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Deaf Sentence by David Lodge

Fiction Reviews

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge
Deaf Sentence: A Novel
by David Lodge
Viking Adult, 304 pp.
CLR [rating:5]


— Timor surditatis conturbat me

When Admiral James Stockdale (Ret.) was picked at the last moment to run with Ross Perot in the 1992 election campaign, that white-haired old veteran of Viet Nam opened his statement at the VP candidates’ debate with Dan Quayle and Al Gore, asking rhetorically, “Who am I? Why am I here?” Those two questions resonate oddly in the subtext of David Lodge’s 14th work of fiction, DEAF SENTENCE, because the onset of hearing loss raises them as a sudden existential alarm. The novel seems, whether deliberately so or not, almost a reversal in a fun-house mirror of Goethe’s famous early work, THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER (1774), which presaged the opening of the Romantic Era. Whereas the great poet was only twenty-five when he composed it, and his hero twenty-four, Lodge’s agonist is in his 60s, whereas he himself (b.1935) is writing in his early 70s. Furthermore, both books exhibit what amounts to the same mode: WERTHER largely epistolary, DEAF SENTENCE a narrative composed as entries in the journal Desmond Bates commences when he realizes he is in deep trouble, that in fact he’s entered and lost himself in a peculiar realm: the Land of the Deaf. Like any brave explorer not yet willing to abandon all hope, he sits right down to write himself letters during the time left him, meanwhile growing gradually aware that hovering before him is that bare bodkin, its not altogether “virtual” handle towards his hand.

The “Storm and Stress” of Werther’s desperate romance, in consequence of the miserable triangle of young lovers in which he’s enmeshed, ends in suicide, brought on because he is unable to harm the others concerned. Noble, but/and lost. We might look back at it, quasi-autobiographical as it is, as a sentimental Romance, or a romance of Sentiment bordering on Tragedy; indeed, it seems to have encouraged an epidemic fashion of suicide in young men, not stanched until Goethe reached his old age, when such impassioned youth (most of them readers of that one book only it seems) replaced self-murder by pilgrimage to Weimar. Although everything has changed in our world over the past two centuries, nations and cultures alike, what with world wars enough and fantastic technological powers altering how we live and breathe, until everything in the West now seems topsy-turvy, it seems suicide remains a constant temptation or impulse or compulsion, sometimes over the horizon, sometimes around the corner, often enough in a corner of the room. One may shrug in bafflement at young Japanese couples who, blocked in love, throw themselves together into the sea; but David Lodge knows the portent of that shadow personally, if that may be assumed.

Having lived through two-thirds of the 20th Century and made his mark, as did most of his cohort of novelists, not as a “comical” writer, or gagster — rather, as a writer of Comedy, Lodge takes up Admiral Stockdale’s fundamental questions to play with one possible illustrative, defining answer, suicide. And it would not be too far-fetched to try to suggest that young people could make an imagined pilgrimage to Birmingham, the seat, as it were, of his old age’s Weisheit, by perusing his diverting fictions, especially this desperate chronicling of what could also be titled A DEAF FORETOLD. Goethe, who lived long indeed, would have been delighted by this parody of his masterpiece.

Reflecting on DEAF SENTENCE, the reader can hear the echoes of awful laughter — that silent cacchination encountered everywhere in Beckett’s writing — which characterizes our present lot, with its extended, often forcibly prolonged, old age. Lodge’s transparent prose plays out in a sophisticated, informal, everyday voice; his is artful writing that succeeds in that most difficult literary genre, Comedy. Incidentally, Socrates defined Comedy as a mixed mode, partaking of the satiric and tragic at once; 23 centuries later, the novelist George Meredith would suggest in a famous essay that true Comedy can and does end, not in laughter and/or tears but bloodily (as in ONE OF OUR CONQUERORS). Lodge, a man of genial temperament, lets his narrator’s vicissitudes conclude with tears and laughter … after having passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Although he does remain in the Valley of the Shadow of Deaf, or, as he puns on T.S. Eliot, “I had not thought deaf had undone so many.”

