Josephine Hart wants to make it clear, her adulterous lovers in Damage aren't falling in lust.
Erotic obsession, yes. Self-destructive fixation, yes. Mere physical passion, no.
"The difference between lust and erotic obsession is that lust is driven toward pleasure and it's driven by the eye, while erotic obsession is rooted in the psychology," explains Hart, the Irish-born author of Damage, the high-brow Harlequin romance recently adapted for film by dramatist David Hare and director Louis Malle. Damage stars Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson and Rupert Graves.
"Lust cannot last because the eye tires and needs other stimulation. Erotic obsession is rooted in the soul and is expressed through the body. It is a drive toward unity that can last forever," says the novelist, theatrical producer and former TV commentator, now based in London.
Hart acknowledges Damage is a tragedy, but says relationships fired by romantic obsession can be fulfilling.
Hart says she knows the joys of obsession, but claims to be less familiar with the other aspects of her novel. When Damage was published in 1991, there was considerable speculation about the bitterness she seemed to be expressing through her novel.
While Damage is narrated by a man, a respected member of Parliament, its most wounded and yet triumphant character is his dutifully loving wife, Ingrid.
The novella and movie revolve around Stephen Fleming, the politician whose life is uprooted by a chance meeting with his son's girlfriend, Anna Barton, at a dreary embassy party. Anna, a worldly yet waif-like seductress, arranges to carry on affairs with both men, unbeknownst to her younger beau or his mother.
"There is nothing autobiographical about it," says Hart, the married mother of two boys, age 7 and 16. "I understand erotic obsession and I certainly know death and grief. I think Damage is about sex and death in a very profound way.
"But the specific story is not one which I experienced. It's one I was writing in my head for years. And the minute I picked up the pen, it just raced off the page," says Hart, a trim woman in her mid-40s whose black-on-black blouse and jacket match both her hair and her book's temperament.
Hart began Damage about six years ago by writing 12,000 words during a single sitting. She shelved the project until 1989, when she completed her book in only six weeks.
Since its publication in 1991, Damage has been translated into 22 languages. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 14 weeks. Louis Malle optioned the book from its galleys and Jeremy Irons agreed to star in the movie two days later.
Hart says she was surprised by her book's popularity.
"It is formally and unfashionably written," she notes. "It lacks street credibility, as many people have pointed out, and it lacks humor. But it has something that profoundly affects readers."
Hart's second novel, Sin, about a woman whose sibling rivalry with a cousin turns into a destructive compulsion, received mixed reviews. Hart says the New York Times liked it better than Damage and she agrees.
"Sin is more dangerous than Damage," Hart observes. "It revolves around a woman who knowingly decides to be evil because she finds it exhilarating. It is infinitely more disturbing than Damage."
A German production company has expressed interest in the screen rights, but Hart has not committed to the project.
In the meantime, she is preparing a third novel, tentatively called Rage. Hart has been mulling the psychological make-up of her lead character, a young man, for several years. She says she'll follow him from his late teens to late 20s and hopes to make him darker than Anna of Damage and Ruth of Sin.
"I expect it to be controversial," she says, referring to the stir her first novels have created. "Some people write with such anger about my books. I have sympathy with that. They upset some people. And since they are very strange, if they don't connect, they can make you furious."
Hal Lipper is film critic for the Times.