Archive for the ‘Paul Gallico’ Category

foolish-immortals-paul-gallicoThe Foolish Immortals by Paul Gallico ~ 1953. This edition: Michael Joseph, Mermaid edition, 1956. Stiff card covers. 223 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

Paul Gallico was an author who loved himself a plotful gimmick – charwoman longs for and acquires a Paris couturier gown in Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris; young boy transforms into a cat in Jennie; a group of disparate (and desperate) characters are trapped inside an upside down luxury liner after it is submerged in the vortex caused by an undersea earthquake in The Poseidon Adventure – just to give a few examples.

In The Foolish Immortals the gimmick is that old quest trope, the search for the Fountain of Youth, or, as Gallico madly invents here, the wholly imaginary “Village of the Patriarchs” in Palestine-recently-turned-Israel (check out the date of writing) where the locals apparently live to fantastic ages, due to their consumption of a fungus which they cultivate in hidden caves.

Our shady hero is one Joe Sears, one-time high school football star of his hometown, Ventura, California, and now a middle-aged failure of a man, down to his last few dollars for the umpteenth time. Joe is what one might call averse to boringly honest work; he’s something of a con artist, if truth be told, always on the lookout for a profitable mark.

Joe twigs to the potential scam-worthiness of an American millionairess, one Hannah Bascombe, 75 years old and not very happy with the rapid march of time. Inspired by his random encounter with an evangelical preacher reciting the immense ages of the Old Testament patriarchs, Joe has an epiphany. How about he spin Mrs. Bascombe a tale of a secret to, if not eternal, then significantly longer life, to be found in the hills of the Holy Land? He’ll mount an expedition to be financed by the Bascombe millions, skimming the dollars as they go along. Joe’s not quite sure how he’ll end the project, but anticipates that he will be able to slip away quietly with well-lined pockets when Mrs Bascombe loses interest in what is bound to be a fruitless expedition.

Joe is aided and abetted by a youthful-looking ex-Commando, one Levi Ben-Isaac (yes, he just might be Jewish, and his heritage is crucial to the tale), who has a tragic wartime back story and a quest of his own. Ben-Isaac agrees to team up with Joe for the wooing of the elderly millionairess, though things are complicated for both men by the watchfulness of a sharp-witted young woman, niece (and potential heiress) to the rather-sharp-herself old lady.

Midway through, The Foolish Immortals turns into a rather decent road trip novel – gratuitous gun battle aside – with Gallico waxing eloquent about the scenic beauties of the bits of Israel they travel through, throwing in oodles of Biblical references and not a little spiritual-religious philosophizing. Both of which – the impressions of the Holy Land on Americans raised on the King James Version of The Bible, plus some thought-provoking debates on the nature of God and personal belief systems – are in all honesty, probably the best elements of what is otherwise a bit of a dud of a book.

Mrs Bascombe finds, if not exactly what she was looking for, an acceptable (or better?) subsitute for it. As do all of the other characters, ragged ends all neatly tied up, emotional issues all salved and soothed by each person’s personal encounters with God (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) while on their trek.

Paul Gallico’s A-list is a nebulous sort of construct at the best of times; I would hesitate to endanger it with the addition of The Foolish Immortals, so I’m going to gently deposit this one on top of the B-list pile.

He comes so very close to being very good indeed, does Paul Gallico. And I keep reading him, hoping he’ll transcend his inevitable banality, his tendency to weak and frequently mawkish endings. So close, but yet so far…

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mrs harris goes to new york paul gallico 4 001Mrs Harris Goes to New York by Paul Gallico ~ 1959. Alternate title: Mrs ‘Arris Goes to New York. This edition: Penguin, 1984. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-001943-X. 168 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Cute story, but much too much “tell” versus “show”. And I suspect that unless you’ve already read the first Mrs Harris saga, you’ll be rather at sea as to why we’re supposed to be so fully on her side. In other words, it screams “SEQUEL!”

