An experiment in greed

This is my second post for Simon’s tribute to his late Gran – Greene for Gran.

Last week I reviewed England Made Me, an early novel from 1935, which I hadn’t read before. This week, my second is Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party, one of his later books published in 1980, a re-read for me.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party

This is a short novel, of only 143 pages in my Penguin edition, but it is one of Greene’s keenest satires – a portrait of greed, and how greed begets more greed.

Alfred Jones is an English widower in his fifties. He lost one of his hands during the Blitz, his wife died in childbirth years before. He now works as a translator in Vevey, Switzerland for a chocolate company – echoing that oft-misquoted line from The Third Man:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Note – no ‘chocolate’.  However, Vevey, near the eastern end of Lake Geneva is where the HQ of Nestlé is (I always associate them with Dairy Crunch chocolate bars, but in reality they are a huge food company, Nescafe etc.).  But back to the book…

One day, Jones bumps into a young lady in a café, and they strike up an immediate friendship which very soon deepens into love.  Anna-Luise is the daughter of Swiss toothpaste magnate Doctor Fischer (of Geneva), her mother disappeared, presumed dead.  Alfred and Anna-Luise decide to live together and will marry, but Alfred is keen to get her father’s approval.

‘I’d better go and see him.’
He might set the police looking for you.’
‘They wouldn’t look very hard,’ she said. ‘I’m above the age of consent. We haven’t committed a crime.’
But all the same I wasn’t sure that I had not committed one – a man with only one hand, who was well past fifty, who wrote letters all day about chocolates and who had induced a girl who wasn’t yet twenty-one to live with him: not a legal crime of course, but a crime in the eyes of the father. ‘If you really want to go,’ she said, ‘go, but be careful. Please be careful.’
‘Is he so dangerous?’
‘He’s hell,’ she said.

The first of many references to Fischer as the devil or Satan.  Fischer eventually meets Jones, but doesn’t bother to come to their wedding.

Fischer’s so-called friends meanwhile are called the ‘Toads’ by Anna-Luise, a term that Jones adopts enthusiastically.  They’re all rich in their own right, an alcoholic film actor, a retired general, an international lawyer, a tax adviser and an American widow.  Fischer is infamous for his secret parties which the Toads all go to, soon enough an invitation arrives for Jones – Anna-Luise is distinctly not invited. Jones isn’t sure what to do. ‘The approaching menace of Doctor Fischer’s party had come between us by that time and it filled out silences.‘  They come to an agreement that Alfred should try one party, and that he needn’t stay.

Jones arrives to find the Toads already there…

‘I always insist,’ Doctor Fischer said, ‘at my little parties that everybody enjoys himself.’
‘They are a riot,’ Mrs Montgomery said, ‘a riot.’

They go on to tell Jones about the prizes.

All we have to do is just put up with his little whims,’ Mrs Montgomery explained, ‘and then he distributes the prizes. There was one evening – can you believe it? – he served up live lobsters with bowls of boiling water. We had to catch and cook our own. One lobster nipped the General’s finger.’
‘I bear the scar still,’ Divisionnaire Kreuger complained.

The Toads continue to discuss the prizes, and Fischer reminds them that if they contradict him, they will lose their prizes. Then it is time for dinner to start, and I won’t spoil the fun by describing what happens except that Jones refuses to take part saying ‘I have something of more value than your present waiting for me at home.‘  Eventually Fischer tells Jones what his parties are all about.

… I want to discover, Jones, if the greed of our rich friends has any limit. If there’s a “Thus and no further.” If a day will come when they’ll refuse to earn their presents. Their greed certainly isn’t limited by pride. You can see that for yourself tonight. Mr Kips, like Herr Krupp, would have sat down happily to eat with Hitler in expectation of favours, whatever was placed before him. …

We’re not even halfway through the book, and Fischer’s mind-games with his so-called friends know no bounds, nor his callous disregard for his daughter.  Soon tragedy intervenes, and again Fischer is noted by his absence. When an invitation arrives for Jones to attend his final party the ‘bomb party’ of the novels subtitle, he feels he has nothing to lose…

This is Greene at his funny-grotesque best, but of course underlying the near-gallows humour is a story full of sadness. He comments on the human condition through the nasty deadly sin of avarice, contrasting the haves with the have nots. Fischer has truly become a monster, seeing himself as God playing dice, whereas to everyone else he’s more the devil – ultimately trying to tempt Jones as Jesus in the desert. It is full of the most delicious dialogue, but do remember this is a tragicomedy.

The one odd thing that struck me was that it didn’t feel as if it was set in the 1980s, more like the 1950s say. It’s only the occasional references of modern accoutrements like dishwashers, the pill and credit cards that remind you when it was written, and somehow they seem like anachronisms, when they’re not!

Re-reading this short novel has confirmed it in my mind as one of my favourite Greenes.  (9/10)

The novel was adapted for a TV movie by the BBC in 1984 which starred James Mason (above) in his last ever performance as Fischer, with Alan Bates and Greta Scacchi as Jones and Anna-Luise. Sadly, it’s not available on DVD, and it’s years since I’ve seen it on the telly, here’s hoping that they’ll show it again some day.

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dr Fischer Of Genevaby Graham Greene, Vintage paperback.

6 thoughts on “An experiment in greed

  1. Juxtabook says:

    I read a library copy of this about 8 years ago and you’ve reminded me of much I had forgotten. I did enjoy it and must get my own copy for a re-read. I do remember enough to know that James Mason is excellent casting as Fischer. What a shame one can’t get the DVD.

    • gaskella says:

      I can vaguely remember the film and Mason being brilliant. Alan Bates isn’t really old enough for Jones though – who is nearly as old as Fischer in the book.

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