Old novelists never die, they merely repeat themselves or grow silent. A few noble exceptions—such indefatigable masters as Victor Hugo, Cervantes, Defoe, Thomas Mann—could go on writing with undiminished vigor well into their seventies or eighties, but most long-lived novelists are not blessed in their waning decades with unflagging creative power. Yet the act of writing is so deeply engrained in prolific novelists that the habit cannot be broken even when they have nothing new to say, no fresh stories to tell.
Unhappily, too many novels written in old age are unwitting parodies of the manner and passions of the writer’s prime. In Alberto Moravia’s Time of Desecration,1 political ideas degenerate into the icy gestures of pornography, and in Graham Greene’s Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party,2 his characteristic tone of rueful despair dissolves into sentimentality and mystification. Each novel is the writer’s twenty-first work of fiction, but one can only wish that Moravia, at seventy-three, and Greene, at seventy-five, had rested on their laurels instead of adding withered leaves to the green garlands of the past.
Moravia has apparently announced that Time of Desecration will be his last book, but instead of the ruminative summing-up one would expect at the end of a long and successful career, this ultimate novel is blighted by confused intentions and unrealized possibilities. What he seems to have had in mind was a ruthless scrutiny of contemporary Italian society in order to understand how and why a rich and pampered Roman adolescent can become a revolutionary terrorist. Since terrorist violence has become a menacing commonplace of daily life in Italy, Moravia’s subject has the urgency that might have resulted in a thoughtful and important political novel. But Moravia seems instead to be in the grip of a repetition compulsion. Sex has always played a large and gritty role in his work, and he even seemed to be mocking this obsession in his previous novel, The Two of Us, which consisted of a labored comic dialogue between a film director and his overactive penis. In Time of Desecration, he has chosen to examine a serious and complicated phenomenon like the psychology of terrorism entirely as an offshoot of erotic behavior. And the form in which he has cast the narrative exposes the intellectual and literary deficiencies of his sexual fixation as a more conventional account might not.
“This novel,” Moravia writes in an explanatory note that explains nothing, “consists of an interview given by the character indicated by the name of Desideria to the author, indicated by the pronoun ‘I,’ during the seven years of the drafting of this book.” By means of this “objective” framework, he affects the cool detachment of analytic inquiry in this story of the making of a rebel girl. But the interviewer quickly reveals himself to be less interested in Desideria’s political development than he is prurient about her sexual adventures, and she is only too happy to oblige him. Paradoxically, the chronicle of this embryonic revolutionary never reaches the point at which she actually becomes part of a terrorist group, and we are left in the dark as to whether she will in time commit herself to this brutal extreme.
In fact at no stage of the book does Moravia’s driven heroine acquire the shape of a believable human being. There is something bloodless and unreal, despite the surfeit of anatomical detail, about Desideria’s garrulous descriptions of her sexual escapades, a series of grim mechanical permutations of every erotic variety except the one that would deprive her of her virginity. This prize she is saving, as a talisman of revolutionary dedication, “for a man worthy of me. . . . He too must be a rebel, like me.” Until then she will use her nimble virtuosity at every other kind of sex as a weapon in the service of “overthrow and destruction.”
As the child of an enormously rich widow, Viola, Desideria is grotesquely fat and masturbates as compulsively as she eats, and it is not hard to decipher the symbolic value Moravia attaches to both of his heroine’s frantic and uncontrollable pleasures: obesity represents the gross self-indulgence of the rich, and masturbation is a solipsistic act of total self-absorption. But then Desideria beholds her mother in flagrante delicto, a steamy tableau of sex à trois, sodomy, and voyeurism, and learns that her real mother is not Viola but a prostitute who sold her in infancy.
