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The London Venture

Michael Arlen

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  _The London Venture_ MICHAEL ARLEN


  _These Charming People_

  _The Green Hat_


  _The London Venture_

  _The Romantic Lady_

  _The_ _London Venture_

  _by_ _Michael Arlen_

  _With Drawings by_ _MICHEL SEVIER_



  _Copyright, 1920,_ _By George H. Doran Company_





  Out of consideration (in part) to such readers as may read this book Ihave assumed a name by which they may refer to me (if ever he or she maywish to do so kindly) in the same manner at least twice running--a featof pronunciation which few of my English acquaintances have performedwith my natal name. But there is also another reason, considerate of theauthor. I have been told that there are writers whose works would havebeen famous if only their names could have been familiarlypronounced--Polish and Russian writers for the most part, I gather.Since I had already taken every other precaution but this to deservetheir more fortunate fate, in changing my name I have, I hope, robbed myreaders of their last excuse for my obscurity.

  _Dikran Kouyoumdjian._ "MICHAEL ARLEN."

  _The London Venture_: I




  My watch has needed winding only twice since I left London, and already,as I sit here in the strange library of a strange house, whose onlypurpose in having a library seems to be to keep visitors like myselfquiet and out of harm's way, I find myself looking back to those pastmonths in which I was for ever complaining of the necessity that kept mein London. How I would deliver myself to a congenial friend about whatmen are pleased to call "the artificial necessity of living"--acocktail, that courtesan of drinks, lent some artificiality! With whatsincerity I would agree with another's complaint of the "monotonousroutine of politeness," without indulging which men cannot livedecently; how I would mutter to myself of streets and theatres full ofmen and women and ugliness! Even as a cab hurried me through theTottenham Court Road to Euston the smile which I turned to thenever-ending windows of furniture shops was at the thought that I shouldnot see them again for many days, and I could not imagine myself everbeing pleased to come back to this world of plain women and bowler hatsand bawdily coloured cinema posters, whose duty it is to attract andinsult with the crude portrayal of the indecent passions of tiresomepeople. If there be a studio in purgatory for indiscreet aesthetics,Rhadamanthus could do no better than paper its walls with illustrationsof "The Blindness of Love," or "Is Love Lust?" For it is now a London ofcoloured drawings of men about to murder or be murdered, women about tobe seduced or divorced. One has to see a crowd of people surging into acinema, by whose doors is a poster showing a particularly vapidservant-girl, a harlot of the "dark-eyed, sinister" type, and a drunken,fair-haired young man who has not yet realised that discretion is thebetter part of an indiscretion, before one can understand "the lure ofthe screen."

  And even the entrance of Euston, rebuilt and newly painted, gave my eyesonly the pleasure of foreseeing that the new yellow paint would soon bedingy, and that the eyes of porters would soon no longer be offendedwith upstart colours which quarrelled with the greyness of theirexperience. And in the carriage I leant back and closed my eyes, and wasglad that I was leaving London.

  But the train had scarce left the station, and was whirling through thenorthern suburbs which should so fervently have confirmed my gladness,when I felt suddenly as though some little thing was being born insideme, as though some little speck of dust had come in through the openwindow, and fixed itself upon my pleasure at leaving London; and verysoon I realised that this was the first grain of regret, and that Ishould not spend so many months away from London as my late depressionhad imagined. Then up will start the strong-minded man, and pish andpshaw me for not knowing my own mind. And if he does, how right he willbe! For little do I care whether this mood be as the last, so they bothfill up the present moment with fitting thoughts, and pain, andpleasure!

  Now, I was already thinking of how I would return to London next year inthe spring. What I would do then, the things I would write, the men Iwould talk to, and the women I would lunch with, so filled my mind, andpleasantly whirled my thoughts from this to that, that Rugby was longpassed before even I had come to think of the pleasures that London inearly summer has in store for all who care to take. When the days weregrowing long, it would be pleasant to take a table by the windows of theSavoy, and dine there with some woman with whom it would be no effort totalk or be silent.

