Head Butler, AKA New York City writer and editor Jesse Kornbluth, took a moment from featuring books, movies, music, and other products of today to recognize the merits of Michael J. Arlen’s 1970 memoir of his parents, Exiles: “a book so astonishingly well-written you won’t believe it’s out of print and can be bought, used, for as little as a penny.”
Arlen’s father, Michael Arlen, was one of the most famous and best-selling authors of the 1920s–as well known or better than Fitzgerald back then. Arlen’s most popular novels, The Green Hat
(now reissued by Capuchin Classics). As Mark Valentine summarizes the book in a fine article on the Lost Book Club website,
The novel was quite simply the novel of the year, seized upon as the poetically true testament to a brilliant, daring and doomed generation. The owner of the green hat is Iris Storm, whose wild pursuit of pleasure in the parties, masquerades, night clubs and restaurants of London and Paris has led to her reputation as a ‘shameless, shameful’ woman: but paradoxically there is some calm reserve in her which seems to imply a secret inner grace. The melodramatic narrative, written in what one critic called an ‘opium dream style’, sonorous with exotic and cosmic images, may only draw a wry smile today. The heroine’s first husband, clean-cut ‘Boy’ Fenwick, commits suicide on their wedding night by throwing himself out of their bedroom window. She allows it to be assumed he did this because of something he learned about her, and her reckless career serves to support this view. But an ardent admirer reveals at last the truth to her friends and Fenwick’s family: that her husband had syphilis and she has sacrificed her reputation to protect his good name. Furious at this betrayal of the ‘one fine thing’ in her life, Iris rushes off in her sleek yellow Hispano-Suiza car and is killed in a collision with a great ancient tree, her rakish green hat floating free beyond the flames.
But Michael Arlen the successful novelist, hob-nobber with the likes of Maugham, Churchill, Nancy Astor, and Sam Goldwyn, was something of a chameleon. Born Dikran Kouyoumdjian, he was one of hundreds of thousands of exiles from the Turkish campaigns against Armenians at the end of World War One, the story Franz Werfel tells in his epic, Forty Days of Musa Dagh (also out of print). After his bright successes of the 1920s, however, Arlen quickly fell in the eyes of both the reading public and the critics. By the end of the 1930s, he was completely blocked, and he spent much of the remaining thirty years of his life depressed and isolated.
Arlen (the son) worked for the New Yorker as a television critic for many years, and two collections of his articles, Living Room War, which was, in part, about news coverage of the Vietnam War, and The View from Highway 1, are back in print from the Syracuse University Press. Thirty Seconds, a 1981 book-length expansion of an article about the making of an AT&T long distance ad, is one of the best and funniest pieces of television criticism ever written and well worth seeking out for a quick evening’s read.
In looking into the works of Arlen (fis), I learned that he had made a stab at novel-writing in 1984, Goodbye to Sam. Although most reviews dismissed the book as “slight” and “less than fully successful,” Time‘s reviewer did comment, “… with much of its detail is so close to Arlen’s life that it is tempting to read the book as therapy or revenge. But it works, elegiacally and sometimes forcefully, as fiction.”