Damage is a tale of desperate erotic obsession, and its inevitable path to destruction.
The narrative, told by the male protagonist, eminently respectable, and respected, cabinet minister Fleming, is clinical in its formality, in keeping with his social position. His life revolves around public service, and the care of his family and, at the heart of this seeming ‘order’ he is deeply unhappy.
This very formality, with its lack of true passion, has suffocated him, so that we have some understanding of his leap from empty order into consuming chaos, into the danger of an affair with his son’s fiancée, Anna.
The icy detachment of this narrative is a perfect foil to Fleming’s inner turmoil and the depth of his catastrophic infatuation. His spiralling descent is forever tempered by a façade of civility and order. Josephine Hart’s sparse, simple, even elegant language balances the fevered undercurrents of Fleming’s psychological state.
‘… my life would have been lost in contemplation of the emerging skeleton beneath my skin. It was as though a man’s bones broke through the face of the werewolf. Shining with humanity he stalked through his midnight life towards the first day.’
His affair with Anna is both an awakening and a dream-state, a loss of self to the intoxication of desire, and a finding of the self.
Fleming tells us: ‘I eased her gently to the floor. Leaving my elegant disguise on the sofa I became myself.’
We are left in no doubt that destruction is inevitable, that Fleming is at the precipice. There are no mitigating circumstances, and we know that there will be no happy ending, or forgiveness. What we see is a chillingly honest portrayal of sexual obsession, and our potential for destruction: lives damaged, or soon to be so.
Many will be familiar with the wonderful film of the same name, starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche, directed by Louis Malle, in which we witness more of the sexual nature of the affair. In her book, Hart does not describe sex at length, and yet we are left in no doubt that the acts are intense.
Fleming tells the reader: ‘We were made for other things. For needs that had to be answered day or night – sudden longings – a strange language of the body.’
They involve a degree of mild violence and of domination (there are references to slavedom, to being tied, and blindfolded, of Anna giving herself over to his will, of being physically ‘arranged’). These scenes leave us with a sense of the brutality of Fleming’s sexual desire, and of Anna’s desire to submit to it.
‘… there would be time for the pain and pleasure lust lends to love. Time for body lines and angles that provoke the astounded primitive to leap delighted from the civilised skin…There would be time for words obscene and dangerous. There would be time for flowers to put out the eyes and for silken softness to close the ears.’
This is a love story of sorts, as Fleming proclaims in the closing lines, but the journey is heartbreaking, unsettling, terrifying. It is a nightmare from which the protagonists cannot wake. We are shocked, horrified, even to the bitter close, but cannot look away.
Hart reminds us that, when tragedy strikes, as when Anna’s brother Aston kills himself ‘silence, separation and sadness… become a way of life’ trapping us ‘in the unresolved agonies of long ago’. In some part, this is offered as a reason for Anna’s detachment, but we are not invited to judge, only to witness.
We see Fleming acknowledge his folly, cruelty and deceit. He takes full responsibility, never attempting to apologize or make excuses. He is in the grip of what he knows will destroy him, and we abhor him for it. And yet, we see that he is powerless, just as Anna is powerless.
They are presented as equally culpable and yet, equally, without blame. They are damaged and are destined to destroy not only themselves but others.
At one point, Fleming asks Anna: ‘Who are you?’ and she replies: ‘I am what you desire…’ While Fleming fantasises about the possibility of leaving his wife and living with Anna, she realises that their relationship is outside of normal bounds and social conventions. It is only there that it can exist.
Josephine Hart achieves something rare in this novella: a helplessness that speaks deeply to the reader, a knowledge that, however sane and ordered our life, we carry our own destructive flame, the potential for our own acts of ‘damage’.