Invisible Ink 6: Michael Arlen

Reading & Writing


‘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 and ‘Downton Abbey’. 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 ‘When a Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’ had been born to Armenian parents in 1895, and his real name was Dikran Konyounmdjian. When he wisely changed it, he checked a London telephone directory to make sure the English version was unique.

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 fifteen 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. Its 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 grim pattern of interference exerted itself on this smashing success; a London play version starred Tallulah Bankhead, and a travestied Hollywood film with 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, Noel Coward.

Arlen was now living within the society circles he portrayed. A friend of DH Lawrence (he’s the basis for a character in ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’), he married a countess and tried to repeat the success of ‘The Green Hat’, tackling science fiction and a political novel.

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 have reprinted him in attractive editions.

5 comments on “Invisible Ink 6: Michael Arlen”

  1. Wayne Mook says:

    I recently read his ‘Hell, Said the Duchess.’ his depiction of the lower classes is crass to say the least, and although he makes remarks about the upper classes his fawning shines through, his witticisms are fun in the style of JM Barrie’s ‘Idle Thoughts of an Idle Man’ but I don’t think I’ll be visiting him again. This tale contains murder as well and could be argued to be horror by the end.

    It was sad the way he was treated, during the war his allegiance was questioned due to his origins, the same people who backed Hitler. I read he moved to New York and had writer’s block for the ten years upto his death.


  2. Vivienne says:

    The Green Hat has been on my to read list for a long time. Perhaps I’d better zoom it up to nearer the top.

  3. snowy says:

    Hmmm…. there must be an untold tale here?

    His appointment to a minor administration role in a civilian non-combatant organisation caused questions to be asked in Parliament of the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison [of the shelter fame]. Who agreed to answer in writing to the MP concerned.

    A week later, the Prime Minister, Winnie, [for it was he], is called upon to publish the written answer to the whole house, a request he seems to brush off.

    Time to find a newspaper archive!

  4. Vivienne says:

    I love coincidences. Have just looked at Abe Books most requested out of print books, and there is The Green Hat, along with such gems as Phoebe and the Hot Water Bottles, the Art of Knitting and Mormon Doctrine.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    My library has The Green Hat, Passage to Ararat, Exiles, Thirty Seconds. I was hoping for These Charming people but apparently not.Vancouver doesn’t have it, either, because they have a number of his essays on television instead. Funny how you get a different view of an author depending on where you look.

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