Classic Novellas Week: The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan #NovNov22

Last month I really enjoyed Ian McEwan’s latest novel Lessons and I thought it might be interesting to read one of his earlier (and much shorter works) for Novellas in November. I went through quite a McEwan phase in my early twenties, but for some reason had never read The Comfort of Strangers – although I have seen the film adaptation, scripted by Harold Pinter.

In this brief but unsettling novella, McEwan follows the blandly named Colin and Mary, an unmarried couple who are holidaying in an unnamed city not unlike Venice. They are beautiful, smart and wealthy but their relationship of seven years has gone stale and the holiday feels like an attempt to either reignite, or bring to an end, their partnership. They want, it seems, something to happen.

…if you were in love with someone, you would even be prepared to let them kill you, if necessary.

And something does. One evening, wandering through the streets in search of a restaurant, they get lost. A well-heeled native called Robert comes across them and takes them to his bar, filling them full of wine and telling them tales of his strange upbringing and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. At the end of the evening, he escorts them to his lavish villa. There they meet his ailing but attractive wife Caroline, who seems to be in constant pain, and unable to leave the villa, or possibly just imprisoned within it.

At Robert’s suggestion, they sleep off their drunkenness in the palazzo and when they awake, find that they are naked. Caroline has taken their clothes to launder them, but will only give them back if they agree to stay for dinner. If they think this is strange, things get worse. Caroline admits to having watched them sleep naked, Robert punches Colin in the stomach for no reason and Mary finds some candid photographs of Colin, clearly taken before the supposedly random meeting with Robert in the street.  

There is something potent and provocative in this experience and despite finding the strangeness of Robert and Caroline intimidating; it charges Mary and Colin sexually. They return to their hotel room and don’t leave it for several days. The bizarre meeting has reawakened their passion for one another but has also unleased a darker, sadomasochistic side to their behaviour, which leads them back, despite their better judgement, to the older couple, with devastating consequences.

The imagination, the sexual imagination, men’s ancient dreams of hurting, and women’s of being hurt, embodied and declared a powerful single organizing principle, which distorted all relations, all truths.

The Comfort of Strangers requires the reader to suspend their disbelief as Colin and Mary, with an odd passivity, find themselves drawn further into Robert and Caroline’s web. It is hard to pull off a tale where someone is culpable in their own tragedy and naïve to the point of stupidity but McEwan just about manages it. The lethargy that Colin and Mary present, along with some chance meetings, means that their culpability comes from a lack of drive rather than any sense of self-destruction.

McEwan spins an atmosphere of ominous suspense within an oppressive setting, exploiting effectively the landscape and character of Venice. Like Mann in Death in Venice, or Du Maurier in Don’t Look Now, he creates a world where place is hard to pin down, passers-by take on disquieting manners and unknown things are glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. Add to that themes of dominance and subservience, the idea that the darkness and brutality lurking outside our homes is not match for the darkness within is all and the fundamental elusiveness of human behaviour and you have a potent and understated amoral tale.

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

51 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I was a fan of McEwan’s early writing partly because of that provocative sometimes sinister edge but gave up after Atonement which owed so much to The Go-Between. How did you think this one compared with his latest, Cathy?

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    • I read little after Atonement too Susan, I think I might have read Saturday, but don’t remember much about it. Enduring Love would be my favourite. I had to read Lessons for a brief and I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I really enjoyed it, so maybe I’m coming round to McEwan again. He definitely doesn’t go to the dark side like this anymore though.

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  2. I am a bit of a McEwan fan, so this intrigues me. I love the tightness and punch you can get in novellas, and McEwan is good at both of those. Most of his books aren’t particularly long anyhow, are they?

    My main question here, though, is how are you defining classic novellas?

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  3. PS I’ve been meaning to ask you for a long time. Do you know what your blog comes into my email system as being from WordPress.com when pretty well every other wordpress blog lands in my InBox with the blog’s actual name? Is this something you’ve set up? And if so, is there are reason? Or, is it just in my InBox that this happens and there’s something I need to do re your blog?

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  4. Aaaaand this will be the first Novella I am stealing from others because I read your review and Library Extension tells me it’s always available via Hoopla and I’ve just downloaded it! Thank you!

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  5. I just finished it. Since you already mentioned it, I will say that I actually JUMPED when Robert punched Colin in the stomach. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before!

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  6. Why does Venice inspire weird little tales like this one, Death in Venice and Don’t Look Now? It’s interesting that all three books seem to take place in a Venice empty of people, which is the opposite of what it’s usually like. Or so I hear. I’ve never been there myself. Hoping to post my first novella tomorrow.

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      • Venice is truly beautiful, and the sense of mystery comes from a silence no other city has, because there are no motor vehicles.
        But, from my experience visiting it in October 2005, (i.e. in autumn, not high season), it had too many tourists back then, so goodness only knows what it’s like now with those horrible cruise ships dumping thousands of people in St Mark’s in summer.
        I remember walking in one calle, and it was like being on an escalator in department store at Christmas, you had to go with the flow, you could not stop to look at anything, and there was no escape from loud American accents or people smoking. The restaurants near the tourist attractions were overpriced, had terrible service and the food was awful.
        It was possible then to get away from the crowds and we did, and we loved it.
        You might enjoy reading my travel blog about my time there:
        hillfamilysoutherndivision.wordpress.com/category/destinations/europe/europe-2005/italy-2005/venice-2005/

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  7. Hmmm… interesting. I find McEwan very hit and miss and it’s largely because of what you state here: sometimes you have to suspend belief to make the story work for you and I just don’t like doing that. I want my stories and characters to be realistic. But, anyway, this does sound strange and intriguing…

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  8. I was thinking I had read this one (from title alone) but on reading your review, no – I think I would remember it. I prefer McEwan’s earlier works to his more recent.

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  9. I also used to love McEwan but he’s fallen way down my favourite authors list in recent years. Saturday was just dire. I haven’t heard of this novella but it does remind me of what I used to love about McEwan

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