"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 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. --Stefan Beck
A writer living in Palo Alto, California, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications.
Sometimes, when one is plowing ahead in a novela very good novel, containing all that a very good novel should contain (a character to cling to, an original controlling device, a significant theme)a single, innocent word rises from the text and clarifies what one has been feeling all along. In David Lodge's Deaf Sentence, the word is "draining." It appears casually in "a long, draining day," but therein lies the whole ebbing life of retired linguistics professor Desmond Bates. Throughout the novel, one wonders: Can his life be stopped from going down the drain?
The Washington Post
…if Deaf Sentence lacks the uproarious academic satire found in Changing Places and Small World, it nonetheless showcases the author's ability to use sympathy and slapstick humor to create an appealingly hapless hero and to recount his adventures with Waugh-like verve. The humor is more muted here, not least because his hero is grappling with sobering matters like an ailing parent, a stale marriage and the frustrations and disappointments of advancing age, instead of the sort of career woes and sexual misalliances faced by Mr. Lodge's earlier heroes. Indeed the novel occupies a similar place in Mr. Lodge's career as Exit, Ghost does in Philip Roth's, and Villages does in John Updike's: the book is a veteran novelist's meditation on aging and death and the diminution of youthful dreams.
The New York Times
In British writer Lodge's (Author, Author) modest 13th fictional effort, an elderly man's hearing loss embroils him in a sticky situation with a beautiful, manipulative young woman. Sexagenarian Desmond Bates wears a hearing aid after being diagnosed some 20 years earlier with "acquired deafness" and consistently misinterprets people's words (which Lodge milks to maximum comic effect). Bates longs for activities after his retirement from teaching applied linguistics, other than contemplating e-mail spam about erectile dysfunction and watching his wife, Winifred, enjoy her success as an interior designer. The novel takes the form of his newly begun daily diary. At a gallery event, Bates mistakenly agrees to help shapely, enigmatic American student Alex Loom with her Ph.D. thesis on suicide notes. It quickly becomes clear that Loom's intentions are anything but academic and her instability shakes not only the sound foundations of Bates's family life but his long-since-stagnant fantasy life as well. Lodge's amiable, deliberate narrative tickles like a feather, but his frequent pauses for lengthy, expository grace notes may not appeal to every reader. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Desmond Bates has been going deaf for some time. Hearing aids help in some ways but make life more difficult in others. As a recently retired university linguistics professor, he still uses the library and the departmental common room regularly, but he finds retirement rather boring. His dull routine is interrupted by a request for help from an American Ph.D. candidate with a unique topic. Her persistence in seeking his help flatters and draws him in, but he is repulsed by her occasionally suggestive acts. Meanwhile, Desmond tries to convince his aging father that assisted living is an option worth considering. A surprise speaking tour in Poland, a visit to Auschwitz, and his father's unexpected stroke give Desmond a new and improved outlook on life. Lodge, the author of 12 other novels (e.g., Changing Places), uses humor and pathos to grapple with the difficulties of aging. His characters are true to life, as are the problems they meet, and the story evokes both laughter and tears. Recommended.
Joanna M. Burkhardt
Another wise, witty look at the human condition from Lodge (Author, Author, 2004, etc.). Linguistics professor Desmond Bates's increasing deafness led him to take early retirement from his university in a northern English city. So now, in November 2006, he has little to do beyond visit his elderly father in London and perform the routine chores his wife Fred no longer has time for, thanks to her thriving interior-design business. Accompanying Fred to a noisy party in an art gallery, Desmond politely says yes to a question he hasn't heard from an attractive blonde. She's Alex Loom, an American getting her doctorate at his university, and at a subsequent meeting Desmond learns that she wants him to supervise her research on suicide notes. He hastily declines, but Alex isn't easily discouraged. She's also a liar and plagiarist with some pretty kinky sexual ideas. Desmond hasn't done anything wrong, really, but he's anxious to keep Alex from becoming another issue between him and Fred, who's already annoyed by his excessive drinking and his lack of enthusiasm for the socializing she enjoys. Meanwhile, his father's mental and physical health worsens, and an awkward family Christmas gathering reaches its comically awful nadir when both of Desmond's earpiece batteries go dead. Taking the offer of a British Council lecture tour in Poland, complete with a trip to Auschwitz, seems like a sensible means of getting away from his problems. Of course, his pregnant daughter gives birth and his father has a stroke while Desmond is in Poland. No summary can do justice to the artful blend of humor and poignancy with which Lodge delineates the musings of a man facing his own aging and infirmities (Desmond'svirility is almost as iffy as his hearing) as well as the impending loss of his father. Suffice it to say that the book is wonderfully funny and extremely moving as Desmond reaches new accommodations with the people he loves and finds new serenity in the face of mortality. A pleasure from first to last: Lodge gets better and goes deeper in each book.