1922 Hispano-Suiza. A car like this was driven by Iris Storm in Michael Arlen's novel The Green Hat
December 8, 2012


The Green Hat

The Green Hat by Michael Arlen (né Dikran Kouyoumdjian) is set in London in the years 1922-23 or 1924. (The book was published in 1924.) The author, though born in Bulgaria, was of Armenian parentage, and emigrated to Britain in the early 1900s.

The novel concerns the lives, loves, and death of a group of young people, sometimes referred to as Bright Young People, but most of the people in that set seem to have been born around 1904-5 (Harold Acton, Cecil Beaton, Bryan Guinness, Anthony Powell, Nancy Mitford) while the primary character, Iris, and the unnamed narrator/author were born in 1893 or so. Iris is 29 at the time the story opens, and has been married twice, the first time to a husband who committed suicide on their wedding night, and the second time to a man killed by the IRA.

Iris makes her first appearance in a car, a yellow Hispano-Suiza, probably much like the one shown above, as the narrator is preparing to move out of his residence in Shepherd's Market. The area is a real area as the author describes bounded by Half-Moon, Curzon, and Piccadilly, and one other street. Half-Moon street is supposed to be the first London residence of Boswell when he arrived in the capital in 1762. The excerpt from Google Maps™ shows the area around Half Moon St. Half Moon has a Hilton on the left side as you look up from Piccadilly towards the Christian Science church on Curzon, and another hotel on the right. Heywood Hill bookstore is a few steps towards the left on the far side of Curzon, while the entrance to Shepherd's Market is on the near side. The Hilton was most likely not a hotel in the period under consideration, but Arlen lived near The Grape, a restaurant, that is still there. (Our room was over an alley next to the restaurant, and the crowd was quite cheery until about 10pm when they moved inside.) Part of the pleasure of the novel, for me, was that a good deal of it took place in an area that I have a mild acquaintance with.

The plot, such as it is, centers around the narrator's encounters with Iris and her associates. We learn that Iris' husband committed suicide “for purity,” but it is not until the end that we learn that the purity involved is not the purity that we thought precipitated the crisis. Iris has a reputation as a “nymphomaniac,” a word that is no longer used a lot. Nowadays the non-judgmental term of choice is hypersexual, and covers both men and women. Of course the judgmental word for a promiscuous woman is “slut.”. Iris suffers septic poisoning, or sepsis, from a cause unspecified. The most likely cause is an illegal abortion, but this is not specified, and the novel does not mention the cause, or take a position on the issue.*

*In one of Hemingway's short stories a man pressures a girl to have an operation, and says repeatedly that it's just to let the air in. When I taught a class on the story, and asked what the operation was, one student opined that it was an ear operation. It was in fact an abortion. Showtime adapted the story, with the miscast Melanie Griffith as the girl, and because they thought the audience was stupid spelled out the nature of the operation.

Towards the end of the novel we learn the nature of the purity, or the lack of it, that drove Iris' husband to commit suicide.

The style of the novel elicited some negative comment on Amazon, and it is fairly literary, somewhat overwritten for many people who favor the Hemingway style of minimal description, and emphasis on action. Others may find that the verbal play is witty and amusing. I fall into the latter category.

Next up, Greek Epic Fragments, to be followed by Homeric apocrypha, and Hesiodic poetry.