“Don’t want no sorrow/ For this old orphan boy/ I don’t want no crying/ Only tears of joy/ I’m gonna see my mother/ Gonna see my father/ And I’ll be bound for glory/ In the morning/ When I go away.”
- Levon Helm (died May 26, 2012)

Books

Exiles

Michael J. Arlen

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 29, 2015
Category: Memoir

THE WEEK IN REVIEW
Love: Forever Changes
Anthelios Sunscreen with Mexoryl
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SUNSCREEN, MY VERY BAD: I made a mistake this week when I showcased Anthelios 60, which doesn’t contain Mexoryl, and had to correct my error. The link is now correct: to Anthelios 40 with Mexoryl. Surely some/many of you ordered Anthelios 60 on day one and are now getting it in the mail, wishing you were getting Anthelios 40. Solution: Return the 60 to Amazon, order the 40. The price is almost the same; that’s a wash. Shipping charges? That’s something else. So here’s the deal: If you have to pay shipping charges, send me the Amazon email or tell me how much you had to pay — in either event, please choose the least expensive shipping — and I’ll send you that amount via Paypal.
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WEEKEND CLASSIC: For me, “Exiles” is a drug. I start reading and it’s as if an anesthesiologist has told me to count down from 10. A paragraph in, I’m at 9. A page: 8. By 7, I’m under, and I surrender to the story, the people, the writing. It’s not for everyone. But if I could write a book this good in just six weeks, as Michael Arlen did… well, that would like a career high.

The photograph on the cover doesn’t suggest how short they both were, how small. All you notice is their elegance, her pleated skirt just so, his hands shoved casually in the jacket pockets of his natty double-breasted suit. Their gaze is direct. Confident. Elegant.

But there’s something the photo doesn’t catch.  Michael Arlen — author of a novel called  “The Green Hat” — may be more successful than his friends F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But Michael Arlen isn’t who he looks like; he was born Dikran Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian. In London, he won’t fit in. Ditto in New York and the South of France. And his wife isn’t exactly who she looks like either.

Exiles. So their son, Michael J. Arlen, thinks of them. Exiles? How can that be — they had it all. Michael Arlen’s photograph was on the cover of Time Magazine. In the South of France, he owned the very best speedboat and hired a driver for it. Willie Maugham and Winston Churchill came for lunch. “The day he arrived in Chicago, the Daily News ran a front-page story — saying that he had arrived in Chicago.” But when the fame went away, he was beached. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Michael J. Arlen gets the glitter. And, even more, the courage that kept his father going. He tells the delicious story of his father running into Louis B. Mayer, the movie mogul, at the “21” Club in New York. Arlen had just arrived from England; Mayer asked about his plans. “I was just talking to Sam Goldwyn,” Arlen said — which was true, he’d just encountered Mayer’s rival, who had urged him to buy horses. Mayer asked, “How much did he offer you?” Arlen thought fast: “Not enough.” A few minutes later, he had a 30-week contract as a writer at MGM for $1,500 a week.

Michael Arlen wants to be a father to his son, so he invites the boy out to California. There’s a weekend in Santa Barbara. At Clark Gable’s house. Only Gable’s not there. It’s a house party of tanned men and attractive women. Of cigarettes and liquor. And a terrible moment when his father is talking — and nobody’s listening. Later, the boy finds his father sitting by the pool. “I was out here a long time ago,” his father said. “We used to play tennis. Thalberg — he always wanted to talk about literature.”

These are people of a breed long vanished, and their lives will seem strange. The big duplex apartment. Long lunches. Cocktail time. Sitting in the library at night, reading and drinking. And the sadness: young Michael hearing his father in the afternoon, not writing, just pacing, pacing. Here’s his mother, dying, her last words coming across decades, from Monte Carlo: “Let’s take the road down by the sea this time. It will be longer, but nothing really starts until ten anyway…”

Other stories are right out of Salinger or John O’Hara. Young Michael, at boarding school, not winning and then winning a history prize. Michael, a senior at Harvard, desperate to marry his 19-year-old girlfriend. Their parents don’t approve. Oh, the agony, “the back-seat-of-the car fifteen floors above Park Avenue.” And, a little later, Michael, frustrated, making a phone call and getting a job in the Henry Luce empire.

I haven’t mentioned the writing. I think this book is right up there with the stories of James Salter, but some will find it falsely casual, like a very self-conscious voice talking. Maybe. Consider where Michael J. Arlen came from. And consider, too, that this is an elegy, and elegies should shine. Like this:

They were both of them beautiful. They were also, both of them, in a kind of exile, and sought to find a home, a country, in one another, and very nearly did, came as close to it as maybe it is possible to do, but they were each so deep in exile when they met — and how would they have known that? My mother, so seemingly established — a title, even, money somewhere in the background, big houses, gardens, furniture, wax for the furniture, polish for the silver, manners, style, and more than manners or style, a seeming feel for independence…. and seeking to escape from her (still unknown) exile, from all those mannered, self-protective people into this unusual man’s vitality, life, imagination, energy — well, as with many men, it turned out to be a fragile, an especially fragile kind of energy. So delicate, really. Too delicate. But that was for later, for much later. It was later that they found these things out, or didn’t find them out, just lived them, lived under them. In the beginning, though, it must have been lovely….

Tastes differ. But this writing never fails to thrill me.

Short takes

Workin’ for the man ev’ry night and day

You pump your own gas. Check out your own groceries. Book your own plane tickets. Essentially, you work for large corporations — for free. How that came to be is the subject of “Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day,” by Craig Lambert. I’m too conflicted to review this book: Craig’s not only a close friend and my editor at Harvard Magazine, but he thanks me profusely — too profusely — in the acknowledgments. I can assure you the book’s a winner because it’s reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Book Review by the estimable Barbara Ehrenreich. To read more about it, visit Craig’s web site. To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition. click here.

Surprise! I am reading a 531-page novel.

“All the Light We Cannot See” was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and a #1 New York Times bestseller. Despite the praise, I didn’t rush to read Anthony Doerr’s book — the last time I read a 531-page novel the author was Russian and dead. Then I saw this video — and immediately one-clicked a purchase. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] Sometimes a picture-with–words really is worth more than just words. The Pulitzer committee thought so — “All the Light” won for fiction. Do watch.