these are the abstracts of my time
February is the month for Carnival in Venice,so the idea of reading some books set in the city was appealing.
During 2011 I finished off the last of Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti series of crime novels and I also read a few factual books about Venice (Jan Morris, Venice; Peter Ackroyd, Venice: Pure City; Francesco Da Mosto’s Francesco’s Venice) as well as Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. This month I’m off on another city break to la serenissima, beginning with Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.
It’s been a disappointing start. This novel seems to have modeled itself on the film Don’t Look Now, but it lacks the psychological driving force of Nicholas Roeg’s thriller. The reason why the film works is that at the core of the story is the tragic death of a child. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, the bereaved parents, are disoriented by their loss and, for them, Venice turns into an almost hallucinogenic experience, the dark, winding alleys of the city reflecting their emotional trauma. Unfortunately, Ian McEwan omits to give Colin and Mary, the main protagonists of his book, a similarly convincing reason for their odd behaviour.
There is nothing about this book that convinces me that any of the characters in it could exist anywhere but in a bad novel. I cannot work out why Colin and Mary, a pair of boring, self-indulgent, middle class nonentities, would take up with Robert, someone who is so obviously a criminal from the first time that they meet him. I also cannot work out why they would agree to stay at his house and then, after he reveals himself to be an aggressive, violent bully, I cannot believe that they would actually go back for another visit! People like Colin and Mary would run a mile from someone like Robert. In short, there is nothing psychologically convincing about this book.
Furthermore, McEwan’s style is pernickety and irritating. He seems to want to itemise every object in every room and he has a tendency to become obsessively interested in detail at the expense of the bigger picture. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic aspect of his style in this novel is his apparent decision never to name any part of Venice. Take, for example, Colin & Mary’s trip to the Lido: ‘they decided they were suffering from lack of exercise and made plans to catch the boat across the lagoon the next day to the popular strip of land whose beaches faced the open sea’. Yes, that’s it: the last ten words of this sentence seem to be there purely because Mr McEwan can’t bring himself to use four simple letters – Lido. I’m inclined to think that this is the kind of pointless exercise that might be set on a creative writing course, but I don’t want to read in a novel. It comes across as some snobbish affectation that says to the reader, ‘If you’ve been to Venice you can join my secret club because you’ll know what I’m talking about and the plebs won’t!’ Tiresome.
The chief redeeming feature of this book is that McEwan is really skilled at setting up situations that seem extremely creepy and that make you feel that something awful is about to happen. (For example, in the Lido scene.) Unfortunately, the basic narrative of the novel is so implausible that, when the nasty thing does happen, it feels much less interesting and much more obvious than the set up has led us to expect.
I’m not an Ian McEwan hater – really. I enjoyed Amsterdam and Saturday and I have others on my list of books to read, but I’m afraid that this one just exasperated me beyond my limit of tolerance. I’m putting it down to the fact that this was an early work and he got better.