I can’t get ‘The Affair’ and its earworm theme tune out of my head

The nakedness of their encounter is of the sort that will always elude prose. You have to see them together

Howard Jacobson
Friday 06 November 2015 18:51
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O! Gone to Mardi Gras for a new mind. Ta‑ra! If you’re relieved to hear that, if you think it’s time I had a holiday, let my hair down and got some new ideas, I am sorry to disabuse you. Those words are merely an attempt at an anagram of the sentence: “I’m doing an anagram to get rid of an earworm.”

Earworms, for those who don’t suffer from them, are what the late Oliver Sacks – who preferred the term brainworm – described as internal music loops “that arrive unbidden and leave only on their own time... and even when they have apparently faded they tend to lie in wait”. Well, everything tends to lie in wait, in my experience. “Oodly-oodly-oodly-fun-fun-fun,” from the hellish film Chuck & Buck, can still creep up on me when I’m least expecting it. Nothing that enters the brain ever goes, until the lot does.

As for why I’m attempting an anagram to get rid of an earworm, I’ve been told little else works, except maybe immersing oneself in a good book. But I can’t use a book for that. A book isn’t noise to drown out other noise. Anyway, I like anagrams, and this effort at one has done the trick. I haven’t been snagged on Fiona Apple’s “Container” for two whole minutes.

“Container” is the theme song for the erotic television drama The Affair, part two of which is to be found, like most else worth watching, on Sky Atlantic. I am much taken with The Affair on many counts, Apple’s singing being not the least of them. I freely admit I intended to be taken with the programme once I saw that Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi were the principal writers and producers – Treem and Levi having played significant roles in the writing and production of In Treatment, for which there are not sufficient words of praise. Psychotherapist talks to different patient each week. No police. No guns. No missing children. No paedophiles stoned by local community. No lakes. No rivers. No running. Lots of sitting down. No mysteries except mysteries of the human mind and personality. Bliss.

The Affair is not quite so pristine. There is water, there is a crime, and there is even a policeman, but they play second fiddle to the infidelity. Nothing is more interesting in a novel or a play than an affair. I would say there’s no other subject but I don’t want to trigger trauma in readers who have had an unhappy affair, or worse, have never had an affair at all. But what can I do? Art exists to upset. And this affair upsets grandly. It excites, countermands, outrages, unnerves and bouleverses. It is moral and immoral. It shows why you should never have an adulterous affair but why, if you are ever to understand why you shouldn’t, you should.

So ought an emotional health warning be issued at the beginning of each episode? Reader, there is one. And it’s Fiona Apple who issues it. “I was screaming into the canyon / At the moment of my death,” she earworms from the edge of sanity, like one drowning who won’t drown, like one surviving who won’t survive. The waves crash on her exultancy, neither regret nor defiance, but something more impersonal, reverberating with the absolute enthralment and catastrophe of passion. “The echo I created / Outlasted my last breath. My voice it made an avalanche...” It’s like a voice from Sybil’s cave. Cue avalanche of the heart and countless casualties. How much more warning do we need?

Box-set culture inclines to the hyperbolic. Are we really living through another age of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy? I loved The Sopranos, and, yes, there were episodes that engaged with the fascination of criminality as only the Russians had, and, yes, one hears in The Affair echoes of the great erotic classics from Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary down. But I’m not sure it does service to telly dramas to claim too much for them as literature – there is not space for the language to find and still its agitation for a start, and there cannot be the paragraphs of reflective exuberance and sadness that stay with us in great literature long after the accidentals of plot have passed from our minds. And anyway, there are things a television drama can do that a novel can’t. In the case of The Affair, one can give those things names. Ruth Wilson and Dominic West.

Was it a deliberate choice on the part of the American producers to get English actors to play the lovers? Was there a reserve or reluctance they wanted to tap? Wilson was known to me previously only as Jane Eyre, in which part the eroticism she gradually discovered in herself was an effect of her shyness and principle: the slow dawning of self-esteem no less than sensuality. She is less locked away in The Affair, but still her character’s abandonment is never free of compunction. She is a shock to herself, which of course makes her more shockingly desirable to the once-faithful husband West plays. The nakedness of their encounter – a nakedness in all senses – is of a sort that will always elude prose. You have to see them together. You have to watch them feel the heat of each other’s breath. And then you have to look away.

We talk often of the chemistry between screen lovers, but this is physics, not chemistry. There is no delicate way of putting it, but so intimate are the performances that we seem to know the lovers carnally ourselves. So this – this! – is what it’s like to be in their arms. John Donne’s ecstatics turn to their bodies once their souls into their souls have flowed; in The Affair the lovers flow into each other’s bodies from the start, baffled by a power that is incontestable, no more able to relinquish the other’s touch, or get the knowledge of it out of their heads, than we are able to escape the theme song.

Love is a brainworm. “Sink back into the ocean, sink back into the o-,” Apple incants madly. And we do.

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