Young Men in Love by Michael Arlen (1927)

Review by Margaret B:

Young Men in Love by Michael Arlen is just as much about old men in lust as young men in love. Interlaced throughout this book are the stories and love lives of  three powerful older men – Serle an MP and  cabinet minister, Vardon an industrialist and Lord Townleigh, a newspaper magnate. Mainly set in the Roaring Twenties against a backdrop of what seems like non-stop socialising this, this book attempts to deal with obsession, jealousy, extra marital relationships, parental control, friendship and occasionally love. From the 21st Century, it is an interesting expose of upper class morality in the 1920s.

Saville, a successful author falls in love with Venetia, Vardon’s daughter who initially rejects him. But Venetia had previously been in a relationship with Serle – her father’s friend which Saville finds increasingly difficult to deal with. Ysabel, a famous actress, is in love with Saville while she is pursued by Raphael, Townleigh’s son, who feels he cannot live without Ysabel and is devastated when he finds his father also pursuing Ysabel.

It is an exhausting read – Arlen has a frenetic style and it is not easy to follow what is going on – reflecting perhaps the almost constant drunken socialising of the main characters? It seems like Arlen is trying to be clever in his use of language but it is relentless! Words or phrases are often repeated three times and sentences are short. For example

“Saville was at dinner that evening at Lacey Moat. Vardon did not know it, Serle did not know it, Gore-Crammer did not know it but Serle was there. He sat, stood, there he was, anyhow on Venetia’s plate. He did not say much. She did.”

This style continues throughout with little change of pace.

The read is made more exhausting by a strong authorial voice which is constantly commenting on what is happening. A contemporary review by Ogden Goelet on May 16 1927 commented:

“Maxims are to be found at the beginning and end of each line, and one feels that Arlen is trying his hardest to impress us with his cleverness.”

But in spite of these complex relationships, the frantic pace as the characters rush around London from one social even to another and the frenetic writing style, not a lot really happens. The plot is slow moving and much of the story is confusing conversations between characters who are either drunk, emotionally overwrought or for whatever reason obfuscating what they really mean. Two potentially dramatic events – the stealing of a diamond from Townleigh and a threatened suicide both fail to make much impact.

The characters are not very pleasant and are quite superficial so it is hard to empathise with any of them. This may all be deliberate to highlight the superficiality of the times, the lack of morality and the lack of direction of this immediate post war generation but if so it doesn’t quite work. While the book does give a sense of high society in the “Roaring Twenties”, Evelyn Waugh or even PG Wodehouse do it so much better.

2 thoughts on “Young Men in Love by Michael Arlen (1927)

  1. I’ve yet to read any Arlen (although I have “The Green Hat” on Mount TBR). It sounds like his style might take some getting used to, but I’m prepared to give him a try!

    • I found The Green Hat pretty unreadable but it was intriguing to try and understand why it spoke so compellingly to many people at the time. Arlen is very sincere, without the wit of other ‘roaring twenties’ novelists. I’d be interested to know what you think!

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