Dear Mr. Andrew Davies,
I have been watching and enjoying your brilliant BBC screen adaptations for years, with no idea that you were behind all of them. It made me smile, the discovery that you are responsible for both Colin Firth’s wet shirt scene in Pride and Prejudice, and the deliciously evil machinations of Francis Urquhart in House of Cards. But what prompted this letter was something quite different, your novel Getting Hurt.
Nearly two years ago, I became a fan of the actor Ciarán Hinds. As a middle-aged college professor, I found fandom an unexpected and rather unsettling experience. I always thought that being a “fan” was a choice, like deciding that henceforth, one is going to drink nothing but Bordeaux. (It isn’t.) According to Aristotle, you can feel eros for someone you’ve never met. (He’s right. You can.) At any rate, I set out to watch all of his screen oeuvre. (Hinds, that is, not Aristotle.)
Searching for the rare and elusive BBC film of Getting Hurt is rather like tracking the endangered Luristan Newt, or the scarce Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat, but with a greater intimation of pleasure. For the most part, Mr. Hinds’ fans must grudgingly satisfy themselves with stills from the movie, and the sparse reviews and features (“Bare BeHinds”) that appeared at the time. Fortunately, I learned that the film was based on a novel, and one that is still readily available. On the Amazon page I found this customer review: The writing is sophomoric in places: several phrases are lifted directly from the poems of Eliot and Yeats. Moreover, the theme and the writing have Proust written all over them. At least every other page has whole paragraphs that recall Swann’s jealous love for Odette and Proust’s narrator’s obsession with Albertine.
In spite of these drawbacks (or rather because of them), I decided to order the book. Alas, the allusions to Eliot and Proust, if they are indeed present, went over my head. All I noticed was the Yeats tag from The Circus Animals’ Desertion. Quite appropriate, I thought. Not only because the symbolism of hurt, wounded, enraged and lost animals recurs throughout the book, but also because Yeats seems to manifest himself like a shred of ghostly ectoplasm in every work related (even indirectly) to Mr. Hinds. It is a kind of synchronicity.
And now we come to the reason why I decided to write you a letter. I found this book touching and fascinating. For me, it afforded what felt like an authentic glimpse into the murky oubliette of the masculine psyche. Josephine Hart’s Damage was far less gripping in spite of its dramatic plot. She utterly chickens out of describing the narrator’s feelings and bodily sensations. It’s all very cerebral as he coldly watches himself commit various unethical acts of desire and then self-consciously laments his tragic downfall. While not without its virtues (especially when read by Mr. Hinds), Damage, I felt, was rather prim and cold-blooded.
Getting Hurt, on the other hand, made me think of the Roman love poets Catullus and Propertius, their vulnerability, their physicality, their tender agonies, their journey to the edge of madness. All filtered through a distinctly manly (or to use Charlie’s term, a slightly but not overly “blokeish”) sensibility. For example, let us compare the first time the first time the narrator of Damage has sex with Anna Barton to the first time Charlie has sex with Viola.
Damage: In the deep oily blackness of the door, I pressed the bell and waited to enter Anna’s house. We made no sound as we moved down the honey-colored carpet of the hall. We went into her sitting room and lay down on the floor. She flung her arms out each side of her, and she drew her legs up. I lay down on her. I sank my head on her shoulder, and with one hand grasping her hair, I entered her. And there we lay, not speaking, not stirring.
It would appear that clothing is no impediment to sex, and locomotion of any kind is hardly required.
Getting Hurt: [after a detailed description of foreplay and undressing and getting into bed, told with humor and sadness and uncertainty and remembered affection, we read the following:] I thought, this actually is actually all right, not just ‘all right even though it isn’t,’ and I felt long and strong in her and lordly and safe, and as if I could go slowly on like this forever, and I held still for what seemed like whole long minutes, while she moved around me and under me, pleasing herself and pleasing me, and smiling, smiling all the time, and I found myself smiling too, and then she laughed, and I thought she must be laughing at the daft grin I had all over my face, and I said, “What?”
After reading GH, I subjected my long-suffering husband (not for the first time) to a lengthy interrogation about “the male experience” and (naturally) was answered in monosyllables. What I appreciated most in the book was the evocation of Eros as a destructive god who arrives without warning. The pathos of the idea that intense attraction does not occur in the absence of the possibility that lover and the beloved may do each other grave harm. And love as a physical illness, that very Greek idea. Shivering and sweating, like the poetess Sappho beholding her beloved, poor Charlie never quite knew what hit him. All he wanted was to lounge in bed for hours with Viola, drinking wine, telling her his stuff and listening to hers, making love to her over and over. Alas, his days of wine and violets were all too brief.
He strikes the reader as an intelligent man, with a gentle wit, and he’s good at his job as a solicitor (at least until the strain of his crumbling relationship with Viola starts to tell on him). But in spite of his ability to “go for the jugular” as many of his clients require, he possesses a certain vulnerability that lends him appeal. Like a large friendly dog with a slight drool, he’s willing to take whatever handouts Viola is in the mood to dispense. And he doesn’t understand it, not really, when he gets kicked hard, and has to watch other canines nosing around her, and –-outrageously!— being welcomed. So he snarls a little. But not at her, never at Her, the object of his desire and devotion.
Once again, Viola reminded me of the powerful women of Latin love poetry, Lesbia or Cynthia. They took all the lovers they wanted and felt plenty of sexual passion for them, but no particular need to be faithful. In other words, they acted like stereotypical men. Viola never hides the fact that she uses men, or that she feels free to sleep with whomever she wishes, whenever she wishes. Charlie has no choice but to accept this, and to get hurt.
Probably there are other books that successfully tackle this subject matter, but I haven’t run across them, other than Lolita, which is my favorite novel. (I felt a frisson of Nabokov when Charlie described his fascination with the soft, dark, downy hairs on Viola’s forearms, and his desire to tenderly superintend the tanning of her skin.) I briefly tried dipping into the American novelists of the 60s who were celebrated for their explicit descriptions of male sexuality. Roth, Mailer, Bellow. It was like being slapped in the face. Their narrators can’t really engage with a woman as a fellow human being. They were like a bunch of Aristotles in that respect, but angrier and hornier. Updike is slightly more humane, I think.
There’s a bit in Getting Hurt where Charlie suddenly says to the reader, Yes, I think you’re really there. It took my breath away. For a split second, it felt as though I was sharing a bottle of wine with Charlie, listening to his stuff. I like to think that he eventually got over Viola and met someone who could do him harm, if she chose… but didn’t. And that they adopted several cats from the local animal shelter.
With appreciation, Linnet Moss