Playing with terror

Christopher Ricks

  • The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 134 pp, £5.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 224 01931 7

Ian McEwan’s tale is as economical as a shudder. It never itself shudders, which is one reason why it makes you do so. By staying cool in the face of the murderous madness which it contemplates, it precipitates an icy sweat. What it does even with equanimity is not to display it. A characteristic McEwan sentence is one of which it might be said (here in Venice revisited) that the law allows it and the court awards it. ‘She loved him, though not at this particular moment.’ This means what it says, exactly. It is not a warrant for sarcasm’s burliness, for inferring that she didn’t really love him at other moments, or that she really disliked him at this particular moment. Grim, laconic and humorous, it is a bracing sentence, a short, sharp shock.

A modern couple, unmarried and unattached, is in ancient Venice. They meet a couple, married and detached, by whom they are fascinated. The fascination turns out to be the lethal hypnosis which the snake bends upon the rabbit. Best not to reveal in a review just what happens. Not that other reviewers have been continent, and not that the book’s suspense is of the thin kind which aims at the suicidal success of extinguishing in a surprised spasm the pity and terror which it has raised: but a second reading of the book is intensely different from a first reading, and to abridge this by an unwarranted revelation is to cause some such waste as is here poignantly engraved within an extremely wasteless art.

McEwan is drawn to images of intense negation. Sometimes they incite a sigh, as they do in Philip Larkin’s line: ‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’ ‘The word “relationship” was on their lips so frequently they sickened of it. They agreed there was no reasonable substitute.’ Sometimes the negations incite a cry, but a cry such as never actually escapes the tightened lips of a proud sufferer. A child is being punished: ‘No one spoke. It was like a silent film. My father took a leather belt from a drawer and beat my sisters – three very hard strokes each on the backside – and Eva and Maria did not make a sound.’ Or a wife is being punished, it may be: ‘As they descended the first flight of stairs, they heard a sharp sound that, as Mary said later, could as easily have been an object dropped as a face slapped.’

Such negations are alive, everywhere and diversely. ‘For reasons they could no longer define clearly, Colin and Mary were not on speaking terms.’ We are never properly introduced to this couple; the first sentence of the book presses upon us an ignorant intimacy with them such as characterises a first-naming world for which the old formalities are unthinkably vacant and the new informalities unutterably hollow: ‘Each afternoon, when the whole city beyond the dark green shutters of their hotel windows began to stir, Colin and Mary were woken by the methodical chipping of steel tools against the iron barges which moored by the hotel café pontoon.’ Colin and Mary Who? Or rather, since they turn out not to be married, Colin Who and Mary Who? There is much that we learn about them, but never these simple assurances. The Comfort of Strangers: this, and the discomfort of being lured into an unknowing intimacy with strangers, into a meeting-place which is fiercely lit and surrounded by shadows.

When Colin and Mary meet Robert, he drily pumps them:

Robert began to ask them questions and at first they answered reluctantly. They told him their names, that they were not married, that they did not live together, at least, not now. Mary gave the ages and sexes of her children.

Does ‘their names’ mean one each or two each? How deftly and equivocally servile the language can be. We never learn the names of those children of Mary, or the surname of Robert and his wife Caroline, and we feel the pull of collusive intimacy, as if an offensive had been launched so irresistibly forward into acquaintanceship as now to leave life too short for the main body of relationship ever to catch up. Names are not taboo here, but they are mythologically chastening.

‘How long have you known Colin?’

‘Seven years,’ Mary said, and without turning towards Caroline, went on to describe how her children, whose sexes, ages and names she explained in rapid parentheses, were both fascinated by stars, how they could name over a dozen constellations while she could name only one, Orion, whose giant form now straddled the sky before them, his sheathed sword as bright as his far-flung limbs.

For a moment there is the chance to breathe a larger air, but soon the frightening factitiousness of first names has coagulated into its own level rituals:

Colin and Caroline stood up, and Robert opened the door and turned on the light above the stairs. Colin and Mary thanked Robert and Caroline for their hospitality. Robert gave Mary instructions how to reach the hotel.

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