by Woodfin, Barbara
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Michael Arlen (1895-1956)
Before his talents would be recognized and admired in fashionable cities like London, New York and Hollywood, the writer Dikran Kouyoumdjian had to create a new name for himself as Michael Arlen. Under this assumed persona, Arlen experienced a fleeting success that alleviated but never resolved his struggle to identify with his Armenian roots. Born in Rustchuk, Bulgaria on November 16, 1895 to Armenian parents, Arlen came to England in 1901. He attended Malvern College and, later, entered Edinburgh University as a medical student. Arlen quickly abandoned this profession to pursue writing; by 1916, he was writing for magazines while living in London. He would not become a British subject until 1922 and could not serve in the military during the First World War, but he served up his stylistic wit as an entertaining distraction for wartime readers. His work also displayed a serious side by offering a glimpse into the mind of a man deeply troubled by his displaced identity. His first published essay, “An Appeal to Sense,” originally appeared in Arat: A Searchlight on Armenia and was later re-printed (on August 3, 1916) in The New Age. In the piece, Arlen discusses the misguided notion of “sentimentalising about Armenia” while expressing his desire that Armenians recognize and reclaim their “lost nationality” (NA 19.14: 322). This argument would become a recurring theme in many of his New Age contributions and in his later work.
As a writer for The New Age, Arlen—who published under his real name in the magazaine until 1920—reached a broader audience that included intellectuals and other English elites, whose lifestyle he would target in many of his satirical essays, short plays, and novels. Arlen took several jabs at these people in the midst of a devastating war, preferring his wit to his fist as his “weapon against mortality” (“The Decline of Humour”: NA 19.19: 448). Many of Arlen’s New Age contributions also reflect the strained relations between the Turkish and Armenian peoples that had played a major part in his initial relocation to England. Turkey had suffered in the Balkan Wars in 1912 and then sided with Germany in WWI, after which mass murders of Armenians were carried out, presumably by the Turkish government (Keyishian 17). In “The Function of Daggers,” Arlen confronts such senseless brutality, noting that “commonplace men with power do strange things” (NA 20.11: 259). Arlen resists “appeal[ing] for pity” to the British in “The Art of Being Oppressed” (NA 21.9: 208) and seems concerned that people receiving pity, like the Poles and the Irish, may overcompensate for their persecution with “aggressive independence” (207). This warning about misdirected anger was later echoed in his speech to members of the Armenian Educational Foundation in New York (reprinted in the New York Times, March 25, 1925). Arlen claimed that “all the troubles in the world come from this driving at nationalities—jealousy, ill-will, warfare” (Keyishian 69). He remained sympathetic, however, to others who faced threats to their identities, likening the Armenians’ crisis to that of the Jews in “New Lamps for Old” (NA 19.25: 595) and commenting on the problem of English rule in Ireland in “Figures in a Room” (NA 20.23: 539).
These essays also show Arlen’s ambivalence about whether he should lash out against his oppressors or simply suppress his anger and try to “fit in” with his adopted culture. This desire to be unassuming stemmed from his fear of appearing foolish; Arlen often sacrificed his right to “make an appreciable loud noise” against an oppressor in favor of being a “monkey who cannot do tricks,” which allowed him to avoid ridicule: “Who will smile at a monkey without tricks?” (NA 21.9: 208). Arlen, however, was not completely immune to criticism, even at the height of his success. By emulating the popular style of men’s fashion in London, he was labeled a “dandy.” He made light of this reputation in “A Defence of Tailors” (NA 21.1: 16-17), but personal attacks on his works and character proved more damaging later on in his career, when his sense of humor ceased to mask his vulnerable interior.
Arlen’s first major success came when his most significant contribution to The New Age, a series of ten pieces called The London Papers (August 1918 – May 1919), was republished as a novel called The London Venture (1920). In this semi-autobiographical work about the experiences of a young man in London, the reader finds more evidence of Arlen’s alienation even though he acknowledges the many writers who had adopted him into their circle. This same tension is apparent in a series of letters in The New Age between Arlen and another contributor, Marmaduke Pickthall. In one letter (NA 25.4: 70), Arlen accuses Pickthall of misinterpreting, in a previous article, the extent of the troubled relationship between the Armenians and the Turks; Arlen thus illustrates his desire to educate those who would categorize the Armenians without knowing what it means to be Armenian.
Though he achieved only modest success with his early works that aimed at edification, Arlen's novel The Green Hat (1924) and his collections of short stories published between 1921 and 1925—The Romantic Lady, These Charming People, and May Fair—were all wildly successful, despite their complete lack of substance. His works appealed especially to female readers, and they were serialized in magazines like Redbook and Cosmopolitan. His most popular works also tapped into the insight he gained from his observations of English life.
In 1927, Arlen met the Greek Countess Atalanta Mercati, whom he would marry the following year. But after a whirlwind of success in America following the theatrical production of The Green Hat and its first film version, A Woman of Affairs (1927), Arlen’s popularity quickly diminished. Young Men in Love (1927) was no match for its predecessor, and his experiments with ghost stories and a futuristic novel, Man’s Mortality (1933), were both poorly received by critics and readers. Arlen made a desperate attempt to reclaim his audience by returning to his romantic style in several short stories and plays, but he never regained his celebrity status.
The release of his final novel, The Flying Dutchman (1939), coincided with the beginning of World War II. To contribute to the war effort, Arlen left his family in America and returned to England. He served as an air-raid warden, or “information officer for Civil Defense” (Arlen 36), until he was accused of posing a possible threat because of his ethnic background and was forced to resign. Arlen also continued to publish his essays and stories in The Tatler, including some anti-German and anti-Communist pieces. In 1941, Arlen returned to Hollywood to continue his work and earned himself a few minor film credits. He moved to New York in 1945, and it was there that he died of lung cancer on June 23, 1956.
- Arlen, Michael. Exiles. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.
- Keyishian, Harry. Michael Arlen. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1975.
- Martin, Wallace. The New Age under Orage: Chapters in English Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1967.
- “Michael Arlen.”The Internet Movie Database. 23 Sep. 2006
- The New Age (1916-1920). The Modernist Journals Project. Referred to as NA in the body of the essay.
- Scholes, Robert. “General Introduction to The New Age 1907-1922.” The Modernist Journals Project.
- Sitwell, Osbert. Three-Quarter Length Portrait of Michael Arlen. London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1930.
Selected Works of Michael Arlen
- Arlen, Michael. The Green Hat. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1924.
- ---. The London Venture. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1920.
- ---. Piracy. London: W. Collins Sons and Co., 1922.
- ---. These Charming People. London: W. Collins Sons and Co., 1923.