Doctor Fischer Of Geneva Or The Bomb Party is one of Graham Greene’s late novels. At around fifty thousand words, it’s also quite short, and can easily be read in a single sitting. Do not think, however, that this quality might equate in any way with labels such as miniature or sketch, or even light. The book may not present a broad canvas, but compression is a word that might summarise its effect, since it addresses some very big and serious themes in a simple, succinct but profound way.
Graham Green’s observations of character are often absurdly realistic. Here we have Doctor Fischer of the title, a widower millionaire, who has never overcome the loss of his darling wife. His fortune arose courtesy of an infection-busting toothpaste called Dentophil Bouquet, but his wealth has provided little comfort since his loss. He has a daughter called Anna-Louise, who has a name in common with her mother and, according to her father, also shares her mother’s character, and some her weaknesses.
Anna-Louise develops a surprising attraction for a Mr Jones, a man thirty years her senior, and it is through his eyes that we view the couple’s story. Mr Jones is a remarkably surreal figure whom the reader simply takes for granted. He is a translator and letter writer in a Geneva chocolate factory, offering what seems to be a veritable barrow-load of languages, his acquisition of which we must merely imagine. He also lost a hand serving as a fire fighter in the London blitz.
Doctor Fischer is rich; Mr Jones is not. The difference does not seem to worry Anna-Louise, who is rather dismissive of her father’s vanity. But these feelings are nothing compared to detestation of a small group of hangers on she calls the Toads.
These fawning, even obsequious sycophants are regularly patronised by Doctor Fischer. He throws parties to which the Toads are always invited. The gatherings often involve activities that range from the culinary to the theatrical, often combining different strands of experience, but also often ending in some form of reward, the outcome that the Toads have come to seek. To be rewarded, however, it is sometimes necessary to grovel. Anna-Louise’s husband, Mr Jones, is co-opted somewhat unwillingly into this group, and his observations, dismissals and judgments are keen.
When momentous events knock holes through lives, it is hard to predict how those affected might react. And when Doctor Fischer lost his wife, he could not even bring himself to attend the funeral, an absence that, in itself, changed a daughter’s view of a father. He had his reasons, no doubt. There had been hints of infidelity, perhaps more imagined than real, but then the evidence… Base emotions, even when merely imagined, can come to dominate a life.
It is such base emotions that Doctor Fischer is feeding when he parties his Toads. Their fawning is so complete, they are willing to crawl, a pose the good Doctor tries to promote. Mr Jones, the Doctor’s son in law, however, is not a willing participant. After all, he is a little older, from a different way of life, has lost a hand. Neither can he be bribed.
Other momentous events persuade Doctor Fischer to have one last party, a great bang, if you like. This is the Bomb Party of the title. It’s an event that the good Mr Jones is hardly in a mood to attend, but attend he does, to play a crucial role in the evening’s proceedings. Luckily, he has already suffered loss, so he suffers less fear. Just how low will people stoop to feed their greed?
Doctor Fischer Of Geneva Or The Bomb Party is replete with Graham Greene’s lively, thought provoking one liners. It is the territory that these near-asides take the reader that give this little tale its sense of the epic. Here, Greene may as even claim the role of story-teller, but the writing is always that of the thinker. And there exists a world to open up between these roles, the world that is imperfectly human, the world that Graham Greene uniquely observed.