In the second installment of what would eventually be a four book series, sixty-one year old London charlady Mrs Ada Harris undertakes another major journey, and another major quest. (Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, her first journey and quest, to Paris for the purchase of an exquisite Dior party dress, is one of author Paul Gallico’s best-loved light novels.)

This time around it is the United States of America looming as the golden goal; the quest is to return an abandoned and neglected young boy to his ex-American soldier father. Luckily, coincidences again merge to bring the almost magical Mrs Harris’s plans to glorious fruition, though not without some glorious glitches here and there.

Eight-year-old Henry Brown has been fostered out by his feckless mother after her first wartime marriage to Henry’s father ended in divorce, and because her prospective second husband refused to have another man’s child under his roof. For a while all went well, with regular child support payments coming through, but eventually the monthly cheque ceased coming, and no one could trace the boy’s mother. She had obviously moved without leaving a forwarding address. It was then that Mrs Harris and her good friend Mrs Butterfield began to hear disturbing sounds coming from the flat sandwiched between their two independent domiciles. Young Henry was being regularly beaten and abused; he appeared increasingly pinched and obviously hungry; his uncomplaining endurance and sweet, unsoured nature under the burden of his sad fate endeared him to the two grandmotherly ladies, and they often mulled over just what could be done.

Then one day Mrs Harris had a brainwave. What about Henry’s American father?! If there was some way to notify him about his child’s plight, surely he would effect an immediate rescue? One small problem existed: no one knew exactly where Henry’s father now was. The child is, effectively, an orphan.

And then marvelous fate steps in. One day, at an employer’s flat, Mrs Harris stumbles upon what she considers a message from the heavens.

Left to herself, Mrs Harris then indulged in one of her favourite pastimes, which was the reading of old newspapers. One of her greatest pleasures when she went to the fishmonger’s was to read two-year-old pages of the Mirror lying on the counter and used for wrapping.

Now she picked up a page of a newspaper called The Milwaukee Sentinel, eyed the headline ‘Dominie Seduced Schoolgirl in Hayloft’, enjoyed the story connected therewith, and thereafter leafed through the other pages of the same instrument until she came to one labelled ‘Society Page’, on which she found many photographs of young brides, young grooms-to-be, and young married couples.

Always interested in weddings, Mrs Harris gave these announcements more undivided attention, until she cam upon one which caused her little eyes almost to pop out of her head, and led her to emit a shriek, ‘Ruddy gor’blimey – it’s ‘im! It’s happened! I felt it in me bones that something would.’

There among the wedding announcements is one for a Mr George Brown, described as an ex-soldier who had been stationed in England, and referring to the fact that this was Mr Brown’s second attempt at nuptials. What a brilliant flash of serendipitous luck this was! This must be young Henry’s father, for isn’t the groom’s father’s name also Henry Brown? And wouldn’t the little British-American baby have obviously been named after his paternal grandfather?

The wheels of Mrs Harris’s single-minded focus are suddenly set turning. If only there was a way to deliver young Henry to his father, then surely paternal love would instantly overwhelm the man, and he would cleave unto his dear son and rescue him from his current awful situation. And there is a possibility of actually bringing this about, for Mrs Harris is herself shortly to depart for a trip to America!

You see, another of her clients is the wife of a movies-and-television company director, and, upon a sudden promotion, the couple are to return to the States to allow Mr Schreiber to take on his new duties. Mrs Schrieber, a sweetly dithery, rather ineffectual, and continuously gently worried lady, is thrown into a state of absolute panic at the thought of having to establish a new household in New York, one which will require her to manage a number of domestic helpers, and to continually entertain her husband’s entertainment industry movers and shakers, and more than a few movie and music stars. What will she do? Could, would, will Mrs Harris come along, just for a few months, to help establish the Schrieber’s new ménage? Mrs Harris takes a deep breath and hesitatingly agrees, after arranging that her good friend Mrs Butterworth accompany the party; Mrs Butterworth being a skilled cook, and a definite asset to Mrs Schrieber during the “finding her legs” New York debut.

