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.

When the horror is about to reach its hideously playful climax, it is not just a warning but the loved name itself which Mary cannot utter. Drugged as though her tongue had been cut out, and soon to be forced to see a sight such as would put her eyes out, Mary ‘mouthed Colin’s name. Her tongue was too heavy to lift round the “I”, it needed several people to help move it, people whose own names did not have an “I”. Caroline’s words were all about her, heavy, meaningless, tumbling objects which numbed Mary’s legs.’ When all is over, except that it will never be over, and when anguish has dulled to ache, the last page will urge us once more to imagine what we cannot hear, Mary again mouthing Colin’s name several times without uttering it. So little time has passed since they felt their normal passion tingle and burgeon because of their having brushed the eerie passion of the odder couple: ‘Mary talked of herself as a parent, Colin talked of himself as a pseudo-parent to Mary’s children; all speculation, all anxieties and memories were marshalled into the service of theories about their own and each other’s character as if, finding themselves reborn through an unexpected passion, they had to invent themselves anew, name themselves as a newborn child, or a new character, a sudden intruder in a novel, is named.’

There is no way of talking about this novel without saying Venice, and yet the name is never said. The dust-jacket may give us a Turner water-colour of Venice’s waters, but the blurb says not one word about the novel, and the novel never says the word ‘Venice’. The scene is unmistakable, and is just the setting within which to make the mistake of your life.

McEwan has said that travel is very important to him:

I rather like to travel alone. Travelling rather puts you in the role of author – you’re passing constantly through situations without any real responsibility towards them. I do find that very exhilarating.

But his Colin and Mary, to whom he does feel responsibility (though not for whom, since they’re not his creatures but his creations), are travelling together, not alone. As a couple they will find themselves accursedly alone; before that, they cannot feel blessedly alone, cannot feel any of the blithe jettisoning which delighted Clough’s Claude in Rome:

It is a blessing, no doubt, to be rid, at least for a time, of
All one’s friends and relations, – yourself (forgive me!) included, –
All the assujettissement of having been what one has been,
What one thinks one is, or thinks that others suppose one.

The Comfort of Strangers, or Amours de Voyage. But McEwan’s crucial jettisoning is of the name Venice.

When Henry James, a hundred years ago, set himself to be yet another lauder of Venice, he launched himself immediately from his title ‘Venice’: ‘It is a great pleasure to write the word; but I am not sure there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything to it.’ The positive and irresistible pleasure meets those immovable negatives. I am not sure there is not a certain emulation in McEwan here, a rising to James’s challenge:

Venice has been appointed and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there ... There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject. Every one has been there, and every one has brought back a collection of photographs. There is as little mystery about the Grand Canal as about our local thoroughfare, and the name of St Mark is as familiar as the postman’s ring.

The postman always rings twice, and there is much mystery in McEwan. The name of St Mark does not ring once, despite his elaborated descriptions of ‘one of the great tourist attractions of the world ... a triumphant accretion, so it had often been described, of many centuries of civilisation’.

For it is not James who contributes most to the familiar compound ghost which haunts Venice here, it is the man whose name James at once proceeded to utter and which McEwan refuses to utter once: Ruskin. McEwan’s unnamed and unmistakable and not unreal city is haunted by the unnamed, unmistakable and real Ruskin. He is the only person on the scene missing. In him, all the trapping threads of this web-work of a novel are concentrated: his passion for Venice; his urge to distinguish there the true grotesque from the false, and a true terror from ‘a manufactured terribleness’; his sharp dark sense, again there in Venice, of ‘this great art of killing’; his appalled understanding of the relations of the modern novel to violent death; his fierce and grand forays into the politics of sex; the bitter failure of his private personal sexuality, and of his mind; even the fact of his being, of all our cultural critics, the one to whom names mean most. ‘There is a curious providence in the names of many great men.’ But the name of this particular great man is not to be uttered within the world of McEwan’s curious providence, though Ruskin’s presence is not to be put by. There in McEwan’s St Mark’s is ‘the roofline of the cathedral where, it had once been written, the crests of the arches, as if in ecstasy ...’ Et cetera, the most important of the other things being the name of the man who wrote that description.