The laughter commences when the widowed (and happily remarried) Emeritus Professor Desmond Bates, realizing something has gone wrong with his hearing, yet still ambivalent, in short, in denial and resisting or mislaying or misusing his expensive hearing aids, attends a gala vernissage in his northern city and, losing Winifred his wife in the crowd where she is busy circulating and doing her interior-furnishing and decorator’s chitchat, is accosted with embarrassing familiarity by an attractive young (American) woman, a grad student type. In the din he mistakes what she earnestly and “shyly” says to him; no matter, he is doomed to serendipitous error and subject to the whims of the world’s women. Bates’ specialization was Modern Linguistics, Theory, Discourse, and Practice; so for him the grotesqueries of spoken sound as surreality are a medley of vexation and dismay. At least he’s grateful not to be doomed to blindness, which would be tragic indeed. For the like of Beethoven (who is invoked) it was disaster, and more than; for this professional parser of sentences it must be taken for humiliating and often ruefully comic — which most of his misconstruing of what people say turns out to be.

Of course, Bates, like any old fool, is charmed and intrigued by the bright Alex Loom: does she intend, he hopes? to seduce him by seducing him to mentor her doctoral thesis, which is proceeding poorly, supervised by a former colleague Butterworth, of whom they both think little enough. His first misstep is not to tell his wife about their acquaintance, which obviously and inevitably trends towards a complicating entanglement, but to start a journal instead, to record what happens and keep things in order, if not quite straight. In short, rather than a novel of Letters to the Beloved [e.g. Werther], he writes of himself only to himself. As their relationship twists and turns serious — for Alex Loom proposes to study suicide letters, a topic Bates is attracted to because of Beethoven’s anguish and despair (he compares his situation to that revealed by the famous Heiligenstadt document) — we learn there may be, indeed have been, worse things in his life than this new alienation of deafness.

Furthermore, his father’s sudden senility is worrisome. The elder Bates, a tough bird nearly ninety, who led a gypsy life as a jazz and swing musician from the Twenties on, insists on remaining alone in his London house, mucking and messing about through tedious days in increasing helplessness, refusing help or care; but his condition is degenerating. Between having to manage Dad, traveling up and down to London, while being manipulated willy-nilly by Alex Loom, supposing she welcomes his research leads, and even half-thinking to accept a part-time stipend to get her through her work, Bates attempts to wrestle with that revived desire of late middle-age, or early muddled old age, teased and tickled by fantasies of potency restored in the sack and the library. His days come to resemble the illusion of effortless speed one gets when striding quickly along a moving walkway down an endless airport corridor, an experience terribly familiar in terrible ways to anyone advanced in the years past sixty, to any male anyway. And his nights are exacerbated by emails from Alex, and the looniness of hundreds of incoming, cajoling email provocations by offers of Viagra and Cialis and what not. Nothing is as it seems, or ever even seemed before the Millenium arrived. The world and people as inaudible scarcely helps. It would appear that the past is lost baggage; the present, indignity and shame.

Not that Bates is either incompetent or “gormless,” as the Brits put it. Far from: he is decent and civilized; he is imaginative and clever, self-consciously introspective (enhanced by deafness and its diary), sensitive and easily dismayed; especially because that American girl (no child, she!) proves invitingly perverse, a thrilling part of her fixation on suicide, which is catching, and for him intellectually so in terms of linguistics as a study of behavior, both verbal and social. Or is he rationalizing? Whatever. Nevertheless Bates is unable to read her intentions, let alone her lips; particularly the pages of her scheming emails or ambitious topic sentences proposing suicidal gambits. He kids himself that his sympathy is for an outsider; he pretends to objectivity regarding something new and stimulating that needs study; something that provides the frisson of the sinister, let it be admitted. Besides, Alex Loom has charmed her way into the attentions of his unsuspecting, business-like wife.

Neither is Bates a fool; yet he is fooled at every step as he begins to stumble, trying to make his way through the dark wood of everyone else’s statements, garbling what he guesses are their purpose, the sheer refractory contradictions, sexual and political, of a world he had hoped to sail through in comfort as a highly-educated pensioner who can look back on scholarly achievement. That is an obvious element, if masochistic, of Lodge’s comic talent.

In the middle of things, he tries to orient himself by a test:

