In my youth, I read a remarkable amount of science fiction, the majority of which was fairly safe and non-confrontational fare. In the summer of 1984, as an impressionable and naive 18-year-old, I was urged by a friend to read Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and overnight my literary outlook shifted. I may yet choose this as a Book of the Month, but its mention here is to begin a dissection of literature as a mirror for how we as readers deal with the process of difficult subject matter. Considered as one of the top 100 books of the 21st Century in a 1997 poll, it left me with a profound sense of disquiet. I realised that I didn’t want to read about this kind of seemingly mindless violence, however popular or critically acclaimed it might be.
When urged to read The Comfort of Strangers by my English lecturer at College, I could not finish the book when it became apparent that Robert had broken his lover’s back and that Caroline had remained with him after the event. For me, what is a crucial dramatic device in the plot was a reach too far. Decades on, I have finally read the novella from end to end and find myself wondering why my younger self found this narrative such hard going, and that in turn has led to some rather revelatory understanding of how, as humans, our own experiences colour the lives we choose to experience through entertainment.
Ever since an eyeball was sliced open in Un Chien Andalou in 1929, outraging viewers using visual imagery has become a massive industry, but has always remained a product of the particular era within which those shocks were conceived within. Cinematic history is littered with movies that were banned for transgressing rules put in place often not to protect viewers, but to preserve what governments and academics considered as the boundaries of decent behaviour. Looking back on films such as The Devils (1971) and The Human Centipede (2009) it is easy to see why time will not remove the indignation from some works which, quite frankly, were probably only ever made to be controversial in the first place.
Fortunately for everybody, literature is a far more subtle beast, relying exclusively on an individual reader’s reaction and rarely on a group response, though the sensationalist works would rely on such reactions as a convenient means of selling more copies. It means that those most capable of writing the horrific as mundane and compelling as acceptable and normal can get away with a great deal inside the auspices of their own narratives. This is, in essence, Ian McEwan’s greatest strength: the ability to present the beauty of an unnamed city in The Comfort of Strangers and use it as the backdrop to use and then expound on a story of individual perversion and malice.
How much one can stomach in terms of horror is as unique as one’s own fingerprint, and will be dictated by the life led but also by the ability to rationalise what is real and imagined. For most, books are a means of escape but on very specific terms: when an author suggests contentious plot twists with which you may have had a measure of personal empathy, for instance, that may instantly colour a previously compelling narrative as far less attractive. It is why, when authors attempted to break barriers of decency or challenge religious sensibilities as has been the case with film-makers, their work has often been summarily banned. Famously Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988 caused such outrage that the author had a fatwā issued against him, calling for his death over a story which now seems tame in light of the state of world affairs.
The power of the written word can be traced back centuries, of course, and there are countless examples in modern history of the power that literature continues to wield, often by accident: even now, certain religious schools in the US will refuse to acknowledge the existence of key scientific figures such as Charles Darwin and effectively attempt to erase his observations on the nature of Evolution from history and their children’s textbooks. It does not matter whether you believe these theories or not: that is the choice of the individual to decide when reading the evidence, not the responsibility of others to impose.
Literary freedoms too have come to the fore in the last few years with the emergence of the post-truth movement in politics, which use their own versions of news and understanding of current affairs, science and education to effectively retool history as we know it unfolded. If it is necessary to take someone to court to prove that the Holocaust during World War Two took place (see the movie Denial for a decent potted history of Irving v Penguin Books Ltd and why Holocaust apologists became newsworthy) there are some worrying issues to address. It appears that many have reached a stage as educated human beings where the ability to understand the truth and separate it from our own perception thereof is becoming worryingly warped.
For me, McEwan’s work is a watershed, for several reasons: primarily it has pushed my own ability to dispassionately separate reality and fiction, and be able to accept both in mature, academic terms. This is undoubtedly a result of my own personal history, and events which mean that violence is something I often like to pretend simply doesn’t exist. However, in what has become a climate of increasing understanding and acceptance of the difficulties those of us with mental illness face, plus my own attempts to better communicate and explain the shortcomings I know are possessed, I can sit and grasp the issues and begin to find enlightenment in works that previously were simply too emotionally difficult to cope with.
Social media has a part to play in this personal renaissance: the willingness of people to not simply discuss their issues, but find people who will sympathise, support and offer advice is undoubtedly on the rise. In this regard, it is with renewed confidence that I am tackling subject matters that previously were intimidating, and actively pushing myself into the process of analysis. Undoubtedly, we learn best as human beings when able to control and dictate our own terms, and the more complex forms of literature give a perfect opportunity to challenge ourselves whilst at the same time offering a measure of distance between the issues and our own perception.
Where the limits of these challenges exist, of course, are often not solely regulated by individual taste. Sometimes, it requires a work of fiction to shine a light on areas where discussion of freedoms simply did not take place previously in order for seismic change to take place. When one looks at the public outcry (and subsequent court case) over D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1960’s and realise it took over thirty years to have an unexpurgated version of the book published in the UK, it is apparent that the climate for sexual practices being openly discussed had come a long way since original censorship took place.
McEwan’s work, like Iain Banks’ early novels, shows a writer playing with the fringes of acceptable human behaviour as not simply an attention seeking device to bring their early work to prominence. This is more than sensationalism at work, but a cracking open of the thoughts and feelings that many of us consider, or have flirted with at times during our lives. What separates humanity from those on the fringes of acceptable behaviour is often the unexpected, the unwarranted or simply the unavoidable: all have the opportunity to make wrong turns and never come back from those moments. If circumstances had dictated our own personal paths to run in a differing direction, how much else of our personalities might have altered along the way? In essence, that is all that The Comfort of Strangers becomes: a story about how the choices made lead us sometimes to dark spaces that were never previously illuminated.
Learning from our mistakes is the way to free ourselves from such perceived tyranny, to find the means to remove that which restricts us from truly becoming the people we wish to be. It is incredibly easy to say but often almost impossible to do, and the measure of us as human beings is often counted by such actions. For me at least, by reading this novel, a ghost has been exorcised and greater understanding of myself attained. As an author, that is all I hope happens when others read my work: to gain greater knowledge of self and to strive to be better as a result. The best literature is truly capable of producing such change if you are prepared to approach each work with an open mind.