I don’t think I’ve read any author whose work is as disparate as Paul Gallico (and I probably start all my reviews of his books by saying that.) I started with the novel I still consider his best, of the ones I’ve read: the dark fairy-tale Love of Seven Dolls. Then there is the whimsical (Jennie), the amusing and eccentric (the Mrs. Harris series), the adventure story (although I’ve not read it, The Poseidon Adventure surely falls into this category.)
I started The Foolish Immortals (1953) hoping that it would be in one category, it shifted into another, and then it revealed a whole new facet of Gallico’s writing arsenal. Confused? I’ll try to explain…
The concept of The Foolish Immortals immediately appealed to me, because it sounded like the sort of topic which could easily be given the Love of Seven Dolls treatment, revolving (as it did) around manipulation, wilful delusion, and a touch of distorted fairy-tale – the last of which seems to be the ingredient which appears, in some form or other, in all the Gallico novels I’ve read.
Hannah Bascombe is rich, old, American heiress, who has successfully invested the money her business man father left her to make herself one of the richest people in the world. There is only one aspect of her life over which she does not have ultimate control – and that is its span. She has, she notes, reached her three-score-and-ten, and cannot have many decades left to live. And yet… and yet, she hopes that money and power might be able to secure her immortality.
Enter, stage-left, Joe Sears. He is a poor man and a chancer, clever and manipulative, and sees an opportunity. Having enlisted the dubious help of a young (but visually ageless) ex-soldier called Ben-Isaac (in case Gallico didn’t signpost it well enough, he’s Jewish), Sears manages to get an appointment with Hannah Bascombe. To do so, he has to get past her beautiful, utterly dependent niece Clary – but, having manoeuvred his way to Hannah, he recognises her vulnerability, and thinks that it could be a good way to make himself some money…
“What if you were able to duplicate their years? Supposing you were able to outwit the Philistines waiting to trample your vineyards by outliving them, like Mahlalaleel, Cainan, Jared and Enoch, generation after generation down through the centuries until no living man would remember when you were born and not even unborn generations of the future could hope to be alive when you died?”
He offers Hannah this possibility, based on the ages to which people are described as living in the Old Testament (often many centuries) – suggesting that he knows where they can find a food which will give Hannah the same longevity. And it’s in Israel.
A bit of persuasion later, and they’re off. Nobody really trusts anybody else on this venture, and everybody is out for themselves. Things grow even trickier to decipher (for the reader too) when they stumble across a man purported to be Ben-Isaac’s missing, much-beloved uncle – a much-lauded academic who is, it turns out, working on the land. Sears is, naturally, suspicious of this stranger, particularly when he takes over and Hannah appoints him the leader of their venture. Who is scamming whom?
And this is where Gallico’s other genres come into play. There is a sizeable amount of what I admired in Love of Seven Dolls, but Sears is never quite as credible a villain as Monsieur Nicholas – in neither a fairytale nor a realistic way – simply because Sears is quite an inconsistent character. Which matches the change in genres – in Israel, things turn rather ‘adventure novel’ for a while, as they caught up in a shoot-out. I know this sort of thing is supposed to be very exciting, but I find it unutterably tedious, and ended up skipping most of that section.
So we come onto the genre I’d yet to encounter in Gallico’s novels – the spiritual or religious theme. As you might know, I am a Christian, but I don’t often read novels which feature faith – and, I have to say, I was a bit nervous to see how skilfully Gallico would handle it. And, I’ve got to say, I was quite impressed – both the Jewish and Christian characters experience direct or indirect encounters with God while travelling through Israel, and these sections were moving (although, it must be conceded, entirely out of kilter with the rest of the novel.)
There are a few more twists and turns, a few more rugs pulled from under feet, and The Foolish Immortals concludes. It is a very interesting, but maddeningly inconsistent novel. Not inconsistent in quality (perhaps), but in style and tone. It’s as though Gallico wanted to write a novel which took place in Israel, and couldn’t decide whether it should be about faith, boyish adventure, or unsettling manipulation – and so threw all of them in together.
Yet again, this is a book I’m criticising for not being written in the way I’d hoped it would be – but with, I think, greater justification than with yesterday’s post on Consider the Years, because in the case of The Foolish Immortals, it started off in the way I’d expected. With this ingenious idea, Gallico could have written one of my favourite novels. As it turns out, he’s written a good book, which I find quite intriguing, a little bewildering, and not insignificantly disappointing.