Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat is a perfect get-well present or hangover present, a novel so absorbing that the ache of time or body simply goes away. Yes, when you’re sniffling in bed in the infectious diseases ward surrounded by attendants in face masks, or come home from a celebratory evening and can’t sleep, The Green Hat is a spellbinding innitiation into the shimmering amoral world of the 1920s - a society in this case dominated by the mysterious Iris Storm, a glamorous flapper who carries an air of doom about her, as she brings one man after another to his knees.
Kirsty Gunn, the writer of the introduction to the Capuchin edition, compares this to The Great Gatsby, and certainly I know what she means. I kept thinking of Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, or perhaps something by Somerset Maugham - but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. In many ways this is a young person’s novel - a kind of exploration/documentation of what it meant to live in a glittering postwar society of witty conversations and sparkling parties. Some, like the heroine, have abandoned traditional morality, living for themselves and the moment, while others struggle to live “honorably,” enjoying their parties while continuing to uphold the institutions of marriage and the family. Of course it’s not just the 1920s, a decade we associate with decadence: any person in his/her twenties may imagine he/she lives in such a society.
The narrator of the novel, who refers to himself as the Author, remains in the background, but it is through his sensibility that we observe the machinations of Iris Storm. Iris, a sylph in a green hat, enters the narrator's life when she stops by in “a long, low, yellow car which shone like a battle-chariot” to visit her brother. Under her green hat, she is beautiful and mysterious, a woman who says little but tells the truth, and she has not seen her twin in ten years. Our narrator, who is getting ready to move out of the downstairs apartment and has just come home from a party, takes her upstairs to see her brother, Gerald, a drunkard novelist who is passed out for the evening. Then the narrator has an all-night conversation with her. But after the night she writes to tell him she doesn’t want to see him again. He is her friend, but must remain a friend. (Does she find him unattractive? As one gets older, one wonders such unspeakable things: one would not even think it when younger, and I doubt that Arlen did.)
And chaos follows Iris wherever she goes. The Author likes her, despite Iris' supposed frankness about immorality (she tells him one husband committed suicide "for purity" because she had affairs; the other, however, left her and died after she said another man's name in her sleep). When she becomes ill after a miscarriage, she almost dies in a nursing home in Paris.
It is by chance that the narrator finds her there.
It is Arlen’s haunting prose, that reveals the sad story in flashes:
"At this time I hadn't the remotest idea as to where Iris was or how she did. I had not seen her since the night of her brother's death; and had been permitted to gather from Hilary that he knew as little as I did of her whereaouts. Secret she had always been in her absences, Hilary said, or, rather careless, but now she seemed positively in hiding."
When he visits her, we see her as a sad, wasted woman who has almost given up. But Napier, a man with whom she had an affair shortly before his wedding, shows up and she wants to live.
One of her oldest friends, Guy, attempts to interfere when she is having an affair with Napier. It is then we see Iris as she really is, a person who makes her own rules and defies societal conventions. She is the kind of siren-hussy figure that men, rather than women, seem to love to write about, and she is in many ways a stereotype, but in some ways she does exist: who hasn’t met great beauties who feel they can have anything they want whenever they want it? She is a force of nature - and somehow a bit androgynous, which is a good thing here: she has more character than the average mindless beauty, and faces men on their own ground. She has courage. And the narrator, who likes her so much at the beginning, changes his mind again and again - as do we.
This is really a very enjoyable, exquisite, oddly written novel - a period piece, very popular in its day.