With this doubly traumatic thunderbolt, Desideria is transformed into an enemy of capitalism; she stops overeating and assents to the revolutionary necessity of renunciation that will make her thin, hard, and militant. From now on she will devote herself not to self-centered appetites but to anti-bourgeois acts of defiance. But since she is politically ignorant, and has no idea how to express this new-found enmity toward her adoptive mother’s class, she submits to instruction from the Voice, a disembodied spirit of revolution that will instruct, command, hector, and nag the young convert. The Voice will now control Desideria’s every move and thought with the demonic single-mindedness of an incubus. Though the appearance of the Voice naturally reminds Desideria of Joan of Arc, who also took a vow of virginity until her mission was accomplished, there is a curious difference. “For me,” the maid of Rome tells the interviewer, “the Voice was, so to speak, an expansion, a prolongation of masturbation.” In other words, bourgeois self-indulgence dies hard.
But die it must, for the Voice, which ferociously scolds the novice at every sign of regression to bourgeois weakness, draws up an ideological plan whereby Desideria, though still unsure what the word revolution means, will take the first steps of “transgression and desecration” against the institutions and taboos of her class: property (she steals a gold compact), culture (she rips a page from an Italian classic for use as toilet paper), religion (she urinates on the church floor), money (she showers a servant with coins of gold), good manners and the family (she spews obscenities at her mother). And since Viola must in Moravia’s symbolic design embody the kinkiest forms of decadence, this variously unnatural mother also begins to lust after her daughter when a thin beauty emerges from the cocoon of fat, thus adding lesbian incest to her erotic repertoire.
Viola is a singularly degenerate representative of Moravia’s lifelong anathema, the Italian bourgeoisie. From his first novel, The Time of Indifference, published in 1929, to the convulsive time of the last, he has excoriated the class he was born into as “inauthentic,” its slavish devotion to money, power, and status having rendered it bored, insensitive, and cynically tolerant of fascism. It was the destructive effect of bourgeois cynicism on the children of the Italian middle class, growing up indifferent even to their own bitter disaffection, that was Moravia’s great theme in the best of his work before the end of World War II.
As he looks at the very different situation today, shocked by the prevailing chaos of Italian life, in which young products of the bourgeoisie are riot paralyzed by indifference but rebel violently against traditional middle-class society, he is clearly appalled by the mindless barbarism of the terrorists, who act out their fantasies of power and domination through joyless promiscuity and random acts of destruction that are doomed to personal and political failure. He does not credit them with genuine moral outrage against social injustice, but concentrates all his energy on depicting the sexual perversions and humiliations, rooted in resentment and hatred, that they confuse with revolutionary aspirations and acts. And though Desideria honestly believes that the loss of her virginity will be “the supreme moment of my life,” when she is eventually deflowered by a comrade from Milan, her disgust with him and herself is so overpowering that she shoots him to death. Her most extreme act of desecration, it turns out, must be committed against the revolution itself.
But the trouble with Time of Desecration is that it requires enormous perseverance and effort to discern these ideas in the claustrophobic text. Moravia has staked too much on the dubious premise that the compulsive reenactment of perverse sex—the mechanization of sex—will serve as a metaphor for the pressing political and psychological issues beyond his voyeurist’s spotlight. Those reviewers who agree with him have found the novel not in the least pornographic but, on the contrary, “highly moral and anti-erotic” This mistakes the intention for the deed, however. My quarrel is not with Moravia’s fierce antagonism to both the decadent parents and the futile revolutionaries, but with his coldly manipulative exploitation of erotic perversity which tars him with the “inauthenticity” he deplores in the bourgeoisie. He is so eager to rub our faces in the muck that he loses sight of the moral lessons he is allegedly dramatizing through this unremitting degradation. When kinky sex is the overpowering substance of a novel, it is usually boring, or repellent or, very rarely, intriguing, but whatever the effect, it annihilates everything but its immediate sensations. This is another way of defining pornography.