Now what if there was some way to smuggle young Henry aboard the bustling ocean liner Ville de Paris, ferry him across the sea, and reunite him with his father? Once they’re all in New York, surely a quick trip to Milwaukee will be easy to arrange…

If this seems to good to be true, of course it is. But the unlikely escapade starts off exceedingly well. Henry, a bright young lad, plays along most willingly, and his two sponsors get him on board and manage to keep his presence under wraps until mid-Atlantic, when it becomes apparent that getting the child off the boat at Ellis Island may prove something more of a challenge, what with stringent American customs and immigration officials examining every set of incoming papers with fine tooth combs and such. As for papers, young Henry possesses none. Gulp!

Ah, but again, kind fate steps in. Sharing the journey is a certain French diplomat whom Mrs Harris came to know well during her Paris stay. He and Mrs Harris have renewed their mutually affectionate acquaintance while on the journey, incidentally giving Mrs Schrieber something of a shock when she finds her Tourist Class charlady ensconced at the chief table at the First Class Captain’s Dinner Party. Gallantly stepping up when appealed to, the Ambassador temporarily adopts Henry as his grandson, and the latest disaster is averted. However, getting the child back from Washington, DC, where he has accompanied his “grandfather”, proves to be a bit more complicated…

And on and on it goes. Mrs Harris forges ahead, comes upon calamity, regroups (usually with the assistance od some random person completely won over by her twinkling eyes and sterling nature, etcetera) and trots along until the next hurdle pops up. Her creator treats us to occasional moments of musing, and throws a moral or two in as well for good measure, and to appeal to our sentimental natures. The ending is, predictably, a happy one, though not quite as Mrs Harris has envisioned it to be from her earlier altruistic schemings.

A light and completely impossible fairy tale is this one, though it touches upon some serious issues – child abuse, social class structure, discrimination, and the follies of celebrity worship. The Dior dress shows up again, with a rather good discussion of its symbolic significance. Mrs Harris is allowed the grace to realize that her impulsiveness is not always wise; in a real world she’d have been slapped down long ago, but because this is fiction of a particularly fluffy type she gets not just a pass but a promotion. Oh, and there is the teasing promise of a love affair for our Mrs Harris, too, setting things up, no doubt, for book number three.

An understated early (possibly first?) edition dust jacket.

An understated early (possibly first?) edition dust jacket.

Here we have an overly elderly Mrs Harris (she's only sixty-one, for goodness sake!) plus her charming young protégé.

Here we have an overly elderly Mrs Harris (she’s only sixty-one, for goodness sake!) plus her charming young protégé.

And my favourite of the lot. I wish I had this copy! It's apparently illustrated, too.

And my favourite of the lot. I wish I had this copy! It’s apparently illustrated, too.

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mrs 'arris goes to paris paul gallico 2 001Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico ~ 1958. Originally published as Flowers for Mrs. Harris, and alternatively titled Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. This edition: International Polygonics, Ltd., 1989.  Softcover. ISBN: 1-55882-021-3. 157 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I’d read this before, long ago in junior high school – I have a memory of sitting reading it at one of the small round tables tucked in the back of the library early in my Grade 8 year, my refuge from the crowded cafeteria at lunch hour – and at least once in the years since then, and the re-read brought me no new revelations. A decidedly sweet (just this side of saccharine) novella. “Charming”, and “Adult fairy tale”, two terms beloved of this minor classic’s many reviewers, suit it well.

*****

The small, slender woman with apple-red cheeks, graying hair, and shrewd, almost naughty little eyes sat with her face pressed against the cabin window of the BEA Viscount morning flight from London to Paris. As with a rush and a roar the steel bird lifted itself from the runway and the wheels, still revolving, began to retract into its belly, her spirits soared aloft with it. She was nervous, but not at all frightened, for she was convinced that nothing could happen to her now. Hers was the bliss of one who knew that at last she was off upon the adventure at the end of which lay heart’s desire.

