Monday, 18 February 2013

Michael Arlen

Michael Arlen (1895-1956) was a literary shooting star among the smart set of the 1920s. Born to Armenian parents as Dikran Kouyoumdjian, he migrated to London during the First World War, changed his name and reinvented himself as a dapper man of letters. Determined to be more English than the English – or ‘every other inch a gentleman’, as a joke of the time had it – he became the self-styled chronicler of the Mayfair set, publishing a string of short story collections and novels, none more successful than The Green Hat in 1924 (later filmed with Greta Garbo). If you don’t know the name, this excellent short piece by Christopher Fowler in The Independent will give you the facts.

I first encountered him in the pages of Claud Cockburn’s Bestseller (1972), a survey of ‘the books everyone read 1900-1939’. Cockburn had little time for Arlen or the celebrity that he so studiously cultivated: ‘[he] was, I believe, the only novelist to have his trouser-buttons torn off by mobs of fans on the quay at New York.’ He dismissed the baffling plot of The Green Hat as ‘a hurriedly constructed though highly painted vehicle in which the reader is to be taken on the conducted tour through an imaginary England’. And how right he was. The book is a farrago of improbabilities, of fatuous dialogue and rhythmic, empurpled prose. Let me take a passage at random, this from the narrator’s first encounter with the enigmatic, hat-wearing heroine, Iris Storm:

Her eyes were stronger than mine, even as wind is stronger than air, and always in them was the magic of wide open places. I looked down, and far below, like two pearls in the dust, shone two ankles clasped in silk the colour of daylight. I thought of her fate and of her. I thought of corruption, of curses, of death, of life, of love, and of love’s delight. I took hold of the sword in my mind with both hands, but was not strong enough to lift it. I thought of the limbs of Aphrodite, of the sighs of Anaitis, of the sharp cries of love’s delight. I thought how charming men would be if they could misbehave outwardly as prettily as the can in their minds…

Whether two ankles, however comely, could possibly inspire this stream of quasi-philosophical speculation in an attentive young man is anyone’s guess. Somehow it didn’t matter, for what Arlen gave his readers was the illusion of reading about fashionable people leading ‘racy’ lives, all evoked in a language of baroque ornamentation – a winning formula that made him a millionaire, at least until taste started to move away from him in the 1930s. In his own first novel, Burmese Days (1934), George Orwell conjured up an image of Arlen’s typical reader in typical reading posture:

Elizabeth lay on the sofa in the Lackersteens’ drawing-room, with her feet up and a cushion behind her head, reading Michael Arlen’s These Charming People. In a general way Michael Arlen was her favourite author…

However unreadable his writings, Arlen interests me because he had all manner of connections to other people whose reputations have held up better than his own. A friend of DH Lawrence, he turns up in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) as the playwright Michaelis. One of the many lovers of Nancy Cunard (she nicknamed him ‘The Baron’), he vied for her affections with Aldous Huxley, who as early as 1915 was writing in a letter of Lawrence’s plans to decamp the ‘deserts of Florida’ with an ‘Armenian’. Later, Huxley speared Arlen in print as a character in Those Barren Leaves (1925). Lightly disguised as ‘the swarthy Syrian with the blue jowl and the silver monocle’, he ‘never lost an opportunity of telling people he was a poet; he was forever discussing the inconveniences and compensating advantages of possessing an artistic temperament’. (Cunard, I should add, is supposedly the model for Iris Storm, although the wife of our esteemed Chancellor also stakes a claim for Idina Sackville in her book The Bolter (2008)).
Arlen influenced the young Hemingway, too, an influence that Scott Fitzgerald deplored. He bankrolled the first production of Noël Coward’s play The Vortex (1924). When Anthony Powell came down from Oxford, he was naturally drawn to lodge in Shepherd Market because that’s where the seduction scene in The Green Hat was set (yes, those pearly ankles again). Rebecca West spent General Election Night 1929 in Arlen’s company at an all-night party at Selfridge’s, although she was later to write sniffily of his work as ‘a mixture of the genuine article and advertising copy’. 
Surprisingly, there is no biography of this once all-conquering novelist.* A good friend of mine is a relative of his, and with her help, I nosed around the possibility of attempting one. Arlen’s son (a rather better writer than his father, if truth be told) is still alive and resident in New York, where Arlen père moved after a final snub from the English society he so longed to join. Michael J’s response to my approaches was to advise that everything he had to say about his father he had said in his own memoir, Exiles (1971). A very fair response: it’s a fine book and paints a memorable picture of the ageing novelist in ‘retirement’, now forgotten by the public and afflicted by writer’s block:

…from downstairs, just below my room, from the library I’d hear these footsteps. Footsteps pacing. Back and forth. It was a small room really, the library. I don’t know how many times he must have walked around it. The big desk up against the curtains. The paper laid out for him. The pencils. His favourite pen. The books all around…

Perhaps, instead of a biography, there is an essay in the history of the taste waiting to be written. How do the ‘books everyone read’ ninety years ago become the books that no one reads?

*Harry Keyishian’s volume in the Twayne’s English Authors Series (1975) is primarily a work of literary criticism, although it contains much useful biographical material and remains the only book-length study of this author. 

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