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.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Emma Watson on Jennifer Lawrence naked photo leak: 'Even worse than seeing women's privacy violated is reading the comments'
- 2 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 3 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 4 Cee Lo Green: It is only rape if the victim is conscious
- 5 Katie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge: ‘I hate fat people for making me do this’
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
North Korea threatens Britain over 'mud-slinging' Channel 4 thriller focusing on Kim Jong-un's nuclear weapons programme
Olivia Colman and Mary Berry top Radio Times' female power list
New Netflix releases: Films and TV shows coming in September 2014
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ashya King: 'Cruel NHS has not given us the treatment we need', says father of five-year-old with brain tumour who fled to Spain