Ian McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers (1981)

As their holiday unfolds, Colin and Maria are locked into their own intimacy. They groom themselves meticulously, as though there waits someone who cares deeply about how they appear. Then, they meet a man with a disturbing story to tell and become drawn into a fantasy of violence and obsession.

I can’t forget The Comfort of Strangers. It keeps on haunting me.

This is not a novel, I liked. The world McEwan unleashes is too gloomy, too disgusting. Even though I didn’t like the novel  I am fascinated how obstinately  it stays in my mind, and even in my feelings.

I truly enjoyed Atonement. It did stay with me for a very long time as well. When you are engrossed in a novel that you enjoy you don’t pay so much attention to the skills of the author. You are just enchanted by the feelings he evokes in you. McEwan is one of the most renowned British writers and when reading a book like The Comfort of Strangers, that you do not even like but that still resonates in your mind, you know why he gets so much praise.

The Comfort of strangers narrates the stay of a young English couple in Venice. There is something sinister from the very beginning. The way McEwan describes the city gives the impression as if Venice was a lurking animal. The Venice he describes is neither idyllic nor romantic; on the very contrary. His description of those labyrinthine, narrow streets that make orientation difficult, of those alleys whose walls tower too high to permit an overwiew, is unsettling.  I was reminded of the movie Don’t Look Now. The young English couple is described as if they knew each other too well.  They don’t talk much, they drift and only barely escape deadly boredom. It is not exactly clear why but all of a sudden their  sexuality changes radically. They are suddenly drawn to more violent, sadomasochistic lovemaking.  On one of their nightly forays they meet a mysterious local man who takes them to his own restaurant where they drink far too much. On their way back to the hotel they get lost and wait on some doorstep till dawn approaches. As if out of nowhere the man reappears and takes them home where he introduces them to his wife. His wife seems to be an ailing invalid. They don’t know it, but from the moment they meet these two people they are doomed.

McEwan’s slim novel touches many topics: relationships, love, power, sadomasochism, people abroad, Venice,  disorientation, voyeurism. The list is almost endless. On top of that McEwan´s writing is scarce, concise, and very atmospherical and visual.

The Comfort of Strangers is not a pleasing novel, but one that shows you what good literature is capable of.

Are there any books that you did not like but still consider to be very fascinating?

5 thoughts on “Ian McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers (1981)

  1. Are there any book you did not like but still consider to be very fascinating

    Difficult question!! I don’t thing I have read that kind of book yet…I think it’s because when I don’t like book I tend to drop it and move to a new book…so I never gonna find out is the book fascinating or not.

    • I am a bit weird, I finish every book I begin with very rare exceptions and those land in the bin. Sometimes I am really glad I finished it as some books are only good when you have reached the end. Maybe your approach is more sensible. I finish quite a lot of books that I find neither interesting nor do I like them…

  2. I read this book a long time ago (it may have been the first book by him I read) and then saw the movie, and while I’ve forgotten a lot of the book I remember the movie being very disturbing–which I am sure you will not find surprising. I loved Atonement though. I read a Stevie Smith novel earlier this year, which I have to say I didn’t get on with as it is experimental and I always struggle with those, but I am glad I read it and stuck it out.

    • I saw that there is a movie but I am not tempted. I think he is a remarkable writer but the topic was off putting. And the end… Atonement is great. I am sure he has a lot more to offer. Got quite a few here but lost track after this one.

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