Ruskin created his St Mark’s in contrast to England: ‘And now I wish that the reader, before I bring him into St Mark’s Place, would imagine himself for a little time in a quiet English cathedral town.’ ‘Think for a little while of that scene, and the meaning of all its small formalisms, mixed with its serene sublimity. Estimate its secluded, continuous, drowsy felicities’; and, having done so, enter St Mark’s Place, where ‘there rises a vision out of the earth,’ and where Ruskin rises to thrilling heights, up and up, to his climax: ‘a confusion of delight, amidst which the breasts of the Greek horses are seen blazing in their breadth of golden strength, and the St Mark’s lion, lifted on a blue field covered with stars, until at last, as if in ecstasy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam, and toss themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray, as if the breakers on the Lido shore had been frost-bound before they fell, and the sea-nymphs had inlaid them with coral and amethyst’. Now, more than a century later, the merely human Colin and Mary are to be found here. In McEwan’s prose, there is no confusion of delight.

They released their hands and sat back. Colin followed Mary’s gaze to a nearby family whose baby, supported at the waist by its father, stood on the table, swaying among the ashtrays and empty cups. It wore a white sun hat, a green-and-white striped matelot vest, bulging pants frilled with pink lace and white ribbon, yellow ankle-socks and scarlet leather shoes. The pale blue circular bit of its dummy pressed tight against and obscured its mouth, giving it an air of sustained, comic surprise. From the corner of its mouth a snail’s trail of drool gathered in the deep fold of its chin and overflowed in a bright pendant. The baby’s hands clenched and unclenched, its head wobbled quizzically, its fat, weak legs were splayed round the massive, shameless burden of its nappy. The wild eyes, round and pure, blazed across the sunlit square and fixed in seeming astonishment and anger on the roofline of the cathedral where, it had once been written, the crests of the arches, as if in ecstasy, broke into marble foam and tossed themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray, as if breakers on a shore had been frost-bound before they fell. The baby emitted a thick, guttural vowel sound and its arms twitched in the direction of the building.

Colin raised his hand tentatively as a waiter whirled towards them bearing a tray of empty bottles; but the man had passed them and was several feet away before the gesture was half-complete. The family was preparing to leave and the infant was handed round until it reached its mother, who wiped its mouth with the back of her hand, placed it carefully on its back in a silver-trimmed pram and set about securing with sharp tugs its arms and chest into a many-buckled leather harness. It lay back and fixed its furious gaze on the sky as it was wheeled away.

Given McEwan’s art of giving and rescinding names, it is not surprising that Ruskin’s ‘the Lido shore’ has become ‘a shore’. What is surprising, a stroke of frosty challenge, is the meeting of that so-described baby with Ruskin. Things feel safer once its infantile fury is secured within that many-buckled leather harness: yet who knows what later fury those buckles will have launched? Ruskin’s ‘ecstasy’ has had restored to it something of its original intensity of pain, rather as another of his evocations of Venice – ‘And the spires of the glorious city rise indistinctly bright into those living mists, like pyramids of pale fire from some vast altar’ – may be darkly acknowledged by McEwan. These are altars which see human sacrifice.

St Mark’s is, as they say, Ruskin’s epiphany, and one of those who have best said it – Richard Stein, in The Ritual of Interpretation – is drawn just here to the word which McEwan so much needs, ‘ritual’. Again, it is in pondering Venice that Ruskin is driven to seize and to elaborate that distinction between the true grotesque and the false which is where any fundamental disagreement about McEwan’s work must lie. There, and in the related question of true and false terror. Does McEwan play with terror? ‘The mind,’ says Ruskin,

under certain phases of excitement, plays with terror, and summons images which, if it were in another temper, would be awful, but of which, either in weariness or in irony, it refrains for the time to acknowledge the true terribleness. And the mode in which this refusal takes place distinguishes the noble from the ignoble grotesque. For the master of the noble grotesque knows the depth of all at which he seems to mock, and would feel it at another time, or feel it in a certain undercurrent of thought even while he jests with it ...

It is not a manufactured terribleness, whose author, when he had finished it, knew not if it would terrify any one else or not: but it is a terribleness taken from the life; a spectre which the workman indeed saw, and which, as it appalled him, will appal us also.

