Deaf Sentence by David Lodge

I have mixed feelings about Deaf Sentence, but overall, I liked it.

Synopsis from the back cover:

Retired professor of linguistics Desmond Bates is going deaf. Not suddenly, but gradually and – for him and everyone nearby – confusingly. It’s a bother for his wife, Winifred, who has an enviably successful new career and is too busy to be endlessly repeating herself. Roles are reversed when he visits his hearing-impaired father, who won’t seek help and resents his son’s intrusions. And finally there is Alex. Alex is the student Desmond agrees to help after a typical misunderstanding. But her increasingly bizarre and disconcerting requests cannot – unfortunately – be blamed on defective hearing. So much for growing old disgracefully …

After an amusing start, the book almost slowed down to a stop for me with too much detail. It was only towards the middle of the book and the final third that it really came alive for me. It’s a mixture of reflections on deafness, life, death, ageing and bereavement.

It switches between the first person and the third person, which does give it a slightly disjointed effect but highlights Desmond’s unease with his situation. Not only is he having to come to terms with his increasing deafness but also with his retirement from the academic world. He still hankers after his position as a Professor of Linguistics. He’s having to deal with academic rivalry, and his feelings of isolation and inadequacies in his relationship with his wife and family.

I liked the word-play, the misunderstood conversations and the comedy surrounding deafness and the references to authors, poets and artists who had also suffered. But overall I thought this was a melancholy book about the problems of ageing, not just deafness:

Deafness is a kind of pre-death, a drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse. (page 21)

I did enjoy the picture of Gladeworld that Lodge painted – if you’ve been to Center Parcs it’s instantly recognisable! Desmond likens it to ‘a benevolent concentration camp. A benign prison’, with the Tropical Waterworld a modern version of Dante’s Inferno, with

… half naked crowds tossed in the turbulent waves, or hurtling down the spirally semi-transparent tubes at terrifying velocity, or tumbled arse over elbow through the rapids, choked with water, blinded by spume, spun round in whirlpools, dragged backwards by undertow, entangled with each other’s limbs, bruised and battered by impact with the fibre glass walls, to be tipped at last into a boiling pit at the bottom … (page 225)

I know this from my own experience!

But contrast this with Desmond’s visit to Auschwitz – a real hell on earth. As Desmond reflects there are no words adequate to describe the horror of what happened there and no adequate emotional response:

In the end perhaps the best you can do is to humble yourself in the face of what happened here, and be forever grateful that you weren’t around to be drawn into its vortex of evil, in either suffering or complicity. (page 269)

Lodge acknowledges that Desmond’s deafness and his Dad have their sources in his own experience and for me this is the heart of the book, the parts that captured real life with depth of feeling, emotion and empathy. For these reasons I did like this book.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (4 Jun 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141035706
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141035703
  • Source: I bought the book

2 thoughts on “Deaf Sentence by David Lodge

  1. Margaret – What an interesting premise! And with a linguistics background myself, I have to say that aspect of Bates’ character and perceptions appeals to me. I’m glad that you liked more about it than you didn’t.


  2. I’m normally a big fan of David Lodge and his campus novels, but although I have this one, I’ve been very slow to get to it. He must be quite an elderly man by now, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how well a person writes, but maybe he’s too close to the subject matter (since he’s going deaf himself). I will read this one day, I’m sure, but not soon…


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