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The 1924 Club : Beneath the Veneer of the Jazz Age

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The Green Hat by Michael Arlen

When I cast my eye over the initial list of possible reads from 1924, the first title that jumped out at me was “The Green Hat” by Michael Arlen. It’s been lurking on Mount TBR for ages and seemed initially the ideal read for the 1924 Club. The twenties were, of course, a period of notorious decadence and indulgence and the blurb for this book read like it was the quintessential read. Michael Arlen was a fascinating character – Armenian by birth, he moved with his family to London in 1901; in 1913 he moved to London and embarked on a writing career. He seemed to fit in very well with the zeitgeist of the age and was often seen dashing around London in a posh car.

green hat

However, oddly enough I nearly stalled with “The Green Hat”. I picked it up after being knocked out by Colette’s short stories and I wasn’t sure I really felt like reading something so frivolous. And the initial pages were somehow very hard to read – I struggled on thinking I would have to give up on the book, until I looked at some online reviews which said how the book *was* hard to read at the beginning, so I persevered – and I’m really, really glad I did.

Our unnamed narrator introduces us to the main character in the book – Iris Storm, the wearer of the green hat and a woman of some fascination. Iris’s twin brother is known to the narrator (they live in the same building in Shepherd’s Market in London, at the time a haunt of writers such as Anthony Powell and Arlen himself); and Iris is on a fleeting visit to see her estranged sibling who’s sunk into alcoholism. The narrator is transfixed by Iris and the introductory chapter covers their first night-time meeting. As the book progresses we learn all about Iris Storm and her (indeed very stormy!) life – there is a significant back story, previous husbands, scandals and shocks. Iris is very much a scarlet woman, someone who’s betrayed her class and is considered something of an outcast. But we are in post-WW1 Europe and all the old certainties are crumbling. As Iris proceeds through a number of crises, her ultimate fate might indeed seem inevitable as she tries to grasp happiness against all the odds.

I sat there in that deep armchair, subdued by the thought of the awful helplessness of men and women to understand one another, and of the terrible thing it would be for some of them if every they did understand one another, and how many opportunities the devil is always being given to making plunder out of decent people.

Describing the plot of “The Green Hat” is in some ways irrelevant as although there is a plot, the narrative unfolds in a less than straightforward way. When I picked up the book, I expected a light, frothy Jazz age romance, which I wasn’t quite sure I was in the mood for; but what I got was something completely different. Much of what happens to Iris happens off-camera, in a series of set pieces, and we learn about it indirectly from the narrator. However, while he’s telling us about Iris’s life, he also manages to paint a devastating picture of a damaged, post-War generation.

Everything that happens in The Green Hat seems to be informed by WW1 and its after-effects. Not only has that conflict destroyed a whole group, it’s also undermined the social structure and way of life of the country. The cracks in the veneer are visible in the older generation, as they observe the younger partying its way to oblivion; and the mores and standards of the castes are being challenged constantly. Iris’s own behaviour is regarded as outrageous, as she’s stepped outside the boundaries of women of her class, and yet she purports not to care. How much she is really damaged by what people think of her is open to interpretation – certainly she regards her ancestral line as cursed and doomed. There are many subtle hints and themes that I think would come out on a second reading: the fact that many events take place at night; the recurring use of green (the hat, an emerald ring Iris always wears); and the book is more complex than might seem at first, demanding a further look. It also touches on quite deep issues: pre-marital sex, venereal disease, homosexuality and divorce.

You talk to me of your England. I despise your England, I despise the us that is us. We are shams with patrician minds and peasant faces… To me, a world which thinks of itself in terms of puny, squalid, bickering little nations and not as one glorious field for the crusade of mankind is a world in which to succeed is the highest indignity that can befall a good man.

Iris herself, though the central character, is an elusive figure and we see her more through the effect she has on others than directly. This oblique approach is convincing, imbuing her with a kind of glamour and mystery, and she almost exists only in relation to other people and not in her own right. It’s clear that Iris is judged by others for a number of reasons: she’s betrayed her class; she’s indiscreet; but most pertinently because she’s a woman and the most ridiculous double standards apply. Alas, not much has changed, has it?

“The Green Hat” builds inexorably to a dramatic climax, and I came out of it stunned and a little bit breathless. Yes, the book and the characters are sometimes a little melodramatic, but oh! the writing! Arlen’s prose is just wonderful – poetic, hypnotic and incredibly evocative, he captures place, mood and ambience perfectly. You feel as if you’ve been in nocturnal Paris or London, swimming in the river on a hot, dark summer’s night or driving madly alongside Iris.

