(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

A conventional biography of Michael Arlen would no doubt focus primarily on the major events of his life and the series of novels and short stories which established his reputation as a writer during the 1920’s. His life as recalled by his son, however, necessarily constitutes a book of a far more personal nature. The clue to the approach Arlen fils takes in his recounting of his and his parents’ lives lies in the title he has chosen. Exiles refers on its simplest level to the fact that for most of their lives his parents, and indeed the author himself, lived in countries that were not their own, but its reference is also to something much deeper.

There is a sense throughout the book of lives lived at a slight but unmistakable distance from the world around them. This isolation is especially noticeable after the family’s arrival in the United States and it is first felt strongly during a visit Michael pays to his father in Hollywood (Atalanta and the children having remained on the East Coast during Arlen’s sojourn). The trip is intended as a chance for father and son to become reacquainted after their long separation during the war, but neither is able to break through the awkwardness and reserve they both feel. It is a situation that heightens Michael’s ability to recognize that his father is very much an outsider in Hollywood, trying to fit in, yet never really a part of the film society in which he moves. It is agonizing for Michael, who has felt himself to be an outsider at his Canadian and American boarding schools, and the experience sets the tone for the years that will follow.

The premise behind Arlen’s portrait of his parents is that they lived much of their lives in both a physical and an emotional exile. His father achieved fame as a writer in England, his family’s adopted home, writing about a society of which he did not feel himself a part, while his mother, for her part, wed Arlen in search of refuge from an unsettled childhood. As their son describes it:My mother, seeking to escape from her (still unknown) exile . . . into this unusual man’s vitality, life, imagination, energy—well, as maybe with many men, it turned out to be a fragile, an especially fragile kind of energy.

Throughout the 1930’s the Arlens lived in the south of France, near Cannes. Arlen continued to write, although the days of his greatest successes were already past, and he and Atalanta lived a life of wealth, privilege, and fame. Theirs was a world of drives along the Corniche, interviews and photographs in popular magazines, and evenings spent with other well-known personalities of the day (their son recounts a visit from a drunken F. Scott Fitzgerald). The truth, however, was that Arlen would never again recapture the popularity he had achieved in the 1920’s and would in his later years be relegated to the position of a minor literary figure who had enjoyed a brief vogue. The decade of the 1930’s, which constitutes Arlen’s earliest memories of his parents, was a golden period in young Michael’s eyes, but one which held the seeds of the long...

(The entire section is 1267 words.)