotesquery not quite counterbalanced by a very uncomfortable love story. It’s Greene, so there is at least his prose and storytelling ability, but I’m pretty much mixed on it. If I was in a different mood I might really like this, or it could become the second Greene novel I strongly disliked. So it’s a split between a mild recommendation and a mild pass.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 69/75

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