Well, I didn’t finish any other books on my second day of novella reading. It was quite a busy day, what with church and a talk by Henrietta Garnett (more on that soon) and I also fell asleep at 9pm, in the middle of Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington. Then I woke up at half midnight… and went to sleep again at 5am. Not best pleased with my head and its ideas about sleep cycles, but I’m hoping to be back to normal tonight.
Paul Gallico’s Love of Seven Dolls seemed to raise the most interest, of the novellas I have mentioned, and I also said I’d lend it to Verity tomorrow – so I’ll get writing about it right away!
35. Love of Seven Dolls – Paul Gallico
As I mentioned at the weekend, I haven’t read anything else by Gallico – so this might be a case of me later wishing I’d chosen something else by him – but I’m going to go out on a limb and put Love of Seven Dolls on my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. I suppose it’s one that doesn’t get mentioned much in the blogosphere. Jane (aka Fleur Fisher) has written a lovely, compelling review of it here, but I must confess I hadn’t remembered her review when I picked up Love of Seven Dolls in Oxfam a few weeks ago. (Indeed, I’d forgotten that I’d read Jane’s review until I read my comment on it just now! So many blogs read does addle my brain somewhat…)
Right, let’s kick off. We’re in Paris, and Marelle (known as Mouche – ‘fly’) is off to drown herself in the Seine. Orphaned, she came from Brittany to make it as a singer, dancer, or (if that failed) rely on more worldly assets. But she has met with no success at any of these pursuits (‘Mouche excited pity rather than desire’) and – terribly hungry, sad, and alone – she decides to end it all.
Not the cheeriest start for a story, but you’ll be pleased to know that she is interrupted – by a doll in a puppet booth. Carrot Top gets into conversation with her, steering her away from the Seine. He, supposedly, manages the others – and is caring and wry. He is only the first of the dolls to make Mouche’s acquaintance – there are six others, each beguiling in the extreme. There’s Ali the gentle, rather stupid, giant; vain Gigi; pompous Dr. Duclos the penguin; maternal Madame Muscat; Monsieur Nicholas the mender of toys, and listener to woes. And then there’s my favourite of all – crafty, wily Reynardo – who is, of course, a fox.
In her naivety, without truly believing the puppets to be real, Mouche talks with them. Her ingenuous nature – for her conversations are not forced or false – soon draws passers-by, and she becomes part of the puppeteer’s act. But, lest this sound too whimsical for your tastes, let me assure you it is nothing of the kind. For here is the puppeteer:
It was like a chill hand laid upon her heart, for there was no warmth or kindliness in the figure lounging against the pole, his fists pressed deeply into the pockets of his jacket. The shine of his eyes was hostile and the droop of the cigarette from his lips contemptuous.
Mouche, in her marrow, knew that this was the puppet-master, the man who had animated the little creatures who had laid such an enchantment upon her, yet she was filled with dread. For a moment even she hoped that somehow this was not he, the master of the dolls, but some other, a pitch-man, a labourer, or lounger from a neighbouring concession.
How can this man be the voices of such endearing puppets? Well, it seems he is not entirely sure himself:
For in spite of the fact that it was he who sat behind the one-way curtain in the booth, animated them, and supplied their seven voices, the puppets frequently acted as strangely and determinedly as individuals over whom he had no control. Michel never had bothered to reflect greatly over this phenomenon but had simply accepted it as something that was so and which, far from interfering with the kind of life he was accustomed to living, brought him a curious kind of satisfaction.
Once Mouche has joined the troupe, a pattern sets in. Michel is increasingly cruel and violent, desperate to remove her innocence through any means possible; the puppets are kind and restorative. Gallico creates a kind of mad cacophony – the magical enchantment of endearing puppets; the bitterness of a cruel man; the emotions of a girl who is experiencing both the greatest loneliness and the greatest friendships of her life. There is never the suggestion that Mouche is mad, and the reader accepts unquestioned her relationship with Reynardo, Carrot Top and the others. At the same time, somehow, Michel’s cruelties – though sad – are not deeply unsettling, nor even as shocking as they should be. Is it the fairy-talesque tones which thread throughout the narrative? I think it must be. Gallico, after all, draws from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Beauty and the Beast. The evil stepmother’s behaviour, in the former tale, does not shock us in the way that it would in a modern novel. Love of Seven Dolls is not a fairy-tale, but it borrows some of the atmosphere of them.
The story is bizarre, but it is not bewildering. Gallico weaves together the dark and light so skillfully that they do not jar – nor does either take precedence. We aren’t permitted to rest upon either, and are pulled along for the strange, captivating experience.
All the while, reading this novella, I thought that it would make a brilliant film – perhaps one with Tim Burton at the helm. Only after I’d finished did I investigate the history of Love of Seven Dolls. Gallico wrote a story called ‘The Man Who Hated People’ (1950), which was adapted into the film Lili (1953). Only then did Gallico complete the circle, after the success of the film: rewriting and extending the story to become the novella I have in my hands.
Love of Seven Dolls exemplifies many of the reasons I cherish novellas over longer works. There is no need for extemporaneous matter when a writer can create such a powerful and complex work in under a hundred pages. It really is an extraordinary little book, written so cleverly and compellingly. Do seek it out, if you possibly can – and Gallico has also been favoured with many beautiful covers. The top one is my copy; the other images I’ve tracked down online – aren’t they great?