- Deafness and the Coming of Death
As a retired English professor with a growing problem of deafness in both ears over the past twenty years, I recognize Lodge’s spot-on account of the frustrations, the confusions, and the recourses of the deaf, as experienced in this novel by a retired professor of linguistics, Desmond Bates. Deafness may often result in something funny, as when a lip-reading person hears “wax-free polish” as “laxative porridge”; but deafness is no joke when it badly interferes with communicating to a spouse who is only a little deaf or to a friend who is not.
The clever comedy of deafness in Lodge’s novel is balanced against two other story lines—a graduate student’s neurotic seductiveness and, drawing on the novelist’s experience, a father’s irritable, deteriorating, and stubborn self in old age. The trouble with the student phase of the story is that the American girl with masochistic sexual fantasies seems to have been dropped into the novel from some other fiction, more lurid or more clinical, than the one we are reading.
Lodge has always been alert to what is happening in critical theory and linguistics; and it shows here in the study linking the professor and his student—the stylistics of suicide notes. This might seem to be a merely morbid and bizarre interest of Lodge’s; but, as he tells us, many linguists are working on the same subject. Deafness misleads Bates into thinking he has bought a self-help book called Being Deaf when has really bought a novel called Being Dead.
Lodge’s novel swerves into darker and bleaker territory when Bates visits Auschwitz and recalls the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Lodge has prefigured this journey into the heart of darkness when he suggests early in the action that “deaf is a kind of pre-death, a drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse.” There is much in the novel to flesh out dying, such as two assisted deaths, one of them a suicide.
What is missing from Lodge’s view of deafness is the revision in the 1960s of deafness—from what the deaf could not do to an emphasis on what the deaf could do. One of our sons (not at all deaf) studied sign language in college in order to become a hearing and signing actor in the National Theater of the Deaf, touring the world; and later he directed a small company of deaf actors in Australia. Signing is never part of Lodge’s idea of deafness, though he does take into account lip-reading classes; but they are not favored by the deaf, who see in signing a language of their own. For a sense of the liberating power of signing, see Marlin Barton’s eloquent story “Into the Silence,” SR (summer 2009). [End Page xcii]
One of my Cornell colleagues I think of as a hero of deafness. Profoundly deaf, he carried a small microphone that he would hold near your mouth in order to hear what you said. Neither he nor the speaker was embarrassed. He was an accomplished painter and teacher, one of the most sociable persons I have ever known. I live now in a continuing-care retirement community, in which some form of deafness is common; but many of us suffer much graver slings and arrows of the aging process, while competently getting about in various kinds of wheeled vehicles. It puts deafness into perspective.
Lodge is praised in the Guardian for bringing off “the difficult trick of successfully extending his range.” The TLS salutes his “bravery” in confronting “the atrocity of the aging process.” No doubt, but, as an admirer of his work, I think Lodge’s comedic talent still provides the spine of each novel. His conclusion in this one—that death is always tragic—would take another book to develop.
As if in sync with Lodge, Julian Barnes in Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008) devotes a book to reflections on dying and death, including his and those...