When it comes to campus novels, David Lodge is right up there with Malcolm Bradbury. His early work focussed on the adventures of young lecturers. Then he graduated to telling the stories of mid-career academic job swaps.
Now in Deaf Sentence, we follow Desmond Bates, a retired professor of linguistics. With the onset of hearing loss, Bates has taken early retirement and is adapting to the slower pace of life just at the point his younger wife’s business and career start to take off.
Hearing aids aren’t good in crowds or noisy environments, so Bates spends a lot of time nodding, smiling and wandering off to refill his glass. Generally not closely following what is being said, he ends up in all kinds of contorted situations. And it’s through one of these ill-understood encounters that he first meets Alex and later discovers that he has agreed to meet her to talk about her thesis on the linguistics of suicide notes. Cue the mandatory opportunity for inappropriate student staff liaison.
Bates’ old father is living alone in London with hearing problems of his own. The passing years and failing health add to the son’s workload. Throw in a trip to Auschwitz and you’ve got a dark novel.
Many of the review quotes on the book’s cover and first page refer to comedy and wit. While the book was littered with funny lines - and the misunderstandings brought about by Bates’ deafness could be droll - I was left with a feeling of pathos and tragedy rather than comedy and wit.
Deaf Sentence is an average read, and certainly worth picking up if you’ve read David Lodge’s previous stories. But it felt like this pun-titled book could be end of the road for Lodge’s campus novels.