Friday, February 27, 2009

On Deaf Ears

His name is Desmond Blake and he's a recently retired linguistics professor in an unnamed city in northern England. He's confined to the role of house-husband as his wife's career takes off. His only regular assignment is to visit his cantankerous, aging and failing father in his squalid little house in southeast London. He's feeling ineffectual in his marriage. And he's losing his hearing. It doesn't sound like a very exciting premise for a novel. But that's how David Lodge's Deaf Sentence starts.

Most of the book is written in first person as a series of Desmond's journal entries. He is a witty, self-deprecating narrator who honestly records the embarrassing and frustrating problems that his deafness causes. Among these are his accidental agreement to help an attractive graduate student with her research simply because he's embarrassed to admit that he hasn't heard what she asked him. Comic and not-so-comic consequences ensue.

Occasionally Lodge will announce a switch to third person to describe a scene (“I feel a fit of the third person coming on.”). The best of these was a description of Desmond at his wife's meticulously planned Boxing Day party. He has belatedly discovered that the batteries in both his hearing aids have died. In a stroke of sheer genius (fueled by several glasses of wine), he decides that the solution to his dilemma is to grab onto one word that he has heard (or misheard) a party guest say to him and then use it to launch into an extended monologue on a subject about which he can talk at length, giving the hapless guest no chance to respond. The resulting 'conversations' are hilarious. But hasn't this happened to you? And in most cases your 'lecturer' doesn't even have dead batteries as an excuse.

As the story progresses Desmond's tone becomes more serious as he reflects on marriage, aging, mortality. In the acknowledgements Lodge admits that Desmond's deafness and his Dad are taken from his own experience. This explains why the deafness mishaps seem so true, and also why the scenes with Desmond and his father are so poignant and touching even when they made me laugh. In the end I found this book funny, moving and honest.

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