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!