I began idly drafting a pseudicide note — not with any intention of offering it to Alex, but as a stylistic exercise. It was addressed to Fred of course, but just deciding on the form of address was difficult. Fred or Winifred? Dearest or Darling? In the end I decided on Dearest Winifred, the intimacy of the epithet balancing the formality of the full first name, which seemed more appropriate to the occasion than ‘Fred’. Imagining what had brought me to the point of preferring extinction to the continuation of consciousness was easier, for I had already thought of it in conversation with Alex: a drastic acceleration of hearing loss, leading to almost total deafness. Everything I suffered now — frustration, humiliation, isolation — multiplied exponentially. Barely able to hear anything. At cross purposes in every conversational exchange. In the home, a silent withdrawn, unresponsive companion at the best of times; a surly, self-pitying misery at the worst. A damper on every party, a dud at every dinner table. A grandfather unable to communicate with his growing grandchildren, in the presence of whose blank looks and idiotic misunderstandings they must strive to stifle their giggles. It’s not a life worth living, I would tell Winifred — My deafness is a drag on you and the rest of the family, and an inescapable, irremediable grief to me. So I’m going to put an end to it. Please don’t feel bad about it, my darling, it’s not your fault, and you mustn’t blame yourself’ no one could have been more kind and understanding. But everyone’s patience has its limits, and I have reached mine. But as I drafted the note its insincerity showed in ever word, even in punctuation marks (did anyone ever use a semi-colon in a suicide note?). I don’t really believe Fred would show such saintly forbearance as it implied, nor would I expect her to. And depressing as the state I had conjured up for myself might be, it wouldn’t be utterly unbearable. There would still be some pleasures left, and no pain. I could have written a convincing note based on the premise of a painful terminal illness, but just thinking of it stirred up distressing memories of Maisie. I abandoned the exercise.

Not until subjected to the awful end-game of his father’s collapse and hospitalization, together with experiencing its procedures and processes, such as helping the duty nurses wash the old man’s befouled body — par for our modern institutional lingering death sentence — does he learn from his colleague Colin Butterworth that he teeters on the brink of disaster.

That insight comes following the fiasco of the family Christmas party, which was complicated by the fabrications of Alex Loom who suddenly shows up, though she is supposed to have flown to the States. The panicky Butterworth unfolds a tale rehearsing his imbroglio with Alex that is hilarious and pathetic at once. Not that Bates lets Butterworth know how deep into her mesh he himself is wound. Right is wrong; wrong is right. It confirms what he most feared when he set off to Alex’s apartment in response to an email’s peremptory, kinky proposal, half-fancying a tutorial-session-cum-tryst, half-fearing likely moral and intellectual extortion that could easily enough prompt suicide. Indeed, the professor and his would-be student had read and considered enough last notes, both “pseudicidal” and post-facto, which might well bring about his deplorable end, never mind Beethoven’s deafness and his own. He is quite conscious as he mounts the three flights to her loft, the elevator on the fritz, that suicide takes as many forms as it has causes, though even writers of last letters may not know what or why they have committed the act, or been committed to it.

There may well be readers of DEAF SENTENCE that have been there and count themselves fortunate to have been rescued or escaped and returned to the world of the living, even if it means suffering on. Alas, as T.S. Eliot put it, After such knowledge, what forgiveness? But through all that testing and speculation, Bates has kept hidden a secret of his own, which concerned a true, not mock or pretended suicide. That suicide is what haunts him, for he was helplessly complicit in the act; it is the shadow that broke off his theoretical game. Overall the journal goes on to counterbalance suffering with reconciliation, as with Bates’ son Richard, a bachelor who keeps his distance, secluded at Oxford where he works ceaselessly in his lab to arrive at the point of absolute zero, when matter behaves in ways our reality cannot imagine. Also, a baby boy is born to his daughter and — Oh frabjous day! Alex Loom decamps for good, without having done herself in as she declared she had already done in her farewell note. What a relief from frantic despair to find repo men in her flat, and not a corpse! And Professor Bates rejoins the motley group of deaf folks who meet weekly to learn lip reading, an exercise especially delicious to the linguist he is. After all, there are seven million in England as deaf as he.

The exquisite excruciation of Lodge’s mellowed wit, his genuine kindness, the decency of a dispassionate humanity that renders so well the world in which we experience our time tempts one to take the journal’s entries as the record of the author’s own. And we do know about him that he’s afflicted by the ongoing suicide of the myriad specialized hairs of the ears — just as we are told Goethe revealed his forlorn, real-life passion for one Charlotte Buff. By the novel’s close, we have realized that with all its understated humor and tearing irony it is a minatory fiction. Brutally funny in its awful facticity, it’s also tolerable. Why so? Because for many of us, suicide by friends or family seem to have become commonplace. DEAF SENTENCE offers the unendurable made endurable. It is fine art. Comedy, not Tragedy.

In short, Lodge’s is a narrative of the simple everyday absurdity that asks us: “Who am I? Why am I here?” He answers: Mortals can be fools to the very end — and men, young or old, greater fools than women. His virtue is in sparing us that inconsolable lamentation of the medieval poet’s Timor mortis conturbat me. Instead, he mishears our ever-present fear of “death,” and his (and our own) sentence is rendered “merely” a deaf sentence.

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Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA

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