London charwoman Mrs. Ada Harris is bound upon a great adventure, ten British pounds and a stunning one thousand four hundred American dollars tucked safely into her shabby imitation leather handbag, along with the return half of a round-trip ticket to Paris. What could she be up to?

We are soon to find out, when Mrs. Harris firmly directs her Parisian taxi driver to transport her with the utmost speed and efficiency to the Avenue Montaigne; more specifically, to the House of Christian Dior. Mrs. Harris is about to buy herself A Dress.

Now, how, do you ask, can a 1950s’ London charwoman, billing herself out at a modest three shillings an hour – roughly the equivalent, at the exchange rate of the time, to a little under fifty American cents – manage to come up with the incredible amount needed to purchase an original Dior creation? And, most urgently, you must be wondering why?!?

The how (this is a “fairy tale”, don’t forget) is quite easily explained by our author. There was a substantial win on the football pools; that got Mrs. Harris a quarter of the way to her goal. Scrimping and saving, going without her beloved weekly movies and occasional visits to the pub and cutting down on her lavish consumption of tea took her to the halfway point. A disastrous attempt at gambling on the dog races was a setback, but Mrs Harris soldiered on. It took her three years, but she did it; the cash is in hand. Now for the dress.

But, again, why a Dior dress? What on earth could be possessing this humble woman in setting her aspirations on such a worthlessly extravagant item? Well, it all goes back to a little incident at one of her employers’ houses, a certain fashionable and extremely wealthy Lady Dant.

Opening up Lady Dant’s closet in the discharge of her tidying up duties, Mrs. Harris discovers something marvelous. Not one, but two astonishing garments, the like of which she has never seen in real life before, though she has sighed briefly and appreciatively over such creations in the discarded fashion magazines which frequently have come her way. And she’s always loved beautiful things, though that love has hitherto only expressed itself through the more readily accessible medium of flowers; the geraniums she grows with such marvelous success, and the cast-off bouquets which come her way and which she nurses along until the vestige of any beauty is completely faded.

But now as she found herself before the stunning creations hanging in the closet she found herself face to face with a new kind of beauty – an artificial one created by the hand of man the artist, but aimed directly and cunningly at the heart of woman…There was no rhyme or reason for it; she would never wear such a creation; there was no place in her life for one. Her reaction was purely feminine. She saw it and she wanted it dreadfully…

Oops, there goes Paul Gallico expounding on the childishly weak nature of femininity again, a tendency he demonstrates fairly frequently, and which annoyed me so much in another one of his folksily frothy novellas, 1962’s Coronation. But steeling myself, and soldiering on, I allow myself to be caught up in the saga of Mrs. Harris and her Dior dress.

She does indeed reach her goal and attain her wonderful garment – the description of which appealed deeply to my own feminine soul, and left me feeling a yearning-for-loveliness sister to Ada Harris – but while she is going about it she also proceeds to magically make several unlikely friends connected with the House of Dior, and to change several lives, and to generally act as an unlikely catalyst to events beyond her daily sphere. For in Paul Gallico’s fictional world, a heart of gold and a cheeky smile can move mountains, cutting through the sneering superiority of the wealthy and snobbish, and bringing some down-to-earth sensibilities into the most artificially fabricated situations.

Mrs. Harris is our hero(ine) of the moment; her eternal wisdom sees through the superficialities of social class and fancy dress, to the eternal desires for “something higher” trapped within every human soul.

Oh, Paul Gallico. I do enjoy your work, but there is always just a little hesitation in my own occasionally cynical soul which stops me embracing your fables fully…

Mrs. Harris gets a pass, however, and a generous one; the unlikeliness of her quest puts this tale on a plane of its own.

Next up, three more fables concerning our charwoman with a flair for the extraordinary. Gallico followed up the phenomenal success of Mrs. Harris’s Parisian escapade with equally fantastical trips to America, to the British Houses of Parliament, and to Soviet Russia. I haven’t read any of these yet, but I am in possession of two of them, the America and Parliament capers, in the 1967 collection of novellas under one cover, Gallico Magic. My husband read that collection a year or so ago, and finished it off wit the comment that it was a bit much to take all together; he was completely Gallicoed out by the end. I may approach with more caution, judiciously choosing only one or two of the novellas and leaving the others for another time. I will be sure to report back on Mrs. Harris, though. I’m quite curious as to what further tangles she’ll untangle with her golden “common touch”!