  Such a woman at once comes to my mind, with dark hair and grey-blueeyes, the corners of whose mouth I am continually watching because it isonly there I find the meaning of her eyes, for she is a sphinx, and I donot yet know if what she hides is a secret or a sense of humour. Youwill say that that means nothing, and that she is quite invisible toyou; but you do not know her, and I do--at least, I know that much ofher. And with her it seems to me that I could dine only at that table bythe windows where I could turn from her eyes to the slow-moving Englishriver, and the specks of men and trams, which are all that the leaves oftrees will let me see of the Embankment. Perhaps I would tell her ofthat novel which I once began to write, but could never finish nor haveany heart to try again; for it began just here at this table where weare now sitting, but the man was alone, and if he ever lived outside myhalting pages and had the finishing of my novel, he would put himselfhere again at the end, with you sitting in front of him. For that is thewhole purpose of the novel, which I never realised till this moment,that once a young man was sitting here alone and wondering why thatshould be and what he should do, and in the end he was sitting hereagain with a woman for whom his passion had died, but whose eyes stillmade him talk so that he could not see the slow darkening of the river,or hear the emptying of the restaurant, until at last she laughed, andhe had to stop because of the waiters who hovered round the table torelay it for the bored people who would come in from the theatres forsupper. But all this I had never realised till I told you of it, andperhaps now I shall one day finish it, and call it "Nadine," for that isyour name in the novel.

  Thinking of the young man of my unfinished novel who had sat there soalone sent my thoughts back to the day not many years past when I firstcame to live in London. I am bitter about those first months, and willnot easily forgive London for them; and if any young person shall beginto tell me how splendid were his first lonely days in the wilderness ofpeople, how much he enjoyed the aimless wandering about the streets, howhe liked to watc
h the faces of the people as they passed, laughing, ortalking, or hungry, while he could do or be none of these for lack ofcompany and convenience of means, then I will turn on him and curse himfor a fool or a knave, and rend the affected conceit of hisself-contained pleasure with my own experience and that of many otherswhom I know of. But then for a young Englishman--how pleasant it is towrite of "young Englishmen," as though one were really a foreigner!--thecircumstances are a little different, and he need never taste that firstabsolute loneliness, which, as the weeks go by and the words are notspoken, seems to open out a vista of solitude for all the days of life;nor need he be conscious that it is on himself--how, while itexaggerates, loneliness stifles self!--he must rely for everyacquaintance, for every word spoken in his life. But for him there areaunts who live in Chester Square, and cousins who come up to stay amonth or so at the Hyde Park Hotel, and uncles who live somewhere aboutBruton Street, and have such a fund of _risque_ anecdotes that thelength of Bond Street and Piccadilly will not see the end of them; and,perhaps, there are age-long friends of the family who have houses inKensington and Hampstead, and "nice" parquet floors on which you candance to a gramophone; while for an Armenian, who soon realises that hisnationality is considered as something of a _faux pas_, there are noneof these things, and he is entirely lost in the wilderness, for there isno solid background to his existence in another's country; and, as thedays lengthen out and he grows tired of walking in the Green Park, hecomes to wonder why his fathers ever left Hayastan; for it seems to memuch better to be a murdered prince in Hayastan than a living vagabondin London. So I wandered about, moved my chambers gradually from Earl'sCourt to the heart of St. James's and read "Manon Lescaut," and sat infront of Gainsborough's "Musidora" until I found that she had threelegs, and could never look at it again.

