Monday, December 5, 2011

Damage, by Josephine Hart

I read this novel a about 20 years ago, not long after it came out (1991), and I thought then it packed an enormous punch for such a short book. I've been keeping an eye out for another copy of it ever since. I got a used paperback copy recently with gratifyingly musty yellowed pages, and I was equally pleased to find that the book is no less powerful the second time around. Perhaps it's more so, as I feel a bit more fragile than I did two decades ago. That is Amy Tan's definition of a 'classic' -- a book you can read once a decade and respond to differently each time.

The bare plot outline might be that of any steamy pot-boiler: Middle-aged man falls obsessively in love with son's fiancee; tragedy ensues. What Hart does with this plot, though, is insightful, moving, terse and deft. The year after the novel came out, David Hare wrote a screenplay, which followed the book very closely. Louis Malle directed the film; Jeremy Irons, Natasha Richardson and Juliette Binoche played the lead roles. Quite the roll-call, there. I did see the film, and I remember thinking the casting was close to perfect, but the book still had the greater impact.

The narrator is an English man of middle age, a doctor turned politician, faithfully married to a lovely wife, father of two fine adult children. He is by all objective standards a success. He himself feels almost nothing -- he also views his life objectively, reporting it in an almost clinical tone.
My wife is beautiful. For that, I have the evidence of my own eyes, and the reaction of those who meet her.  Hers is a beauty of pleasing proportions, a felicitous blending of eyes, skin, and hair. She is complete. She was complete before I met her. It was to her picture of life that I contributed my being. And I was happy to do so. 
She was twenty when I met her, conventionally, correctly at a friend's house. There was nothing about her that jarred or caused me pain. She possessed in great measure that powerful seductiveness of serenity. Ingrid took my initial admiration, and later love, as a treasured gift, but a deserved one. I, who had feared love, feared some wildness it might unleash in me, was soothed.
And so the doctor proceeds bloodlessly through all aspects of his life. He goes through his medical training without great empathy for those he treats. He allows his father-in-law to persuade him to try his hand at politics, and the voters find him appealing. His fellow Parliamentarians grow to like and respect him because he does not compete with them. Success just falls into this man's lap. In his own detached fashion, he appreciates his good fortune, and he muses that doing everything correctly has served him well.
What man was luckier? I had obeyed the rules. I had been rewarded. Clear direction, some luck, and here I was, fifty and fully realised. 
Enter Anna Barton, the 33 year-old woman with whom his 25 year-old son, Martyn, has fallen in love. Hart, with enormous skill, avoids anything trite as she draws this obsession-at-first-sight scene. In Anna, the doctor recognises himself, or perhaps another of his own species. For what may be the first time in his life, he experiences passionate emotions. Not just lust but a whole panoply of heightened states. He knows at once that his life has commenced and, should Anna disappear, it would end.

He knows also, of course, that he is on the road to ruin. If their affair were uncovered, it would demolish his career and everyone in his family, but he is for once nearly out of control. Anna sees his obsession and responds to it, but she does warn him: "Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive."

Later, after a dinner with Martyn, Anna, and Martyn's parents, Anna's step-father offers the doctor an even more chilling warning.
"Anna has brought a great deal of pain to a number of people. She is completely blameless, in my opinion. But she is a catalyst for disaster. Martyn may be different. He seems to let her be. That is vital with Anna. Try to hold her, and she will fight. You can't break Anna. She's already broken, you see. She must be free. That way, she will always return home. Of course this is the advice I should be giving to the groom, and not to his father. But Martyn doesn't seem to need it. So you, my friend, should heed what I say. It's clearly too late for the only advice that could save you. Stay away from Anna."
His illicit affair with Anna is madness, he's fully aware of that, but this Englishman coolly observes his own progress toward disaster. He just cannot bring himself to alter or stop it. Although Anna predictably escapes with minor injury, no one is completely spared the horror. Including me. I'm still nursing my reader's bruises. Give it another decade or two, though, and I'll reach for Damage again.

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