Ruskin was himself appalled by a pathology of the novel of which this novel would have been to him a hectic symptom. In ‘Fiction , Fair and Foul’ he writes:

The thoroughly trained Londoner can enjoy no excitement than that to which he has been accustomed, but asks for that in continually more ardent or more virulent concentration; and the ultimate power of fiction to entertain him is by varying to his fancy the modes, and defining for his dullness the horrors, of Death. In the single novel of Bleak House there are nine deaths (or left for death’s, in the drop scene) carefully wrought out or led up to, either by way of pleasing surprise, as the baby’s at the brickmakers, or finished in their threatenings and sufferings, with as much enjoyment as can be contrived in the anticipation, and as much pathology as can be concentrated in the description.

For Ruskin, there is not only a moral question (of innocence) but a class question (of respectability): ‘It is not the mere number of deaths ... that marks the peculiar tone of the modern novel. It is the fact that all these deaths, but one, are of inoffensive, or at least in the world’s esteem, respectable persons; and that they are all grotesquely either violent or miserable, purporting thus to illustrate the modern theology that the appointed destiny of a large average of our population is to die like rats in a drain, either by trap or by poison.’

When McEwan’s couple is trapped, there is much less confidence that they are either entirely inoffensive or entirely respectable persons, but the cutting force of the story is in its laying bare how ineradicable is this shock that it should be the mostly inoffensive and mostly respectable whom such horrors befall. If it should be wondered whether McEwan is irresponsible or evasive in not making it clear just how much Colin and Mary invited their doom (even, in the brutally superstitious and self-protecting phrase of modern city-life, ‘asked for it’), one answer would be that it is of the nature of tragedy that it will not abide this question.

‘We didn’t exactly plan to come, but it wasn’t completely accidental either.’ Did King Lear invite exactly his exacted fate? Did he ask for it? Do Colin and Mary? The Venetian police have their unprepossessing prepossessions.

While they clearly did not believe she had committed any crime, she was treated as though tainted by what the assistant commissioner himself had called, and had translated for her benefit, ‘these obscene excesses’. Behind their questions was an assumption – or was this her imagination? – that she was the kind of person they could reasonably expect to be present at such a crime, like an arsonist at someone else’s blaze.

For McEwan has undertaken a tragedy. Tragedy acknowledges that the injustices of life are sometimes corrigible. The Comfort of Strangers is alive with anger at the injustices, for instance, of the politics of sex, and it includes some vivid conversations on these wrongs and rights; here, the Ruskin who penned ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ is an adversary (as he is in Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics). But tragedy has also to acknowledge that the injustices of life are sometimes incorrigible. The longing to explain is not annulled by, but it is chastened by, the inexplicability of evil and the irremediability of suffering. ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ Many possible causes lurk within the retailed sickness within the past lives of the murderous Robert and Caroline. Yet it may be that there is no cause that makes these hard hearts, or perhaps that there is a cause outside nature.

The last page of the book grants access to Mary bewilderedly ‘in the mood for explanation’. ‘But she explained nothing.’ There is great pathos in this ending, and it comes from the coinciding – perfectly honourable – of Mary’s doubleness with McEwan’s. He too is in the mood for explanation, but is willing, at least for now and at least in the face of the pain which he has imagined, to explain nothing.

Meanwhile, he has intimated a very great deal. Just how much, within that trodden Venice which Henry James said was in danger of becoming ‘the supreme bugbear of literature’, can be seen if you think of the new abridgment of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, docked and decked by Jan Morris; and of her Venice of 1960, which manages, in innumerable ways that are apt to McEwan’s taut enterprise, to soften fierce eroticism into the cosily comfortable (‘Venice remains a sexy city still, as many a ravished alien has discovered. It is a city of seduction’), and manages to tame terror into a Petit Guignol giggle: ‘If you have a taste for Grand Guignol, Venice has much to offer you: for here, to this day, the spirit of melodrama lives on in shrouded triumph, if you care to rap the tables and seek it out.’ For ‘the hushed and sudden methods of the Venetian security agencies ... have left behind them (now that we are quite safe from the strangler’s cord) an enjoyable aftermath of shudder.’ The Comfort of Stranglers.