Paris rises in a cloud of chill darkness, the rain falls like whips of ice, the street-lamps loiter on vague, bitter errands, confused strings of light, a stealthy idiot wind glories in being corrupted by corners. the platforms of the omnibuses are packed tight with small men whose overcoats are too short for them, the brims of their felt hats too narrow, their trousers turned up too high, their eyes too dark, their faces too pale. The jargon of the traffic on the rue de Rivoli, as it squabbles for every step between the deserted pavement beneath the railings of the Tuileries and the reeking pavement under the long archway lit by imprudent shop-lights falling on imitation jewellery, is multiplied an hundred-fold by the shrewish air into a noise that hurts like warm water on a chill hand.

by Bassano, half-plate glass negative, 8 December 1930

In some ways, I was a little apprehensive about reading “The Green Hat”; I’d read that Iris was based on Idina Sackville, ‘The Bolter’ (I reviewed a book about her here), and I hadn’t taken to Idina at all. However, this novel helped me relate to the characters of the 1920s much more strongly, and I gained a real sense of how that post-War generation suffered and reacted from what was a devastating and destructive conflict. The madness, the selfishness, the desperation and the search for happiness at all costs become much more understandable in this context. But as well as giving me this new understanding, “The Green Hat” was a wonderful, wonderful read; unusually but poetically written, absorbing and involving, and quite impossible to forget. 1924 really *was* a year that produced some amazing books!

Introducing The 1924 Club!

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As a reader and book blogger, it’s easy to get a little bogged down in all the lovely books that surround you; and a new project is sometimes just what you need to focus the reading. So when Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book asked if I’d like to be involved in a new idea of his, I was delighted! The project is called “The 1924 Club” (as you can see from the rather snazzy button that Simon’s designed) and basically the idea is to focus on books published in that year.

1924 Club

I think Simon’s chosen a rather wonderful year, as there appears to be a wide range of fascinating books published in 1924. Basically, we’ll be asking other readers/bloggers to read, review, suggest and discuss books from the year in question, and thereby build up an overview of the literature of the day. It would be great if as many of you as possible can join in, and the fun will come from discovering the new and the unusual, books we haven’t heard of or hadn’t realised were written in 1924, and also revisiting some classics!

Michael Arlen's The Green Hat - one possibility

Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat – one possibility

There’s a list on Wikipedia that Simon found here which gives a starting point, and Goodreads also has a useful “Most Popular Books Published in 1924” entry (though do check your actual books, as there are plenty of volumes incorrectly labelled!) These lists give plenty to choose from – Agatha Christie published two of her early classics “Poirot Investigates” and “The Man in the Brown Suit”; Russian writer Zamyatin’s “We” appeared, prefiguring much of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four”; Forster’s “A Passage to India” came out; plus there are *lots* of Viragos from the year. And that’s just scratching the surface!

Two of my battered but beloved old Agatha books

Two of my battered but beloved old Agatha books

Personally, I’m toying with Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat”, a classic Bright-Young-Things novel; and I’d like to re-read one of the Christies. In fact, when I started looking through the lists, I realised that the first book I ever reviewed on the Ramblings was from 1924 – not the most brilliant of write-ups, but it was my first post!!

So if you want to join in, do put the button on your blog and get reading and researching! We’ll be posting from October 19-31st and we’d love to hear from you! Simon’s introductory post is here for more info – so let’s get reading! 🙂

Bookish Karma….

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….or, what goes around comes around!

In bookish terms, I guess I mean that the Cull is paying off – Youngest Child and I took about 16 books into the charity shops today (we couldn’t carry any more – it was just too hot) and there are boxes and piles more to go. I am actually finding it something of a relief to be looking candidly at my shelves and saying to a book, “No, I loved you and read you one, but I shan’t ever need to read you again”. Paring down to the essentials is cathartic, that’s for sure. (It’s not only books that are going, btw – general clutter is going too, which is lovely).

However, I haven’t embargoed the obtaining of books; I’m just being strict with myself and only buying volumes (or accepting as review copies) things I really do want to read and hope to read quite soon. Thus it was that three books came home with me today (so the ratio is still good!) and these are they:

Quite wonderful finds, and all charity shop bargains. The Forster (a Hesperus!!) was in the Samaritans Book Cave, where we were donating – in beautiful condition and only £1.50! The Michael Arlen was from the Oxfam at £2.49, and again is in great nick and will go with my lovely Capuchin edition of The Green Hat!

The final book was unexpected: we were in the library picking up text books for Youngest Child to absorb over the summer, and trying to avoid the loud noise of the multi-cultural festival which was going on (though the bagpipes were wonderful, if a little incongruous in a library) – anyway, I had a quick look at the books for sale and there was the Maclaren-Ross collection of Selected Stories for 40p! Library sales are the best….

And Youngest Child was happy as she found a proof copy of one of her favourite authors/novels in the RSPCA for 95p! So obviously we had good Book Karma today because we donated – we’ll just have to keep giving! 🙂

(Forgot to mention the lovely review copy that arrived today from Hesperus – thank you! – now isn’t that an appealing looking set of spines?!)

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