Monday, 6 August 2012

A Trip To Greeneland

Dr. Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party (1980)

Written when Graham Greene was 75, the novella form might indicate a drop in stamina, but there is certainly no reduction in either his imagination or his pitch black world view and equally dark sense of sardonic humour.

The protagonist is Alfred Jones, a middle aged Englishman with one hand. By chance, he meets a beautiful young Swiss woman who, to his astonishment, falls in love with him. They marry, and he finds out that her estranged father is a famous and extremely rich toothpaste magnate, the titular Dr. Fischer of Geneva. Fischer is famous for his wealth and his cruelty, and notorious for his dinner parties, where he humiliates his guests in exchange for expensive prizes.

Alfred's wife hates her father for hounding her mother to suicide, and is appalled when Alfred receives an invitation to dinner. Despite her warnings, curiosity overcomes him and he attends, only to be disgusted by the spectacle of already wealthy people debasing themselves before his monstrous father in law out of sheer greed. Jones is not a rich man, but he has standards, and he walks out.

A few months later, his young wife is killed in a skiing accident. Jones tries to commit suicide, but merely succeeds in making himself ill. Soon after, a second invitation to dine with Dr. Fischer and his retinue arrives, and Jones decides to accept it, determined to settle a score with the indifferent and uncaring father of his lost bride. When he arrives, he realises that this is to be Fischer's last dinner party and the stakes will be higher than ever - fortunes for the winners and, for one unlucky attendee, instant death by explosive christmas cracker...

Ridiculously readable, 'Dr. Fischer' is full of strange details and odd but fascinating digressions, but its central narrative remains taut and full of momentum. The story has a hint of the absurd immorality tales of Nabokov, and Fischer's antics occasionally recall some of Sir Guys pranks in 'The Magic Christian', but this is pure Greene, in all his world weary but ambivalent majesty.

The novella was made into a TV film in 1985 starring Alan Bates as Jones and James Mason as the bad doctor. I saw it when it was on and thought it was great, but it seems to have disappeared without trace since an early VHS release. Come on, BBC, sort yourselves out!

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