Invisible Ink: No 84 - Michael Arlen

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The Independent Culture

'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.