It is tempting to think that Graham Greene’s very short Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party, is not a novel at all but a collection of spruced-up notes for a book he did not have the concentration to write with his customary dexterity. Or he may have become bored with a promising idea gone stale, or perhaps had been thinking of a film. In his preface to The Third Man, Greene was careful to explain that the novel was “never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture”; but there is no such note in Doctor Fischer. Presumably we are meant to take this brief and unsatisfying tale of hubris and greed, love and bereavement, as a finished offering. It is certainly not an “entertainment,” as Greene used to label his thrillers, perhaps to keep them from tainting his reputation as a serious novelist. (That custom ended in Travels With My Aunt: from then on the sheep and goats have stood together, novels every one, and rightly so.)
What is immediately striking about Doctor Fischer of Geneva is the absence of that vivid sense of place which has been one of Greene’s singular strengths. He is a much-traveled man, and he wastes nothing. Whether the locale is Mexico, Brighton, Sierra Leone, or Haiti, the identifying look and color and smell of a place, everything that evokes its geographical and cultural particularity, is filed away to emerge later as the thick, distinctive texture of actuality in his next book. One doesn’t soon forget the seediness of the punk underworld in Brighton Rock, or the maggoty squalor of Mexico in The Power and the Glory. In A Burnt-Out Case, the oily sweat and the stench of the leprosarium ooze from the pages, and in The End of the Affair, the sleet and rain of a shabby wartime London beat down like cosmic vengeance on the helpless sinners. In Greene’s novels, the setting at once mirrors and exacerbates the agony and moral disarray of its inhabitants, for it is all one in the intractable unity decreed by an enigmatic God.
Because Greene has also been able to turn landscape into farce, as he did in Travels With My Aunt, it is odd that in Doctor Fischer he almost entirely ignores the potential comedy in Switzerland, that thorn-less and odorless rose. (As Aunt Augusta remarked in Travels, “Switzerland is only bearable covered with snow, like some people are only bearable under a sheet.”) In a writer as crafty as Graham Greene, there must be a reason for the near-anonymity of the setting—the story could take place anywhere or nowhere—but it is difficult to grasp. Perhaps the bareness is intended to reflect the facelessness of the narrator, Alfred Jones, one of those quintessential Greene Englishmen who are born middle-aged and dejected, and go through the motions of their days with leaden apathy. Jones works in a Swiss-chocolate factory in Vevey, translating business letters, and he measures out his life in losses—his left hand and his parents lost in the London blitz, his first wife and their daughter dead in childbirth, his young and beautiful second wife, Anna-Luise, killed in a skiing accident after a brief and blissful marriage. After her death, the one unspent passion left in this dry husk is his hatred for her father, Doctor Fischer, the enormously wealthy inventor of a toothpaste “which was supposed to hold at bay the infections caused by eating too many of our chocolates.”
This loathsome tyrant, who had mistreated his dead wife and ignored his daughter, amuses himself by testing the limits of greed. At his regular dinner parties, a group of rich sycophants endure every humiliation dreamed up by Doctor Fischer’s malevolent ingenuity rather than forfeit the lavish gifts he doles out after his guests have been thoroughly debased. At the final dinner—the “bomb party” of the title—the doctor raises the ante beyond craven greed and humiliation, and forces them to jeopardize life itself. The end of the party is predictably ironic, but what this cloudy tale is supposed to mean is a daunting question. Since the writer is Graham Greene, an observant but unorthodox Roman Catholic, it is tempting to seize every passing reference to God, the soul, Christianity, and damnation as a clue to the mystery, but he has drawn the individuals who speak of these awesome matters so perfunctorily that we cannot easily judge how seriously we are expected to take what they say.
Is it more than metaphor that the name of God is constantly invoked as another name for Doctor Fischer both by those who fawn on him and those, like his son-in-law, who hate him? And why does this fiend sardonically compare himself with a God he professes not to believe in? “I like to think,” he boasts to Jones, “that my greed . . . is like God’s. . . . [The] believers and the sentimentalists say that he is greedy for our love. I prefer to think that, judging from the world he is supposed to have made, he can only be greedy for our humiliation. . . . The world grows more and more miserable while he twists the endless screw, though he gives us presents—for a universal suicide would defeat his purpose—to alleviate the humiliations we suffer.” When Jones dissents from this draconian deity—not because he believes in a benevolent God, but because it seems implausible that God should wish to humiliate what he has created—the Doctor sneers: “Perhaps he found he was rather a bad craftsman and he is disappointed in the result.”
