DOING 'Damage' Josephine Hart's written a smashing first novel

April 18, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

Washington -- For years, Josephine Hart would work out the novel all in her head. When she went for walks in her hometown of London, she would imagine conversations between her characters. Plot lines were developed, discarded.

But after writing 12,000 words, she put away the novel that she would not, could not, finish. Although she had a successful career producing plays in London's West End -- Noel Coward's "The Vortex," among others -- Ms. Hart seemed destined to remain unpublished.

Finally, a friend happened to read the novel-in-progress and offered some friendly advice.

"He told me, 'You have absolutely no right not to finish this thing,' " Ms. Hart says with a note of delight. "I suddenly thought, 'This is ridiculous.' So I went home and finished the book in six weeks."

Everyone should have friends like that. Her book, "Damage," got an imaginative and hugely successful publicity campaign (including a very large first printing of 50,000) from her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and was widely reviewed. A month after its publication, "Damage" is safely on major best-seller lists and is the surprise hit novel of the spring -- one that crosses over into "literary" territory and at the same time is expected to be a staple of beach reading this summer. Louis Malle, the esteemed French director, will begin directing the film version in September.

Now Josephine Hart is living the fantasy life of every writer who dreams of hitting the literary equivalent of the Lotto -- publishing a first novel that brings huge riches, critical acclaim, movie rights. She acknowledges it's very, very heady indeed.

totally unreal," Ms. Hart acknowledged in a recent interview in her hotel room, conducted during a brief publicity swing through the United States. "I feel so disassociated from it -- it's as if it's happening to somebody else."

Josephine Hart is in her mid-40s (neither she nor her publisher will give her age), of medium height and a slender build, and is well dressed and coiffed. She is married to Maurice Saatchi, a highly successful advertising executive in England, and the couple leads an active social life in the well-heeled circles of London. She is animated in conversation and resolutely cheerful.

That's why some friends were surprised by the dark themes in "Damage," which centers on a respected member of Parliament who at age 50 becomes obsessed with the fiancee of his only son.

The father -- he is never named -- has on the surface a storybook life: wealth, professional success, a good wife and two fine children. The fiancee, Anna, on the other hand, offers little at first glance. She is 33, not especially attractive, and mysteriously vague about much of her life -- not to mention engaged to the narrator's son. Still, the narrator becomes obsessed with Anna, and her strangely passive acquiescence, until the predictably tragic ending.

Tautly written, "Damage" spans only 198 pages and can be finished in a few hours by many readers.

One who did, in fact, was Sonny Mehta, Knopf's editor-in-chief, who helped orchestrate "Damage's" publicity campaign after reading the manuscript last spring. Blurbs from such writers as suspense novelist Ruth Rendell ("a remarkable first novel of awesome accomplishment") and old friend Iris Murdoch ("a passionate, elegant, ruthless story") helped in the selling of "Damage" toreviewers and the general public.

The reviews generally have been favorable, though with some notable dissents. Robert Irwin wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "After its first few quietly menacing chapters, 'Damage' goes over the top all the time, but its rhetoric is stuck between the banal and the preposterous."

Ms. Hart says, in her earnest way, "Actually, 60 to 70 percent of the reviews in America have been incredibly positive.

"People find the book more upsetting in England -- the sexual matters, and also death. I think 'Damage' is as much about death as it is about sex, and death is a taboo subject in England. It's supposed to be a taboo subject in America but it isn't.

"In England, profound talking about things, or ideas, isn't done. This book has several ideas, I think -- though it sounds so philosophical and grand, and I don't mean to be grand -- and, of course, that is not what the English like. The English are embarrassed by discussion of philosophy over the dinner table, because they have an exquisite sense of what is acceptable.

"When you go to France, you find that people are very happy to talk to you about the meaning of life and things like that. I'm Irish, and I can get carried away at English dinner tables and I can see from others" -- she delicately screws up her face and says in a voice of exaggerated disapproval -- 'would she please stop?' "

Although readers might find the narrator in "Damage" unappealing, even disturbing, Ms. Hart says she is sympathetic to him.

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