33. Michael Arlen – The Green Hat (1924)
In the Don’t Hide the Madness recordings, Burroughs asks Ginsberg if he’s ever read The Green Hat. Ginsberg hadn’t.
“Back in the ‘20s, everyone read it,” Burroughs says.
He makes another reference to it in the letters, comparing his mother’s elegant 1920s style to “something out of The Green Hat”.
One of the abiding interests I’ve discovered in my reading of A Burroughs Syllabus is the author’s interest in the decade of his childhood. Burroughs was between 2 and 12 years old through the 1920s and so, although hardly old enough to experience the roaring twenties himself, the glamour of the period underwrites many of his earliest childhood memories.
His writings often refer to 1920 streets, 1920 tramcars and 1920 movies. The date having a certain magic of it own.
It appears that, for Burroughs, the glamorous world of The Green Hat represents the quintessence of this 1920 dream. It’s not brilliantly written, and so, unlike Fitzgerald in America or Waugh in England, it hasn’t gone down in history as a masterpiece.
In fact, I don’t think it’s even in print anymore.
But it was a bestseller of the time, and it has a lot of charm. Our narrator is a suave young man whose “unimportant history” is a story of “privilege in defeat”, the same as the rest of his generation, so he tells us. An Englishman in a London flat surrounded by the jaded children of aristocrats.
On of these, the brilliant but troubled Iris Storm, appears at his apartment one night wearing a green hat. She is looking for her brother, an alcoholic recluse who lives next door to the protagonist. Not finding him in, she spends the whole night talking to our protagonist, talking about art and poetry and how damn hopeless the whole mess is, etc…
Satirists, we are told, are puritanical creatures – “clean as a fire, a nightmare of contempt”; with a wink and a nod our bright young thing protagonist leads us through a satirical world nevertheless.
We meet the bright young poets working on little magazines, one of whom dies in the war. We are shown all night drinking parties. Love affairs are made and broken with a frequency to bring shock and horror to the older generation.
Iris Storm, who drives through the night in her motorcar, cigarette in mouth, is the ultimate femme fatale meets blonde 1920s adventuress. The bohemian, untouchable ideal that our protagonist is fascinated by in a manner similar to Nick and Jay Gatsby or the unnamed narrator of Breakfast at Tiffanies to Holly Golightly.
The story peaks twice. Once in a late night sojourn to the country, where the main characters go for a swim – must to the consternation of a gamekeeper and a local bobby – and Iris rescues the girl whose husband-to-be she is stealing.
Then again as Iris’ dirty laundry is all aired in a public party, she renounces the man she’s seduced and, after racing away to a life on the continent, dies as all 1920 heroes must die: in a car crash brought about by her own fast-living recklessness.
The writing at its best is dazzling, elegant, refined and cynical. At times, however, it gets a little too drawn-out and breathy. The pacing is slow and the plotting aimless. It’s more of a guided tour of the European bright young things than a really developed story.
And so what does this mean for Burroughs? Well, he clearly read it young, and so we can presume it forms part of his youthful image of himself. The decadent young observer that he later finds correlatives for in the French poets, the English Romantics, the heroes of Wilde, Huysmans and Gide.
It also forms a core part of the 1920 days that live on in Burroughs’ works and memory. A mix of glamour and squalor, where people are louche, wild and amoral.