Monday, April 08, 2013

Deaf Sentence

Blindness is tragic, deafness is comic. That is the premise Deaf Sentence, the latest by the British author David Lodge, begins with. The first few chapters explores this perspective through Desmond, a likable character, spending his early retirement as professor of linguistics from the English department, but still in academic setting and company continuing with his research (or purporting so). He has accepted his deaf state and its mostly comic and tragicomic flailing in stride, without indulging in self-pity (David Lodge acknowledges his growing deafness for the authenticity of the portrayal of the protagonist).

Through him we learn of the (non) workings of hearing aids, what is Lombard reflex and how deafness saves one from that, why TV is a good companion (close captioned) for the deaf than the movie halls, of 'quiet coaches' in England trains, of Beethoven's despair and how his reclusive character is a put-on to cover-up his growing deafness (as he explains in his letters), how Francis Goya's deafness could have enhanced his concentration to do better paintings in his later years and several such interesting deaf stuff.

These sections are peppered with word play and dead-pan humour
One of the strongest curses in English language is 'Damn your eyes!' (much stronger than 'Fuck you!' and definitely more satisfying) [...] "Damn your ears!" doesn't cut it. Or imagine if the poet had written, 'Drink to me only with thine ear...; It's actually no more illogical than saying drink with thine eyes [...] Nor would 'Smoke gets in your ears' be a very catchy refrain for a song [...] 'There's more in this than meets the ear' is something Inspector Clouseau might say, not Poirot.

The novel moves on from that relatively light premise to a 'deafness is tragic' premise for few chapters and ends with chapters that conclude 'deafness is not tragic, only death is'. The plight of a geriatric parent, living separately in London, and refusing to move 'up North' near to his son (Desmond) and daughter-in-law, and the doting deaf son's inadequacy in convincing either his dad or his wife for a 'move in' solution is only familiar to most of us in such a state in our lives. A less familiar track, perhaps to readers who are not 'academics', is the episodes between Desmond and Alex Loom, an attractive but unhinged PhD student who is only too aware of her charms and doubly eager to use them for her getting her research and laundry done by someone else capable. The despair felt by a bright professor (not Desmond) beguiled by Alex, the dread he and Desmond feel when a suicide was threatened by her, the associated academic quibbles, jealousies and integrity, are all portions of the novel I could lap with sympathetic unease. In the end Desmond gets lucky -- not with Alex, but with his integrity.

Apart from Desmond, his ageing dad is given enough coverage and care in character depth (again, David Lodge acknowledges his personal life for this). Next comes his asserting and business savvy wife Winfred. The character of Alex Loom is also given some flesh and detail. The rest don't have a major role of impact in the novel. This perhaps is deliberate as the novel unfolds from the perspective of Desmond and the rest of the characters are discussed and detailed only to the extent he knows of them. The novel has several anecdotes that are original and amusing if not LOL-type funny, while engaging in wry observations about familiar human relationships.

Given the scope the deafness tempts, thankfully, the novel is not bitter, kept mostly upbeat, if not cheerful. The writing as one expects from David Lodge, is elegant and taut. The narration moves between first and third person, an exercise Desmond is fond of giving to his students. That and long paragraphs often spanning two pages, with long sentences that use the language and written form to its potential (with parenthetic contrary observations appearing in the middle of the already long sentences, a style that I have observed to annoy several non-British English language readers, particularly non-native-English speakers), a writing style that demands undivided attention from the reader in return for the assured enjoyment.