Hell! said the Duchess, by Michael Arlen

Well, let’s just say, this book wasn’t entirely what I’d expected. – Arlen was, so I read somewhere once, the best-selling novelist in England during the 1920s, with his Green Hat; and so I imagined in my way that Arlen would be a fashionable writer of society, some sort of John Galsworthy – I supposed – but in a lighter, more entertaining vein. But then there are strange things about Michael Arlen: like for instance his name wasn’t Michael Arlen but Dikran Kouyoumdijan; and he wasn’t English but a Bulgarian-born Armenian.

This book is a melange of genres – a sort of post-modernist mish-mash, if you want a technical definition: it begins as a pleasant novel about the well-off, becomes a serial-killer novel (the combination of these two in fact might have put in mind Bret Easton Ellis, if I’d read ever him), a detective novel, and finally a novel of the occult, all with an odd background of dystopian fiction. The dystopian element perhaps was the one I found the most interesting: – this was the last of my 1930s novels I expected to find any politics; and yet here, writing in 1934, Arlen posits England run by a Conservative-Fascist coalition (Churchill and Mosley in power), in reaction to communist agitation – there is a constant theme running through, in fact, of absurd English jingoism and contempt for the foreigner, the suggestion seeming to be that England’s attitudes are basically fascist in the first place. The last part of the novel just gets weirder as it goes along: I’d compare it with Bram Stoker (if I’d read any) or something out of Lovecraft. It certainly bares little resemblance to what has gone before, and the political ramifications of the serial killing (considered earlier in the work to be the work of an agent provocateur trying to incite a communist uprising) are forgotten.

He’s often compared to (indeed, called the “English) F Scott Fitzgerald(“), and he certainly does have a humorous and ironic turn of phrase when it comes to dissecting his high society (which is about all I remember about Scotty – I haven’t read him in a while). In fact, I don’t think Arlen would let a good joke go simply because it got in the way of the narrative: some amused me greatly; some, with the passage of time and the loss of reference, merely bemused me.

Fun then, but nonsense. – Yet somehow I feel myself intrigued to read some more Arlen. His novel Men Dislike Women, for instance: is it just a parody of Hemingway? And his utopian novel, Man’s Mortality?

The TLS review doesn’t have much to add: that he is witty; and that Arlen doesn’t have the skill satisfactorily to solve his own novel’s set-up, claiming “when he begins to toy with spiritual evil he is floundering beyond his depth … the shadow of an evil principle too paltry in its erotic aberrations to be worth evoking.” – Which reminds me that the last scenes are pretty upfront in their sexuality (the second book in a row, in fact), for an age that we’re led to believe wasn’t.

Next up: Scenes From The Life of Cleopatra, by Mary Butts


4 thoughts on “Hell! said the Duchess, by Michael Arlen

  1. Wandered on here very late in the day, Obooki, but I’m something of an Arlen buff so can give you some thoughts on him, which you may find at some point. His was, as you probably know, a career of two halves: early success writing self-consciously witty and slightly scandalous novels about a glamorised (glamourised? I never know) version of 1920s London high society, followed by a long period when he went out of fashion, experimented with different styles, and flopped. He had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life, but his aimless, comfy existence on the Riviera and his artistic frustrations are movingly recalled in the book ‘Exiles’ by his son Michael J Arlen.

    He had something, an individual talent probably never really fulfilled. ‘The Green Hat’ which made him all the money, is an extraordinary piece, with a lurid plot and highly stylised narration, but well worth a read. It does seem to capture that art deco era in an odd way. The later stuff like ‘Man’s Mortality’ is perhaps more interesting for us now as some of his futuristic predictions were pretty close to the mark, but the books are a bit clumsy. I think he wasn’t really very good at plots.

    To get more of an idea about him, I would suggest reading ‘The Green Hat’, perhaps ‘Piracy’ and any of his short stories. His faults are less obvious in the shorter form and the affectations less wearisome. He wrote a few really good ghost stories, too.

  2. Yes, in regard to plot, he certainly seems to come across as someone who doesn’t really care.

    I must get round to The Green Hat some time.

    Now that someone’s commented on one of my early posts, I suppose that’s going to bugger up my blog even more than it is already. Through carelessness, I’ve already managed to disassociate the comments from the posts, meaning I’d have to go through manually now and re-apply them. Too tiring. Might still put up all the remaining posts when I get a minute.

  3. No, I’m sure your comment was more interesting than anything that was there before. It’s not like I get a lot of people on here who’ve read much Michael Arlen. – And let’s face it, I’ve hardly reinstated many of my old posts – let alone am I ever going to get round to sorting out all the comments.

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