Author of Deaf Sentence, David Lodge, admits in the book’s preamble that 60-something protagonist Desmond Bates is loosely based on himself. To what extent we shall never know although both are retired academics and both suffer from progressive hearing loss. The latter disability is central to the narrative and shapes most, if not all, of the hero’s movements throughout the tale.
Lodge manages with literary dexterity to bring out the humour of the hearing misfortune by involving Bates in a comedy of antics with and without his electronic hearing aid. Had Bates been any less placid or even-tempered than he is, the humour would be absent and we’d likely be watching a curmudgeon grappling with his infirmity. Consequently what makes the tale appealing, and reinforces it to some extent, is Bates’s nobility in the circumstances in which he finds himself. And one can only surmise (with a good deal of accuracy I suspect) that Lodge is no less a chap.
The humour is well-executed, and when it becomes a little darker perhaps even better. But the difficulty of comedy, in any art form, is being able to sustain it and Lodge doesn’t manage that altogether successfully.
Bates’s 89-year old father in the book (also loosely based on Lodge’s father) still lives in his own home but is in obvious decline, although far from decrepit. Lodge draws a humorous relationship between the two by bringing out the idiosyncrasies and quirkiness of the old man viewed alongside the solicitude of the son and partial deafness of both.
‘How was the journey?’ he said, as I took off my overcoat and hung it on the coat rack by the door.
‘All right. The train was on time for once,’ I said.
‘What?’ This word occurs very frequently in our dialogues.
‘The train was on time,’ I shouted.
‘There’s no need to shout,’ he said . . .
Meetings between the two occur frequently in the book culminating in the old man’s funeral at the end. Although some of the humour and poignancy in their relationship is retained throughout, the narrative tends to become a little tedious and the book would have benefited with less of the father/son episodes. But Lodge, even if he agreed, would clearly have had a problem with this given the story is to some extent autobiographical.
The book may also have suffered in another area from its autobiographical adumbration.
One of the characters, Alex Loom, is an alluring American postgraduate from Bates’s former university. She inveigles a reluctant Bates into helping her as a quasi-supervisor for a doctoral thesis, without his wife’s knowledge. At various times she subtly suggests sex but he never acquiesces, although he does indulge in a fantasy, which she suggests, about spanking her naked bottom.
At the outset, the reader is given the impression of an appealing character (she possesses all the extrovert qualities of the typical American girl) and waits in patient anticipation to see how she will play a leading character role (which the author seems to have intended) in the story’s tapestry. The impression given is that an intellectually interesting, and most likely sexual, relationship is set to develop between Desmond Bates and Alex Loom. The fact that it doesn’t materialise is in some ways a travesty and the book suffers greatly as a result.
Lodge develops Loom into a sexually dysfunctional girl, who lost her father at age 13 to suicide and who consequently has a compulsive sexual attraction for older men. She seduces Bates’s colleague (still employed) at the university and Bates becomes her next compulsive target sometime after the first liaison ended. Bates declines her overtures and she eventually goes back to America.
Had Lodge expanded on the relationship between Bates and Loom in all its facets, and rewritten her character, it would have provided immense possibilities for character development and a more interesting and appealing tale. One could say he lost a trick here, but I suspect the reason to have been the limitations imposed by a quasi-autobiography. It is unlikely that Lodge would have entered into such an affair. Bates, though, does indicate towards the end of the book that, had he been less timid, he might have allowed it. At any event, fictionalising yourself will be constraining at the best of times and may be too close to home to draw a vivid and appealing tale.