This doleful view of human fate runs through all the work of Graham Greene like a wound that will not heal, and it stamps not only his serious fiction but the espionage thrillers and travel books as well. At the age of fourteen, Greene has written, “my pattern . . . was already there—perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again. . . .” In 1936, long after his conversion to Catholicism, he declared in Journey Without Maps, the account of a journey to Liberia, that “I find myself always torn between two beliefs: the belief that life should be better than it is, and the belief that when it appears better it is really worse.”
But Greene’s life-is-a-rum-business refrain has often sounded a bit stagey, as though he were talking himself into depression, and what has saved him as a novelist from the facile theatricality of his pessimism is his taste for “the dangerous edge of things,” the phrase from Browning which he chose as the epigraph for his autobiography, A Sort of Life. He has been drawn to the shadow-worlds of risk, pursuit, sudden death, overrun with thieves and murderers, spies and adulterers. Even the novels which do not hover at the dangerous edge —The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair—are stories of deception and pursuit, not by the hounds of the law but by the hound of heaven. In those beautifully ambiguous novels, Greene’s obsession with intrigue and betrayal is enacted as a psychological battle within the tormented souls of Henry Scobie and Sarah Miles. He betrays himself, and she betrays others to earn her redemption.
In his recent fiction, particularly The Honorary Consul (1973), Greene’s Catholic judgments have tended to be glib and condescending, his versatility as a storyteller subsumed in the long-winded preachiness of his world-weary saints and sinners. The preaching in Doctor Fischer of Geneva is brief but maddeningly obscure. Whatever the message may be, it is dissociated from the characters and their story, and the whole is as faint and sketchy as the cartoon for a fresco chalked by a wavering hand. Though the form does not grow naturally out of Greene’s temperament and talent, a parable is what we seem to be reading, with little hope of finding Dostoevskian profundities hidden within. Obviously the wicked Doctor is playing God, as tempter and humiliator, but is Greene intimating that he must be punished for the sacrilege or for the cruelty? It is hard to say, but the guesswork goes on. Could it be that Greene was thinking of the Book of Job, whose rituals of suffering bear out his desolate certainty that “There is no peace anywhere where there is human life”? Like Job, Alfred Jones is cruelly tried by a multitude of afflictions, but unlike Job he fails the test and ends in numb despair.
But since it is Doctor Fischer who is at the center of the novel, it may be that Greene sees him as Leviathan, the sea monster invoked by God at the end of the Book of Job as proof of man’s frailty, “a king over all the children of pride,” In this case perhaps it is Hobbes’s Leviathan that Greene has in mind—the secular authority of the artificial commonwealth that brings total order out of the anarchy of men in the state of nature. But the authority of Leviathan is not the authority of God; when men misuse their power, they are struck down. Thus, after Doctor Fischer’s death, Alfred Jones stares at the corpse and thinks “it had no more significance than a dead dog. This . . . was the bit of rubbish I had once compared in my mind with Jehovah and Satan.”
In the end no amount of speculative ingenuity can force this novel to yield its meaning. No matter how often Graham Greene set out in the past to prove that faith is inseparable from agony, and the absence of faith even worse, the moral was never abstract. But Doctor Fischer of Geneva lacks the descriptive richness and suggestive characterization of his earlier work, and we can have only the most tenuous idea of the religious conundrum that is the burden of the tale. Now that he is written out, all that is left is a parable of power and affliction that hardly seems worth unriddling.
1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 376 pp., $12.95.
2 Simon & Schuster, 156 pp., $9.95.