My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Dr Fischer of Geneva, or the Bomb Party explores love and greed. At around 150 pages the book is almost a novella. It is an “easier” read, both in density of writing, and in ideas, than Brighton Rock or The End of the Affair, for example, being closer to what early in his writing career Greene labelled his “entertainments”, such as The Ministry of Fear.
Dr Fischer of Geneva is the richest man in that city, and hosts parties to which he invites other wealthy guests. At these parties, Fischer humiliates his guests but then provides expensive gifts as recompense, thus ensuring their return.
Alfred Jones, a linguist who works in translation for a Swiss chocolate company, meets and marries Dr Fischer’s daughter. Jones is in his mid-fifties, and missing a hand after an accident during the war; Fischer’s daughter is in her twenties, young, fit and active. She hates her father, and although Jones is wise enough to realise that perhaps the daughter loves him for the wrong reasons, still he loves her. Their marriage is a happy one.
Because of the marriage, Jones is invited to Dr Fischer’s parties; Fischer’s daughter refuses to go. Jones is our narrator, the first-person eye through which we see first-hand the humiliations his guests are willing to suffer for their end-of-evening gifts. For Fischer the parties are a game, an entertainment in which he can demonstrate that no matter how rich a person becomes, he or she will always want more, in a spiral of greed. Jones is, of course, outside of this, he has neither wealth nor power; for Fischer, Jones provides a rare chance to have an audience, a witness to how very desperate are the desires of the very wealthy.
Yet Jones needs Fischer’s daughter; that is his wealth. If that were to be taken away, how would Jones feel? And how does Fischer feel — about himself, his parties, his guests, Jones, and his daughter? There is complexity to Fischer, as there is to Jones. Fischer is not simply rich; Jones is not simply a happy husband in an ideal marriage. They are, perhaps, mirror images, even if the riches each possess are different. The conclusion is, perhaps, unsurprising, if cunningly wrought.
There are issues with the narrative – the characters of the recurring guests are thinly drawn, leaving Fischer and Jones to carry the novel. The humiliations — until the final one — seem no more than sixth-form japes, leaving this reader to wonder why Jones should be so amazed that the guests would return again and again.
With all the craftsmanship at Greene’s command, it is no surprise that it is a well-written novel that easily carried me through to its conclusion; and if I felt there was substantially less moral and ethical fibre than the rather breathless back-cover review from The Times implies, there were nonetheless ideas enough about love, greed, desire and happiness to chew on.