The surface remained untroubled, but the ground was beginning to be less firm under my feet. A fault long hidden was being revealed. There was the smallest, briefest tremor, barely worth recording. But the pain that shot through me was so intense, I knew real damage was being done.
When it comes to films based on books, I don’t expect the film version to doggedly follow the book. Under the best of circumstances, the film version will capitalise on certain elements–the visual for example, to build mood or perspective while adding depth & understanding to the source material. Some characters are minimized for the narrative ; others are expanded while some disappear entirely. When I say that I am often disappointed in the film versions of book, I expect I’m fairly typical, but the frequent disappointment doesn’t dim my enthusiasm. When there’s a payoff there’s usually a big payoff, and that brings me to Damage by Irish author, Josephine Hart.
The film version of Damage had all the elements that led me to believe I’d really enjoy it: director Louis Malle, a seductive Juliette Binoche and a suitably tortured Jeremy Irons. This film has its fans, but for some reason, I’m not one of them. I didn’t care about the characters and I was hoping they’d get it over with, do me a favour and just shoot themselves. So I approached the book with a little skepticism. Would I dislike it as much as I disliked the film? Amazon reviews were a preponderance of 5 star reviews, but the readers who loathed the book expressed sentiments that I connected to the film. This nailed the decision that I had to read Damage.
Damage is narrated by a fifty-year-old married doctor who has a London-based practice and a fairly new political career. His attractive wife Ingrid is the daughter of a very wealthy, very conservative politician Edward Thompson, and the narrator and his wife have two adult children together–Martyn and Sally. While the narrator’s marriage is a success according to all definitions of the word, to the narrator there’s something missing….
That something–which could be described as a gap or a need–appears to be met when the narrator meets his son’s older girlfriend, Anna. Twenty-five-year-old Martyn has had a regular “blatantly casual” stream of girlfriends but Anna is different. Physically she’s not Martyn’s usual type (in the past he’s gone for blondes while Anne is brunette) but there’s some undefinable quality to her. Is there an air of secretiveness? Ingrid tells her husband that Anna makes her feel “uneasy” and she expresses the hope that Anna is just another girlfriend passing through.
But the narrator, who’s never named, makes a silent connection with Anna the moment they meet, and the two soon fall into a passionate, insane affair. Given Anna’s relationship to Martyn, it’s fairly easy to predict that this affair is going to have disastrous consequences, and the story of what happens builds with a sense of impending doom. The narrator and Anna are appallingly cruel and selfish to all the people they supposedly care about. They justify every deception and continue their corrosive affair even while Martyn announces his engagement to Anna.
The novel is intimately narrated by the unnamed doctor in flashback mode through short chapters stuffed full of romantic and sexual hyperbole. The use of language underscores the idea that the narrator thinks he’s involved in some great, grand passion, when the reality is really something quite tawdry. Damage is so intensely interesting because of its naked, unflinching honesty. That honesty is at times repellent, but it’s still unsparing in its details of the narrator’s utter selfishness, his complete obsession and unrestrained self-destructive plunge into a strange, ultimately unsatisfying affair with a “damaged” young woman. The narrator is a character who’s managed to avoid unpleasantries for first fifty years of his life, a man who’s always made the so-called ‘right’ decisions and to the outside world he seems to be the epitome of ‘stable’:
I never faced a serious moral dilemma. Nothing that I felt or said was extreme or left me out on a limb.
One of the subjects the narrator discusses early in the novel is his ability to be dominated and manipulated. While he describes himself as largely untouched by emotion (which explains his lack of familial attachment) he admits that “I acted those parts required of me, like some professional member of a good English repertory company.” His father, a wealthy businessman, bragged that his success was due in no small part to his willpower, but it seems that the narrator inherited little of his father’s fortitude. He recalls how he was manipulated by Ingrid and his father-in-law into politics. As with every other aspect of his life, he is tepid about politics, but his father-in-law and Ingrid appear to have colluded to get their wish. After he’s agreed to enter politics, the narrator wonders:
After years of carefully watching every move I made in order to avoid being dominated by the own father, I now found myself about to embark on a whole new course of life, because my father-in-law had flattered me into it.
Had they found me so easy to manipulate? Or was my guard so low with them, as with everyone, because I thought myself unknown by anyone and unthreatened?
The affair with Anna starts with very little defined relationship between the two participants. They meet, have wild sex, and soon Anna is setting the rules and boundaries of the affair. While she claims that the narrator is her “master,” she manipulates and controls her married lover until he’s little more than her randy ill-behaved pet dog.
In gut-wrenching passages the narrator describes his anguish at being apart from Anna, but he never stops to think about how his behaviour may impact the other compartments of his life–his marriage, his role as a parent, and his professional and political careers. Instead the narrator increasingly loses control of his life as all other aspects, except the affair, fade into insignficance. His appalling lack of attachment to his family is more than made up for by his dogged pursuit of Anna. Here’s the narrator and Anna as he rather pathetically tries to negotiate some control over the relationship:
“But you spoke of surrender, of being ruled.”
“It is my surrender that makes you ruler. You must accept this. If you fight, or try to change the pieces on the board, or to design a scenario more acceptable to you, you will be lost. Kneel down before me now, and I shall be your slave.”
And so I did, in the room in which I had first lain with her. Is it important which way I tried to take her? Which entrance? And whether with tongue or hand or penis? Did she lie or stand? Was her back to me or to the wall? Were her hands free or bound? Did she see my face or not?
The emphasis on details–or lack thereof–underscores the narrator’s desire to freeze the scenes in his memory, but at the same time he appears to acknowledge that the details really matter little or even blur. Some of the very best scenes in the book involve Anna’s relationships with her family. She makes her father uncomfortable, and her mother devolves into giddy stream-of-consciousness conversation giveaways. Anna’s stepfather, a famous writer, is the only relative who doesn’t have an urge to run, but this seems to stem from his interest in her as a study in human behaviour.
One of the other characters in the novel asks if Anna is “mad or evil?” And I think most readers will land on one or other of those definitions. Some readers might find the narrator’s choice of language which is fraught with romantic clichés annoying–I didn’t. The narrator seems to think he’s telling the confessional tale of an aged Romeo and his Juliet, and while that’s misguided, the narrator’s language is a window to his muddied thinking. Then again there are so many things the narrator doesn’t ‘get.’ I loathe romances, but Damage doesn’t qualify as a romance; it’s an exercise in deception, self-deception, manipulation and self-loathing. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to have known an “Anna” (and I’ve watched three in destructive action as they’ve moved like hurricanes through the lives of innocent bystanders), then Damage hits a nerve. Ultimately Damage is a study in human nature, a tremendously compelling, compulsive read that explores sexual obsession and the attraction to destructive relationships.
On a final note, the book reminded me of a quote from Woody Allen’s film Husbands and Wives. One of the characters, a male depressive called Gabe (played by Woody Allen) admits that he’s “always had this penchant for kamikaze women…I call them kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.” Was Anna the narrator’s accident-waiting-to-happen? Did he in some dark devious way liberate himself from a life to which he had no emotional attachment? Was Anna his rebellion? There is little sympathy from this reader for the narrator but then again, I don’t think he expects it or needs it.