Viking: 294 pp., $25.95
EARLY ON in David Lodge's funny and touching new novel, "Deaf Sentence," the narrator makes a simple but profound observation: "Deafness is comic, as blindness is tragic." Desmond Bates, a retired professor of linguistics at an unnamed northern English university, is gradually losing his hearing, and much of his chatty, companionable narrative is taken up with chronicling the comedy of deafness, as well as the very real grief behind it.
Following Desmond's remark is an insightful, cultural-historical riff, characteristic both of Desmond and of Lodge himself, on the symbolic importance of sight in drama, poetry and song, and how it contrasts with hearing. (What if Oedipus had punctured his ears rather than eyes, Desmond wonders? The act wouldn't have the same horror. And, as he notes wryly, "Nor would 'Smoke gets in your ears' be a very catchy refrain for a song.") His point is that there is an innate sympathy for the difficulty of blindness, whereas deafness seems rather to inspire, both in the afflicted and those around him or her, something closer to impatience or irritation.
The predicament seems particularly acute for Desmond, both because of the gradual isolation of his retirement, and perhaps also because in other ways he is so fortunate. Happily married to the affectionate, lovely Winifred, who has a burgeoning profession of her own in interior design, Desmond enjoys a comfortable existence: The couple spend holidays with their children -- they have two sets, as it's a second marriage for them both -- and grandchildren; and they often attend cultural events such as theatrical premieres, university lectures, art openings.
The problem for Desmond is that all such outings have become increasingly fraught because of his lack of confidence that he will follow the thread -- of conversation, of drama or of argument. For such an intelligent, sociable man, this is at best comically frustrating and, at worst, humiliating. At a university reception, "I had some exchanges along the familiar lines of 'Terribly noisy in here'-- 'What?'-- 'I said it's terribly noisy in here' -- 'Sorry, can't hear you, it's so damned noisy in here. . . . ' " When out with his wife and another couple at a loud new restaurant, Desmond opts out of much of the exchange altogether, because he knows he will mishear and therefore misunderstand what is said, and he is not in the mood to handle the embarrassment.
The novel, structured as Desmond's diary, begins with an account of such misapprehension, when at a busy art opening Desmond finds himself nodding encouragingly to a pretty young woman without having any idea what she is talking about, or indeed who she is. When she calls his house to ask why he missed the meeting they arranged, he is mortified; but soon, on meeting Alex Loom, he comes to wish he had stayed out of her way. Part of the novel's plot is provided by the unstable Alex, a graduate student trying to manipulate Desmond into an advisory relationship with her -- and perhaps something further.
As readers of Lodge's wonderful campus comedies of the 1980s and '90s know well, he is masterful on the subject of academic egos, the barely submerged competitiveness of so-called colleagues and the eager (sometimes reckless) sexual appetites of many men in the profession. Alex Loom wreaks some havoc in Desmond's former department, though his encounters with her allow him interesting digressions on certain linguistic questions and erotic reflections on her temptations.
But eventually the reader comes to understand that the hint of adulterous possibility with Alex is a smoke screen, and that "Deaf Sentence" is, as its punning title suggests, primarily a sustained reflection on death and life, and the mini-death that is encroaching deafness. Desmond's disability is poignantly amplified by his dealings with his aging father, who lives alone in London, increasingly unable to look after himself. Scenes between Desmond and his father mine the rich seams of guilt, love and frustration, as Desmond tries to work out how best to care for his father. His efforts to cope with the problem are rife with both humor and sadness.
For throughout "Deaf Sentence," Lodge layers his lively, comic scenes with the sobriety brought on by Desmond's thoughts on mortality. If this makes the novel sound heavy or laborious, it isn't: Lodge has always been able to wear his erudition and philosophical interests with deceptive lightness. This is a novel that can within 50 pages include an amusing, realistic account of two older couples vacationing together in a tacky English resort and Desmond's thoughts on a solitary winter visit to Auschwitz during a professional trip to Poland. There is deaf in life, as Desmond might say, and life in deaf, and this touching, humane novel richly explores the meeting between the two.
Sylvia Brownrigg's novel "The Delivery Room" will be published by Counterpoint next month.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times