Next up is Michael Arlen (real name was Dikran Kouyoumdjian), an Armenian who grew up in Britain.
Arlen found fame in the 1920s with his novel The Green Hat (1924), which was one of the first to depict the ‘Bright Young Things’ of post-World War I Mayfair. He followed up this success with this collection, May Fair.
Review by Thecla:
This book consists of 11 short stories and a prologue (also a short story). The title May Fair is subtitled
Being an Entertainment purporting to reveal to Gentlefolk
the Real state of Affairs existing in the very Heart of
London during the fifteenth and sixteenth years
of the reign of His Majesty King George
the Fifth: together with Suitable
reflections on the last follies,
teries of These Charm-
This gives you some idea of the whimsical and fantastic nature of much that follows. The stories are varied in subject matter. There are romances, ghost stories, tales of fantasy and the macabre as well as comedies. Some feature characters from his previous book “These Charming People”.
All the stories are written in a whimsical, mannered style and the tone throughout is rather brittle and flippant. We are very much in the amusing and hedonistic Twenties where enjoying oneself is compulsory and nothing is to be taken too seriously.
Arlen’s prose is often convoluted and affected; sometimes it takes a second reading to work out what he is saying. Here he is describing one of his recurring characters, Capel Maturin:
…one of his favourite mots had ever been , whether in discussion, distress, or danger, “Well, my friends, let’s face it!” There were, of course, not wanting those who ventured to doubt whether Beau Maturin had so readily “faced” things had he not had such a prepossessing face with which to conciliate them.
While the tone is very Twenties, the prose seems as likely to have been written in the 1890s as in 1925 and Arlen clearly has Oscar Wilde in mind. As well as the reference to Wilde on page 301 there is also an oblique one in The Ghoul of Golders Green. In this story two young men about town come to the rescue of a girl who tells a tale of her father and his discovery of how to make green carnations.
The stories which have a fairy-tale quality seem most Wildean while the fantastical and macabre ones hark back to Saki.
For me, Arlen’s style works least effectively in the romantic stories such as The Three-Cornered Moon. In this The Duchess of Mall leaves her husband because of his spoilt, childish ways and his predilection for making love to young women under her nose. He goes to Paris where he meets her twin sister and falls in love with her. It is, of course, his wife. It is a slight and very artificial confection with two-dimensional characters.
More successful are the stories involving ghosts or the macabre. The Prince of the Jews tells the story of the haunting of Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Fasset-Faith by Julian Raphael, the Jew. Arlen effectively creates a sinister atmosphere and feeling of persecution when he shows Sir Charles leaving his Club one night and being followed by a young man, Raphael, who threatens to kill him.
The beautiful Jew said softly:- “You have a broad back, Sir Charles. It is a fine mark for a well-thrown knife. Have I not always said so!”
As they talk it becomes apparent that Raphael is either a ghost or a hallucination and that Sir Charles is expecting this persecution. He does indeed die at the end of the story but not quite in the way he expected to.
The Gentleman from America is about two young men who bet an American they meet that he won’t be able to stay a night in a haunted room. He takes them on and they play a trick on him during the night, leading him to think that he has shot someone. Eleven years later they come across him by chance and express themselves pleased to see that “you are quite yourself after all”. But he tries to strangle the one who tells him that the gun had contained blanks. His victim is saved by the arrival of the asylum attendants. The head-warder says
“Gave us the slip this morning. Certain death for someone. Homicidal maniac, that’s ‘im. And he’s the devil to hold. Been like that eleven years. Got a shock, I fancy.”
Arlen was very popular in the Twenties and his work was considered to be witty, cynical, charming and beautifully written. To me it seems mildly amusing rather than witty and his epigrams unmemorable (he doesn’t seem to feature in Dictionaries of Quotations). Beautifully written is a matter of taste, of course, but reading page after page of Arlen is a bit like having nothing but meringues to eat. They may look lovely but there’s really nothing to them. And sometimes sentences seem to go on and on, each new relative clause and, often, each new negative, making the sense even less clear.
I quite enjoyed some of the stories but not enough to want to read any more Arlen.