I like the work of Ian McEwan. I wouldn’t be happy to read two of his books in close succession, and fortunately no-one compels me to do so, so I always read his novels after waiting a sufficient time, when I feel that I’m ready again for the extraordinary experience his work usually provides me with. The Comfort of Strangers had also been sitting on my desk for a couple of months before I mustered the necessary courage which is needed for reading McEwan.
I know it’s not the size of a book that counts, however, in the beginning I was deceived and disappointed by the fact that The Comfort of Strangers only runs to 100 pages, so I was expecting a simple, perhaps rather shallow story without too much soul-dissection, one I would read in two hours and then forget about in a week. I was wrong. As soon as I started reading the novel, I realized that this is not a text that can or should be read quickly. McEwan demands the reader’s attention but he gives much pleasure in return, and he also proves that his short novel can contain as much drama, suspense, tragedy and gloomy poetry as any thousand-page book.
The novel tells the story of the English couple, Colin and Mary, who spend their holiday in an unnamed city (apparently it’s Venice). Their time passes monotonously until one evening, when, while walking through the city late at night looking for a place to eat, they bump into Robert, a rather aggressive, overwhelmingly cordial local man who invites the couple first to a smoky bar, and then next day to his own apartment. Here they meet Robert’s disabled wife, Caroline, who can hardly walk because of the constant pain in her back. The rest of the novel analyzes the special relationships which exist among these four people, but I would rather not say any more of the story, as every further detail might diminish the morbid, perverted delight offered by the book.
Because despite all its brutality and harshness, The Comfort of Strangers is a beautiful text. It’s written in such a stunning, poetic and seductive language that I often found myself reading a sentence three or four times before moving on, and I also turned back the pages several times to read through a particularly rich paragraph again. In this fascinating, cutting and detached language McEwan tells us quite a lot about the relationship of men and women, alienation, passion, desire and fear, and what he says here is never reassuring and often unsettling.
The atmosphere of the novel, suggested by the story and the language itself, is much enhanced by the city where the events take place. Although it is not stated explicitly, several signs imply that the story is set in Venice: we read about channels and bridges, the characters move about in boats and the cemetery island can also be vaguely seen on the horizon – and Venice is not the city of light, airy stories: just think of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion or Daphne Du Maurier’s story, Don’t Look Now. These stories came to my mind immediately when reading The Comfort of Strangers, and the comparisons didn’t make my heart any easier.
Apart from the style, the language and the setting, the title of the novel is also worth contemplating. I think it’s beautiful and very expressive. To be comfortable among strangers – it almost sounds like an oxymoron, and still: Colin and Mary feel at home in the strange city, in the company of Robert and Caroline, and this is the setting where they find the means of rekindling their rather cold relationship which is more of a friendship now than a love affair. The same holds true for Robert and Caroline who can gratify their passions and sexual desires under the strange gaze and presence of Colin and Mary.
On the whole, this is a stunning and rich novel which also made me reflect on myself and the world. And this is exactly what I expect from a book.