Oh – and I can’t leave you without a comment on the edition of Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris which I’ve just read. It has to have some of the ugliest illustrations possible inside; an absolutely perfect example of generic illustration lite. I shan’t share; it would be too painful, but a glance at the cover will give you a clue as to the horrors within. As an antidote, and to soothe my own ruffled sensibilities, I include several much kinder covers below. (Query: Who or what is International Polygonics, Ltd., and why did they ruin their otherwise nicely produced edition of this book – good paper, lovely font – with these pedestrian pictures?)

Ah, well. Moving on (at last!),  here are several nice reviews to peruse.

One Minute Book Reviews – Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

Stuck-in-a-Book – Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

I do believe this is the first edition cover. Understated, but very pleasant.

I do believe this is the 1958 first edition cover. Understated, but very pleasant.

A nice early paperback cover, though Mrs. Harris is perhaps portrayed as a trifle more elderly than she should be; in the book she is a slender lady, capable of fitting into a Dior "floor model" hot off the runway mannequin, and she is also only "approaching her sixties" in age.

A nice early paperback cover, though Mrs. Harris is perhaps portrayed as a trifle more sturdy and elderly than she should be; in the book she is a slender woman, capable of fitting into a Dior “floor model” hot off the runway mannequin, and she is also described as “approaching her sixties” in age. The hat is bang-on, though!

Another early dustjacket, this one from the first American edition. This is my personal favourite; nice example of cover art by an artist who studied the story within.

Another early dust jacket, this one from the first American edition. This is my personal favourite; a great example of cover art by an artist who studied the story within.

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coronation paul gallico 001Coronation by Paul Gallico ~ 1962. This edition: Heinemann, 1962. First edition. Hardcover. 128 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

I struggled with this rating. It was a sweet, ultimately upbeat story, and my sentimental side wanted to put it higher, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. The major reason is that while the cover trumpets “A Novel” this slight effort is, in reality, only an extended short story, a novella. The secondary reason is that the characters are so dreadfully clichéd that they never truly came to life for me, though there were glimpses of what made them all tick here and there. Perennially sour and cranky Granny was perhaps the most “real” of them all, the most believable.

A working-class family of five, mother, father, two children and grandmother – the mother’s mother – decide to forego their annual seaside vacation and instead spend their meager holiday savings on a day trip to London to view the Coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth II. By a great stroke of luck, they’ve been put on to a wonderful opportunity: window seats in a grand house situated on Hyde Park Corner, plus a buffet lunch. With champagne. All this for only 10£ each – the tickets were marked down from 25£ – an amazing stroke of luck! What a good thing it was that cousin Bert in London was able to make the bargain purchase through one of his “connections”!

Steel mill shift foreman Will Clagg is bestirred by patriotic pride and a deep affection for his young, beautiful Queen; his wife Violet pictures herself elegantly sipping champagne (which she’s never tasted) like one of the film stars she so idolizes; 11-year-old Johnny, who cherishes a deep ambition to one day become an officer in the British Service, is thrilled to be able to see the massive parade of troops from all corners of the Commonwealth; 7-year-old Gwenny has her own private image of what she’ll see, the fairy-tale princess from one of her storybooks, a personal infatuation about to be fulfilled; Granny, the last hold-out to the proposed excursion, swings into agreement when it is pointed out that she saw the Funeral Procession of the last Queen, Victoria; how fitting that she should see the Coronation Procession of this one. “A living link, you are!” her despised son-in-law cries, and Granny lets herself be swayed.

