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Josephine Hart

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 05, 2014
Category: Fiction

Erotic. Original. Disturbing.

That was my take on Josephine Hart’s “Damage” when I read it in 1991.

Well, and short: just 180 pages. (Even then, I was a fool for short books.)

Remember this novel? For more than a moment, this surprise bestseller — 11 weeks on The New York Times list in hardcover, another 7 in paperback, widely translated — defined “European” fiction.  [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Then I saw the Louis Malle film, starting Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche.  For more than a moment, it defined “European” film. Though made in English, you half expected subtitles.

Because I’ve written a short, erotic novel about a marriage, I thought I should look at the novel again. You can guess why: to see if there was anything I could steal.

Are movies powerful? Believe it. As I read, I heard Jeremy Irons deliver the lines of the narrator and Juliette Binoche speak Anna’s remarkable pronouncements. Spooky.

If you’ve never had the experience of “Damage,” it has my favorite kind of plot: simple and straightforward. The narrator — we never learn his name — is an English doctor who has morphed into a highly successful politician. He has a creamy wife, an attractive daughter and successful son. His only problem is that he believes in nothing very strongly and isn’t really alive. Not that he knows any of that.

Then he meets Anna, the first girlfriend his son has brought home who isn’t disposable. In an instant, he is obsessed. And so is she. The shedding of clothes follows. And dialogue like this:

Anna, after sex:  "I am what you desire."

Anna, telling him what he’s in for: "I have been damaged. Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive."

And the narrator, describing their sexual thrall: “I used the silken belt, and the black loose silk underneath, in a tableau of deliberate movements and restrictions, that at various times deprived my slave of vision and of speech. Unseen, I could worship her.”

If you have never experienced sexual madness, “Damage” may seem ludicrous. Depraved. Brutal. That’s almost inevitable. To outsiders, sexual madness generally looks like… madness. But to the narrator, after all that happens, much of it horrifying, “this is a love story.”

As only Jeremy Irons could say it.