Read My Lips
By David Lodge
Viking. 294 pp. $25.95
Sometimes, when one is plowing ahead in a novel -- a very good novel, containing all that a very good novel should contain (a character to cling to, an original controlling device, a significant theme) -- a single, innocent word rises from the text and clarifies what one has been feeling all along. In David Lodge's Deaf Sentence, the word is "draining." It appears casually in "a long, draining day," but therein lies the whole ebbing life of retired linguistics professor Desmond Bates. Throughout the novel, one wonders: Can his life be stopped from going down the drain?
The forces pushing Desmond's life drainward are formidable. He is going deaf. He thinks about that a lot, about sounds and non-sounds, about getting words wrong and being ejected from the world of talk, which constitutes the principal penalty of deafness. Then, too, Desmond drains himself. As a linguist, he sucks the power out of language by analyzing everything that could move him and touch his heart. And there is his wife, Fred (Winifred), a successful businesswoman who contributes to the drainage by acting aggressively alive and alert. And there is Desmond's dying dad, who drains Desmond's energy and patience.
But the queen of the drainers is Alex Loom, a mad graduate student who proposes to write her dissertation on a stylistic analysis of suicide notes and who affixes herself to Desmond to drain what little life is left. At the outset, at a party, he mishears her name as Axe. The axe looms. Deaf hovers as Death.
Does this sound like a book by David Lodge, one of the funniest writers in English? Deaf Sentence is funny, all right, but it is funny the way deafness itself is funny. The hearing audience laughs and the deaf speaker is confused, embarrassed, sad. Desmond is all that, yet there is more to him. In earlier novels, Lodge used the academician's mind to laugh at the academy. Here he goes wider and further by creating a man who learns to be clear in the increasingly inaudible years of late life -- not only to deal with death, but also to see and, despite his encroaching affliction, to hear.
So, as befits an academic setting, we have a good old novel of education, though Desmond's education comes late and all of a sudden, a deaf-bed conversion. Until that awakening -- brought on by a visit to Auschwitz that he did not wish to make, thinking it a waste of time -- Desmond is deaf as a doornail, deafer. He speaks of language as "what makes us human," yet he understands language purely as mathematics. He even appears disconnected from his own story, the one he tells the reader, shifting from the first person to the third, seemingly for the hell of it.
Alex Loom's topic of suicide notes is perfect for him. Instead of wondering what heart is about to stop beating, and why, he asks, "What kind of speech act is a suicide note?" He dwells on the collocations of "happy." Of a brief conversation with his distant son, he says, "Our emotional moment was over." At every opportunity to hear correctly, Desmond blunders, his errors born not of deafness but rather of seeing life, his own included, as a research project.
And yet one senses -- thanks wholly to Lodge's skill at hinting and restraint -- that the deaf ears Desmond turns to experience are still attached to a mind worth saving. Desmond is a man of principle, thus boring. But he knows right from wrong, and the morass in between. When he learns that Alex has defaced a library book, he calls her on it. Her solution to the problem is to offer herself to Desmond for a spanking, which, of course, is meant more as his seduction than her punishment. Desmond declines. He concedes that he has committed "spanking in [his] heart," but he declines. Deaf as he is, he remains the faithful husband, the dutiful son, the decent if ordinary man. And though his self-inspections often skitter from the prissy to the petty, he has the clarity of goodness and mercy in him. If only he could hear what the world is saying to him.
And then, out of the blue, when he is giving a lecture in Poland (about which he says nothing), he takes a side trip to Auschwitz whose deafening silence he finally hears.
Some 30 years ago, writing in the New Republic, I misjudged Lodge. I found Small World wanting because it wasn't as funny as it might have been. I see now that Lodge himself finds the world not as funny as it might have been, and the Auschwitz passage makes the point. For Desmond, "this place of desolation" allows him to understand the story he has been telling -- not telling, shouting, the way the near-deaf shout. But with the introduction of Auschwitz, the narrator goes beautifully quiet.
He comes upon a letter dug out of a pile of human ashes, written by a prisoner to his wife and asking her "forgiveness for not sufficiently appreciating their life together." Desmond cherishes one sentence in particular: "If there have been, at various times, trifling misunderstandings in our life, now I see how one was unable to value the passing time." With that, Desmond begins to listen.
They say that Beethoven's last words were "I will hear in heaven." For Desmond, heaven can wait. Deafness is comic, to be sure, but it may become sublime, and all that was vague and threatening rises like a single clarifying word. When that occurs, one may rely on Mr. Rogers's practical assurance to children in the bathtub: "You're bigger than any drain." ·
Roger Rosenblatt's most recent novel is "Beet."