I’ve been scattered in my reading this week, though I take pride in being scattered. It’s a generational thing: yes, we’re smart, but not so smart that we’re not going to shelve Maud Hart Lovelace (the Betsy-Tacy books) next to Primo Levi.
But after occasional dashes out into 94-degree heat, I have returned home so sweaty and attention-deficit-disordered that I’ve been more eclectic than usual. I’ve jumped from Henry James to Janet Evanovich to Peter Carey to Ngaio Marsh. And I’m finishing the week with a collection of short stories, Michael Arlen’s These Charming People.
You may know Arlen’s The Green Hat, the 1924 novel that made him famous (reviewed at my old blog here). These Charming People, a collection of linked short stories, covers similar territory. Set in England in the 1920s, it portrays the postwar generation as restless, ironic, generous, and easily deceived. The stories focus on a group of sophisticated, confused characters, most of whom are barely mentioned in the first story as guests at a house party. In the tragicomic opening frame story, “Introducing a Lady of No Importance and a Gentleman of Even Less Importance,” Shelmerdene, a beautiful, witty young woman, tells Raymond Priest, a blocked writer, about her love affair with a man without feelings.
“I will tell you a story,” she said. “I will tell it quite plainly, but afterwards you may decorate it with fine words and epigrams, and make it a story fit for an editor to read… This story, my dear, begins with me. All my stories do, but they generally end with someone else; that is called making a mess of one’s life…”
Shelmerdene describes her lover as “a stone image” who claimed he didn’t love her. Their affair was lighthearted for him, devastating for her. Eventually her recovery led to another heartbreak. Arlen ends this story with a twist, linking the limitations of the short story genre with the identity of the lover.
Many of the stories end with a horrific twist. In “When the Nightingale Sings in Berkeley Square,” Joan Loyalty longs to desert her devoted husband under any circumstances. When the butler comes into the drawing room to tell them that Ralph has committed suicide, her lover is appalled. But not as appalled as Joan is shortly thereafter.
In another frame story, “The Luck of Captain Fortune,” Shelmerdene and the author listen to a man’s story about a beautiful woman’s desertion of her best friend, a speech-writer who is in love with her, for a soldier. Again, there is a twist about the man’s identity.
Some of the stories are more traditional. “The Ancient Sin” is a ghost story. Even I could predict the ending , and I’m not much of a ghost story reader. “The Cavalier of the Streets” is a story of blackmail, in which a rich Armenian ne’er-do-well changes his mind about his crime.
My favorite story in the collection is “The Irreproachable Conduct of a Gentleman Who Once Refused a Knighthood.” George Tarlyon, a generous, witty sportsman, and Mr. Trevor are invited to dinner with Mr. Fall, a Canadian millionaire. Mr. Fall needs George’s help. He is in love with a widow who will never remarry, especially now that Mr. Fall has made up so many hyperbolic stories about her husband’s magnanimousness. What should Mr. Fall do?
Arlen has a dreamy, slightly ironic style. The atmosphere of the stories is rich and almost mysterious.It is easy to imagine readers of the ’20s being intrigued by these stories.
Perhaps Jay McInerney is one of Arlen’s descendants. It’s very odd, but I kept thinking of his recent collection of short stories as I read this.