Invisible Ink 6: Michael Arlen
‘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.