Thursday, 24 September 2009

David Lodge Deaf Sentence (2008)

Edition: Penguin, 2009

The title by itself makes a lot of what Deaf Sentence is about clear. That it is about deafness, how it feels to gradually lose hearing, how deafness imprisons the sufferer in a solitary world where old pleasures become impossible or difficult; how there will be humour in the story; and even that the grim pun deaf/death (also, of course, a pair of words a deaf person would find hard to distinguish) will be revisited throughout. The use of part of the definition of the word "sentence" from one of the Oxford English dictionaries in the front matter to the novel also indicates before starting that the various different meanings highlighted in the quotation will form themes in the story.

Desmond Bates, narrator of Deaf Sentence, was a professor of linguistics who took early retirement when a good offer from his university co-incided with the realisation that encroaching deafness was causing obvious and embarrassing difficulties with lecturing and teaching. In the first chapter, he has an entire conversation at an art gallery party with a young woman, Alex, even though he is hears only a tiny part of what she says over the background noise of the party - distinguishing foreground from background being one of the problems which deafness brings. Later, he discovers that he appears to have agreed to supervise Alex's work on a doctoral thesis on suicide notes as a genre of linguistic utterance. But each meeting he has with her is increasingly bizarre, and she seems increasingly unstable...

Deaf Sentence is a typical David Lodge novel (unlike his previous work, Author, Author): funny, clever, full of satirical observation of academic life. There is also sadness, partly because of Desmond's feelings about his deafness, and partly because of his relationship with his irascible nonagenerian father. This is not a novel which paints a pleasant picture of what it is like to be old.

The centrepiece of the novel is not really up to his usual standard, however. This is a set piece description of the ordeal of the family Christmas, made worse by Desmond's hearing difficulties. This seems, unfortunately, to have escaped from a seventies sitcom and is not really imaginative enough to hold the novel together as it should given its prominence.

The main observation that Lodge makes about deafness through the novel is that it's tragic for the sufferers, but can often be comic for those around them, because of the misunderstandings it generates. He makes the contrast with blindness, which evokes pity and sympathy from onlookers, rather than laughter, embarrassment and irritation. And there is something undignified about even the most modern battery powered hearing aids (especially as users find it difficult to ensure that they have replacement batteries and do not let those in use drain too quickly), which there is not to the white stick or guide dog.

Not Lodge's best (Changing Places, Paradise News, or, on a more serious note, Thinks... would be my choices there). But Deaf Sentence is still thought provoking and funny: well worth a read. My rating: 7/10.

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