I love David Lodge. No, seriously, I think I love him, not just his books. I want to knit him a jumper or make him a desk tidy out of recycled mouse-mats or something. He just writes so clearly and so brilliantly, whether in a novel or in his literary criticism. And he was so blisteringly honest about his own vulnerabilities and professional vanity in The Year of Henry James (when his novel about HJ was beaten to the bookshops by another much praised novel about the famous author) that I nearly wrote him a fan letter to say that his was the better novel, at least as far as I was concerned.
So, anything by DL usually wins with me. I've just finished reading Deaf Sentence, a novel about a retiried linguistics professor, Desmond Bates, struggling with deafness, which reads very much like DL's own diary, as he was also an academic and is now also pretty deaf. It is written mostly in the form of a journal and, as well as lots of amusing incidents which arise because of Desmond's deafness, there is a lot of general musing on the condition of deafness (compared with, for example, blindness), on famous writers, musicians and artists who were deaf, accompanied by plenty of 'deaf/death' puns. Like many people, I'd assumed that once a hearing aid was acquired, a deaf person's problems were over, but I now realise it is much more complicated than that and as a result the limitations of aids are many and various.
DL does not shy away from using the pantomime staple of the deaf character who comically mishears everything or from taking it to hilarious lengths when Desmond attends a noisy reception party:
'The pastime of the dance went to pot,' Sylvia Cooper seemed to say, 'so we spent most of the time in our shit, the cows' in-laws finding they stuttered.'
'What?' I said.
'I said, the last time we went to France it was so hot we spent most of the time in our gite, cowering indoors behind the shutters.'
In the novel, Desmond finds himself becoming entangled with a mysterious female postgraduate writing a PhD on the language of suicide notes and this plot drives the narrative along, with DL's acute observations on ageing, marriage, sex, death (and deafness) always ringing true. His acerbic account of a visit to a thinly-disguised Center Parcs is deadly accurate.
The novel ends on a sober note with a visit during a Polish lecture tour to the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau and then, on Desmond's return to the UK, the final illness and death of his elderly father. At the beginning of the novel, Desmond states that deafness is comic, blindness tragic, but in the end he changes this to 'death is tragic' because it is 'final, inevitable and inscrutable'. He concludes: 'Better to dwell on life and try to value the passing time.'
What else indeed can we do?