  Then, somehow, came acquaintance, first of the world, then of literatureand its parasites; came teas at Golder's Green and Hampstead, andqueerly serious discussions about sub-consciousness; "rags" at Chelsea,and "dalliance with grubbiness," and women. Through this early maze ofribaldry and discussion, the first of which bored me because of itsself-consciousness, and because I do not like lying on the dirty floorsof studios with candle grease dripping on me, and the latter whichaffected my years miserably and almost entirely perverted my naturalamiability into a morbid distaste for living (which still breaks out atodd moments, and has branded me among many people as a depressing anddamnably superior young person); through this maze of smoke and talk Ican only still see the occasional personality of Mr. D. H. Lawrence, ashis clear, grey eyes--there is no equivalent to _spirituel_ inEnglish--flashed from face to face, smiling sometimes, often but avehicle for those bitter thoughts (and thoughts are so often conclusionswith men of arrogant genius like Lawrence) which find such strange andemphatic expression in his books. I would need the pen of a De Quinceyto describe my impression of that man, and I am candid enough to admitthat I lack the ability, rather than the malice, which caused the littleopium-eater to be so justly hated by such a man as Bob Southey. There isa bitterness which can find no expression, is inarticulate, and fromthat we turn away as from a very pitiful thing; and there is thatbitterness which is as clear-cut as a diamond, shining with definitions,hardened with the use of a subtle reasoning which is impenetrable butpenetrating, "the outcome of a fecund imagination," as Lawrence himselfmight describe it; a bitterness so concisely and philosophicallyarticulate, that, under the guise of "truth," it will penetrate into thereceptive mind, and leave there some indelible impressions of a strangeand dominating mind. I have found that in the books and person of Mr. D.H. Lawrence. He seems to lack humility definitely, as a man would lackbread to eat, and a note of arrogance, as splendid as it is shameless,runs through his written words; and the very words seem conscious thatthey are pearls flung before swine. He will pile them one on top of theother, as though to impregnate each with his own egotism, to describethe sexual passions of this man or that woman, words so full of _his_meaning, so pregnant with _his_ passions, that at the end of such a pageyou feel that a much greater and more human Ruskin is hurling his dogmasat your teeth, that there is nothing you can say or think outside thatpile of feeling which is massed before you, that you must accept andswallow without cavil and without chewing. With what relief one turnsover a page and finds that here is no touch of the flesh, but that Mr.Lawrence is writing of earth! Let him sink into earth as deep as he may,he can find and show there more beauty and more truth than in all hisarrogant and passionate fumblings in the mire of sex, in all his bitterstriving after that, so to speak, sexual millennium, that ultimatepsychology of the body and mind, which seems so to obsess him that inhis writings he has buried his mind, as, in his own unpleasant phrase, alover buried his head, in the "terrible softness of a woman's belly."Who has not read "Sons and Lovers," and laid it down as the work of astrange and great man, of the company of Coleridge, Stendhal, andBalzac? And who, as he read it, has not been shocked by a total lack ofthat sweetness which must alloy all strength to make it acceptable?"That strange interfusion of strength and sweetness," which Pater soadmiringly found in Blake and Hugo, cannot be found in Mr. D. H.Lawrence; there is a mass of passionate strength, that of an angry manstraining with his nerves because he despises his hands; there is agentleness in his writing of children which could never be capable ofsuch melodrama as that in Mr. Hardy's "Jude the Obscure," but in his menand women, in their day and night, there is no drop of sweetness. And Ido not think he wishes it otherwise.

  As the train flew through the Derbyshire countryside, whose hillsidesand vales, covered with the brilliant sheen of the autumn sun, met theeye pleasantly with a rising and falling of pale yellowish green, withhere and there a dark green patch of woodland, and made me want to stopthe hurrying train and breathe the air of the place, my thoughts slippedback to the spring and the summer just before the war; and, with my eyeson the quickly passing sunshine on the low hills, I found that, afterall, those last few months of peace had passed, perhaps, too lightly,too carelessly; but it was pleasant to think back to those days whenlunches and dinners and week-ends took up so much of one's time. I wasglad now that I had not spent the three summer months in Yorkshire onthe moors, where I should have been uncomfortable; and had to be forever sending postcards to Hatchard's to post me this or that book, whichwould come when my mood for it had passed.

  And how dreadful it is to want to read suddenly "Love in the Valley,"and have to be content with Tennyson, to long for a chapter ofDostoieffsky, and be met with complete editions of Trollope and Surtees!So I see that my middle age will be crabbed and made solitary by mybooks, and that I shall never have the heart to leave them and go to theEast to see the land of my father Haik, or to walk about the lake uponwhich the great Queen Semiramis (who was the first in the world todiscover that men could be conveniently changed into eunuchs) built thecity Semiramakert, which is now called Van, and where later, when shewas pursued by the swordsmen of her son, she threw a magic bracelet intothe lake and turned herself into a rock, which still stands therecovered with the triumphant script of the Assyrians.

  _The London Venture_: II