In to London on the Coronation Special from Sheffield, to join the masses of humanity streaming in from every corner of England, and beyond. But when they finally struggle through the crowds to the address of their front-row-seats-and-champagne-lunch, what greets their shocked and unbelieving eyes is something very different from what they had expected…

Things I Liked About This Story:

Granny – The author creates an unlikeable character, allows us to despise her, and then strips away the surface veneer just for a few moments to allow us to understand the source of her bitterness, after which we are fully on her side. This was a delicately balanced little episode, and Gallico played it just right.

No Miracle – We are expecting some magically positive resolution to the family’s bitter dilemma. We don’t get it. The worst happens. A brave move on the author’s part; he bucks the expected trend.

The Scene – The glimpses of the actual Coronation going on very much in the background of the family’s experiences on the street, as it were. A wonderful depiction of what it musty have been like to be in the crowd of that day. A grand little novella for this reason alone, even without the contrivances – and they were sometimes very contrived – of the sentimental plot.

Will Clagg – Gallico’s tribute to the British Working Class Everyman. Will is decent, hard-working, self-sacrificing, deeply patriotic, deeply paternal, and he loves his wife dearly. Awww, how wonderful! Seriously though, he is a very decent sort, and I liked him thoroughly, saddled as he was with meek and rather silly Violet, her shrewish mother, and rather soppy little Gwenny. Which leads to what I didn’t like about the story.

Things I Didn’t Like About This Story:

The cookie-cutter stereotypes of all of the characters, from wee Gwenny to nasty-but-ultimately-heroic Granny to the policeman at the parade barricade. Every single one was true to the clichéd type we’ve come to expect from that particular place and era; no surprises there at all, though I will admit that Gallico presented his characters well.

The general meekness of every member of the family to their bitter individual disappointments, and the sops which the author created to soothe their woes. Just a little too simplistic, I thought, and the acceptance was too pat. Just a bit. (Says my inner cynic.) Is anyone really that stoic? Little Johnny in particular seemed to be very stiff-upper-lip about, well, everything. A bit of an unnatural child, surely. (But this very stoicism is perfectly suited to Johnny’s ambition of one day being a Noble British Army Officer, I’ll give Gallico that.)

Will’s misogyny towards women. This struck a rather sour note with me. Sure, he loves his wife and the kiddies, and puts up with his sour mother-in-law with good grace, and generally maintains a mild good nature. But Gallico’s little aside near the end of the story, as the family is ordering their meal in the restaurant car, set my teeth on edge.

For all of the fact that Will was a heavy, thick-set, powerful brute of a man who had fought his way up from the ranks of men to command them, he had learned something of the little things that tickled women, an extra ribbon on a dress, or some chintz at a kitchen window. They were not like men, they were more like children. And from the very beginning he had understood that the item which had sold Violet on the whole Coronation scheme and had overcome whatever scruples she might have had, or dissents she could have cooked up, was the champagne, the drink of bubbly advertised with the lunch. He had not, of course, been able to get wholly into her mind and visualize how she saw herself holding the special glass in her hand, the little finger cocked most elegantly, while she contemplated the bubbles rising in the yellow fluid before knocking it back, but he did appreciate that somehow this was to be the focus of the day for her, just that little extra something which sells or captivates a woman.

Well, speaking as a woman, when I read that passage my immediate reaction was “Ouch!” Of course men are above such trivial enjoyments. Being all thrilled at the sight of your name in a minor article in the newspaper is of course something quite different and not nearly as silly as a longed-for taste of champagne, eh Will? Ha!

My husband, who read this book before I did, was completely right, though. He passed it over to me with the comment that it was an enjoyable little story, in a minor sort of key. Which it was. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone, but if you come across it, it’s worth the hour or two of reading time it will take, if you are tolerant of deeply sentimental, “proud-to-be-an-Englishman”, and God Save the Queen goings on.

It was rather sweet.

And here are some other reviews, well worth checking out.

Stuck-in-a-Book liked it unreservedly.

Fleur Fisher shared my minor reservations, as did My Porch, but both nodded in appreciation to the good things that I also liked about this little tale.

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