Saturday, 2 January 2010

Auditory farce

Back to regular fiction and to a novelist who I’ve somehow managed not to read for a number of years for no good reason. David Lodge is well-known for his campus novels, and his latest, Deaf Sentence, is no exception.

The novel's protagonist, Desmond Bates, is a retired professor of linguistics in an British university, slowly coming to terms with his change of status and his encroaching deafness. While his career is largely over, his wife's has found a new lease of life. Meanwhile, his similarly deaf father is struggling with living alone in distant London, but is unwilling to either seek or accept help. Desmond's life is also complicated by the arrival of Alex, an American doctoral student who he accidentally agrees to help after a typical hearing-related misunderstanding. At first, Desmond's major concern is that this assistance may ruffle the feathers of academic rivals at his old department, but Alex proves to be much more of a unhinged handful, with further requests of Desmond that can't be put down to his hearing.

The novel actually got a bit of a bludgeoning in the Grauniad’s Digested Read column when it was first published, so I was more than a little sceptical at first. However, I read Lodge's Thinks ... several years ago, and found it excellent, both in its ruminations on self-consciousness and on academic life in a small research group. Furthermore, as C greatly enjoyed this novel, I figured that it was worth a shot. Just as well, since it was a really enjoyable and interesting read.

It does tend to the lighter end of the reading spectrum, being largely structured as a farce, but it makes time along the way for some more weighty issues (though possibly one too many; see later), and handles each deftly and considerately.

For instance, Desmond’s deafness serves largely as a pretext for comical miscommunication and misunderstanding. However, it is also carefully explored and articulated to the point that I can safely say that the novel has given me the greatest insight into disability (albeit a very specific one) that I’ve ever had. As ever, this probably says more about my reading choices and disinterest in life experiences different to my own, but the book did give me pause to consider how profoundly lives can be shaped, and curtailed, by physical limitations.

The book also made me acutely aware of my own hearing, and I do wonder if Lodge was thinking of this when he wrote it. Perhaps this is a little joke on his readers by making them paranoid about the range and acuity of their own faculties. It certainly made me notice a persistent, high-pitched tone in my head while lying awake at night.

The novel also does a commendable job tackling Desmond’s relationship with his father, and the journey that this takes as his father’s health, physical and mental, gradually declines. Though it’s a million miles from my family situation, I recognised aspects from my life and from that of my parents. Desmond’s education and academic life have opened a chasm between him and his father that, while unbridgeable, can be accommodated.

Much as with Thinks ..., the novel is great on details of academic life in the UK. Lodge does a good job of leavening the book with insights on departmental politics and research assessment exercises that undoubtedly stem from his own experiences in academia. And his handling of Alex's research topic, the semiotics of suicide notes, is completely convincing. I was quite engaged with this while I was reading the novel, and just assumed that he'd done his own research on the subject, but it turns out that the account he presents is largely invented. If I'd been a peer-reviewer, I might well have missed that ...

The one misstep I thought it made was the late entrance of a passage dealing with the Austwitz concentration camp. Desmond visits this very briefly at the end of a lecturing tour to Poland, and goes on to describes it pretty perfunctorily in his diary weeks after his return. In fact, he even comments on this cursory treatment as he writes his diary entry. Given this rather passing treatment to the subject, I'm not at all sure what Lodge was trying to achieve here. In these brief notes on a holocaust site, he may just have been observing that even what should be significant encounters with events or places can wind up as brief summary entries in our life histories. Or he may have been running up against a publishing deadline - it's not easy to tell.

Overall, a book badly served by Digested Read. I can see how the familiarity of the campus novel makes it appear stale and easily parodied, but I got a lot more out of it than just this. And I say this as someone not usually engaged by farce.

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