Invisible Ink: No 84 - Michael Arlen
Sunday 03 July 2011
'For King and cocktails!" cries Marley, the aristocrat whose futile life is dissected in the novel Piracy.
The world of Mayfair between the wars can make for a stifling read. All those debs and ballrooms, the spiteful point-scoring of titled couples, the calibrated snobbery of the Empire almost on its uppers, now provides us with little beyond nostalgia. Michael Arlen was too clever to settle for merely regurgitating the antics of the fast set, but he was fascinated by its world.
The man who gave us the story "When a Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" (from whence the song derived) had been born Dikran Kouyoumjian, to Armenian parents in 1895. If F Scott Fitzgerald was the chronicler of America's abandoned jazz era, in the UK it was Michael Arlen who catalogued the hedonism of the Lost Generation. As an outsider, he determined to become the most English of gentlemen, in his appearance and in his writing.
These Charming People contains 15 witty vignettes of London society, but don't expect the usual arrangement of brittle dinner-party epithets. The linked tales contain murder, blackmail, lost dreams, wasted opportunities and more than one ghost, presented in Arlen's casually understated dialogue.
The best was still to come. The Green Hat was an instant success. The hat's wearer, Iris Storm, is an enigmatic party girl whose younger husband defenestrates himself on their wedding night. What secret did she impart that could have caused such violence? The usual pattern exerted itself on this smashing success: a London play version starred Tallulah Bankhead, and a travestied Hollywood film, A Woman of Affairs with Greta Garbo, removed the novel's dark core, excising references to venereal disease and homosexuality.
Arlen was no longer an outsider, and used some of his profits to finance The Vortex, the first hit play from a fellow struggling writer, Noël Coward. He was now within the society circles which he portrayed. A friend of DH Lawrence (he's the basis for the playwright Michaelis in Lady Chatterley's Lover), he also married a countess.
He tried to repeat the success of The Green Hat by tackling science fiction and a political novel, but it wasn't what the public wanted. Worse, his foreign ancestry now turned critics against him. Coward was careful never to bite society's hand; Arlen was braver and suffered for it. Happily, Capuchin Classics has reprinted him in attractive editions.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Saudi Arabia mosque bombing: Two volunteer security guards hailed as heroes for stopping Isis suicide bomber reaching worshippers
- 2 Maisie Williams has an excellent message for one confused fan
- 3 There is something wrong but very right about this Bible illustration
- 4 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
- 5 Tampon tax scrapped in Canada after petition convinces conservative government
Jay Z's Tidal could be about to lose Beyonce's music in ultimate humiliation
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
Thrill of the chaste: The truth about Gandhi's sex life
Big Brother 2015 new housemates: Simon Gross returns as stripper Marc O'Neill, model Harry Amelia Martin and X Factor reject Sam Kay join
Burning Man festival revellers accidentally torch prehistoric artefacts in Israel
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'