“I do have a hearing aid, but when I go swimming I always forget about it until I’m two strokes out, and then it starts singing at me. I get out and suck it, and with luck all is well.” These are the words of Patrick Leigh Fermor, 93, a colossus of travel writing, in the London Telegraph, but they might have come from Desmond Bates, the retired and hearing-impaired linguistics professor at the center of David Lodge’s latest novel, Deaf Sentence.
I mention this because had I not just finished Lodge’s book, I would have skimmed over Fermor’s complaint without much interest. As Desmond notes, “Deafness is comic, as blindness is tragic.” For the blind, “The dogs, the white sticks, the dark glasses, are visible signs of their affliction, calling forth an instant rush of sympathy.” The deaf in the popular imagination are tiresome Methuselahs with ear trumpets like gigantic prehistoric flowers. (The senescent Evelyn Waugh, mentioned by Desmond, really did use one and would set it aside to show that he’d grown bored of his interlocutor.)
Lodge, like Waugh, can be hilarious. He’s got the credentials to prove it, chiefly two canonical works of academic satire, Changing Places (1975) and Small World (1984), and the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, a volume that must be studied almost as closely as real life by anyone who wants to write funny books. But readers who think a deaf linguist (a punning linguist, for that matter) sounds like a pat and groan-making conceit should be advised that Deaf Sentence isn’t really a comedy. Despite the frequent intrusion of absurdity and mishap, it is largely a meditation on aging, the gradual surrender of the body, the memory, and the ability to communicate with ease.
Desmond isn’t the old man, however (his deafness is premature, and he wonders with characteristic squareness whether to blame it on a youthful trip to the Fillmore West); it’s Desmond’s father, an unmanageable, unreconstructed widower, who complains in mixed company of urinary complications, who reacts badly to alcohol but downs it anyway, and who slides into heartbreaking senility as the novel progresses. Desmond isn’t without his own decline — much of the book is arranged as a diary, and he doesn’t shy away from erectile recalcitrance and other harbingers of old age — but it’s Dad who keeps the reader’s mind on the inevitable.
If caring for Dad were not enough of a struggle, Desmond falls under the power of an unstable female American grad student named Alex Loom, who is working on a dissertation about the linguistic properties of suicide notes. Alex manages to blackmail our hapless narrator into assisting with her project, despite his being in retirement, and soon “assisting” comes to mean something far less palatable, that is, offering up his own ideas to be stolen. But Alex Loom does provide a lot of comedy, of the embarrassingly erudite kind favored by Desmond (and Lodge):
Out of idle curiosity I looked up the noun loom in the OED and it has had an extraordinary variety of meanings, some now obsolete, as well as the familiar one of an apparatus for weaving: for instance, an implement or tool, a spider’s web, an open vessel, a boat, the part of an oar between the handle and the blade, a variety of diving birds in northern seas, a glow in the sky caused by reflection of light from a lighthouse, a mirage over water or ice, a bundle of parallel insulated electrical wires, and most bizarrely, a penis. The citation for that one is “And large was his odd lome the lenthe of a yerde, ” from a fifteenth-century alliterative romance coincidentally called Alexander. . . . It would make a good slogan for one of those Internet sex-aid ads: “You too can have a lome the lenthe of a yerde. “
Desmond, like his father, has a deceased wife. Desmond has remarried, and the tension between his feelings for his wife (Fred, short for Winifred) and for Alex makes for some very interesting reading. But this takes time. The Guardian‘s John Crace, another great British humorist, lampooned Deaf Sentence in his “Digested Read” column when the book came out in Britain: “At first, the arrangement had worked well, allowing him to sprinkle the text with knowing references to Chomsky and Larkin. But he had lost his sense of cross-purpose. What was the point of being deaf when there was no one to misunderstand?”
It’s true, the first hundred pages of Deaf Sentence invite this kind of ridicule. But the rewards of pressing on are unexpectedly great. Desmond’s professorial nerdiness — a mix of pedantry and genuine curiosity — gels into a credible and sympathetic man, one whom only a very callous reader could dismiss. A scene in which Desmond, having gotten drunk and lost his spare hearing-aid batteries at his wife’s Christmas party, tries to outtalk his guests to avoid embarrassment, is painful in a way few people who aren’t Ricky Gervais can pull off:
It appeared that the lady in the purple trouser suit was not in advertising at all, but the headmistress of Lena’s primary school, who had had a mastectomy and wore a prosthetic brassiere, so she had not appreciated my playful deconstruction of the Wonderbra ad; while Mrs Norfolk, one of Décor‘s most valued customers . . . had clearly been baffled and faintly insulted by my manic analysis of the negative connotations of her name . . .
It’s easy to stack the deck in favor of one’s protagonist, but, unlike many comic writers, Lodge succeeds in humanizing even his femme fatale — or femme folle — Alex Loom. The same goes for his musings on suicide notes, which combine linguistics and human feeling in surprising ways. And Desmond’s lecture trip to Poland, which takes him on a detour to Auschwitz that would feel convenient and contrived in a lesser writer’s hands, brings about an epiphany that puts Deaf Sentence well out of the simple “comedy” category. For all of this book’s flaws, the showiness of its learning and its structure, it doesn’t fail to move. It’s a deathbed visit, with a merciful snort of laughing gas to ease the passage.