A most English writer

The recent news of the death of Charles Aznavour reminded me, like many others, that this most French of singers, was born as Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian, the son of Armenian immigrants.  To the British at least, he had an impeccably French accent, sang quintessentially French songs about French passions and in an unmistakably French way.

Which reminds me in turn of Michael Arlen, that most English of early twentieth century writers, who was though born as Dikran Kouyoumdjian, the son of Armenian immigrants to Britain.  He himself was born in Bulgaria, but came to England with his parents in 1901 at the age of 5.  He was sent to Malvern College, which no doubt turned him into the perfect English gentleman, as it no doubt still does for his modern equivalents.  He remained a Bulgarian citizen though throughout the First World War (in which Bulgaria was aligned with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) becoming a British Citizen only in 1922 and changing his name at this point to Michael Arlen.

Michael-Arlen

Michael Arlen, from the National Portrait Gallery

My interest in him is focused on the books he had published in Continental Europe by Tauchnitz and Albatross and in the UK by Penguin and Hutchinson.  He first appeared as a Tauchnitz author in 1930, one of the new authors introduced by Max Christian Wegner, who had been appointed as General Manager of the company in 1929.   The first of his books to appear was ‘Lily Christine’ as volume 4926.  As usual Tauchnitz preferred to start by publishing his latest work, rather than going back to the earlier works that had made his name.

‘Lily Christine’, a tangled romance chronicling the lives of upper class society in the 1920s ‘Jazz Age’, had been published in the UK in 1928.   It is probably fairly typical of the novels that led to Arlen being described as the English F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The first printing in Tauchnitz is dated March 1930 at the top of the rear wrapper, and like all first printings from this era, has a two column list of latest volumes on the back and inside wrappers.   Later printings have a single column listing on the back only.

It was followed shortly after by ‘Babes in the Wood’, a collection of short stories that begins with an apparently autobiographical story called ‘Confessions of a naturalised Englishman’ (although a note adds that all characters are fictitious, including the author).  It appeared as volume 4943 and the first printing is dated June 1930 at the top of the rear wrapper.  In the three months between publication of the two books, Tauchnitz had introduced a modernised design for the front wrappers, so that they look rather different at first.

A final Tauchnitz volume, ‘Men dislike women’ appeared the following year, as volume 5001, dated July 1931 on the rear wrapper.  By this time Christian Wegner had been fired by Tauchnitz and was shortly to re-appear as one of the founders of the rival Albatross series.  Albatross was hugely successful in persuading leading British and American authors to publish with them rather than Tauchnitz, and Arlen quickly switched allegiance to the new firm, no doubt partly because of his earlier relationship with Wegner.

Albatross 40 Young men in love

‘Young men in love’, an earlier novel by Arlen, first published in 1927, appeared as volume 40 of the Albatross series in late 1932, in the blue covers used to identify love stories.  Then in 1934, ‘Man’s mortality’, a rather different type of novel from his usual romances, was published as volume 211.  This is more like science fiction, set 50 years in the future and often compared (almost always unfavourably) with Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, published the previous year.  Albatross gave it the yellow covers representing ‘psychological novels, essays etc.’, although perhaps slightly oddly ‘Brave New World’ had been given the orange covers of ‘tales and short stories, humorous and satirical works’.

Albatross 211 Man's mortality

Arlen’s third and final book in Albatross, was a book of short stories though, and so was given orange covers, making him one of only a handful of writers to have books published in Albatross in three different categories / colours (Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and Katherine Mansfield were others, and D.H. Lawrence managed four).  ‘The Crooked Coronet’ was published in March 1938 as volume 362.

Albatross 362 The crooked coronet

This was long after Albatross had taken over editorial control of Tauchnitz in 1934, with the two series being managed jointly from then on.  Arlen could presumably have been published in either series, and the criteria for determining  which series was used, are not entirely clear.  Most authors stayed with the series they were published in before the two came together, generally with more of the edgier modern authors in Albatross and more of the longer established or more conservative authors in Tauchnitz.  That fitted the harsh reality that authors banned by the Nazis could not be published by the German-based Tauchnitz.   I don’t think that Michael Arlen was ever banned (or could ever be described as edgy and modern), so presumably he stayed in Albatross just because that was where he was at the time of the coming together.

Meanwhile in the UK, Penguin had been launched in 1935 and was buying up paperback rights where it could, mostly for books published several years earlier, rather than the latest novels.  They obtained the rights to Michael Arlen’s ‘These charming people’, another collection of short stories that had been first published by Collins in 1923, and this appeared as volume 86 of the Penguin series in 1937.  It includes a story called ‘When the nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, a title that was later appropriated for a song that became one of the most popular songs of the second world war.

Penguin 086 dw

I think ‘These charming people’ was the only one of Michael Arlen’s works to appear in Penguin, but at least two others appeared in Hutchinson’s Pocket Library.  Hutchinson was the original UK publisher for several of Arlen’s books, so they were in a stronger position to publish paperback editions in their series competing against Penguin.  ‘Young men in love’ appeared as volume 50 of the series in May 1938 and ‘Lily Christine as volume 59 in October of the same year.

There may have been other paperback editions in other series, but by this time Arlen’s style was going out of fashion.  He wrote mainly about an era and a society that had vanished, at least from public sympathy, with the depression of the 1930s and that was totally out of tune with the conditions of the second world war.  For a few short years though he had been one of the most popular writers in Britain.   His most successful novel, ‘The green hat’, first published in 1924, doesn’t seem to have ever appeared in paperback.

Arlen himself had left Britain in 1927, first joining D.H. Lawrence in Florence and then moving to Cannes, where he married a Greek Countess, Atalanta Mercati.  He returned to Britain during the war, but then moved to the US for the last years of his life.  His son, Michael J. Arlen, an American with Armenian / British / Greek / French / Bulgarian heritage, has written ‘Exiles’, a memoir of his parents and his childhood, itself published many years later in Penguin.

Exiles 2

 

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Posted on October 25, 2018, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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