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Comic veneer

Published : Jan 02, 2009 00:00 IST

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Wacky, witty and wise, David Lodges new book can be put in the category of great comic novels.

WHILE reading David Lodges Deaf Sentence, my mind went back to the early 1980s when his hilarious Changing Places was passed from one faculty member to another. We took to him ravenously and went on to read Nice Work; Small World; How Far Can You Go?; Ginger, Youre Barmy; Out of the Shelter; and The British Museum is Falling Down.

Discussing the breezy campus comedies full of masterly socio-historic details and farcical sexual manoeuvres became the staple of our coffee break with many laughs thrown in at the mention of the University of Rummidge the culture shocks experienced by academics in an exchange programme, the ridiculing of international conferences or the onset of post-structuralism and the burlesquing of the literary theorist.

In such Evelyn Waugh-like comic renderings of the academic world, Lodges talent presented itself most impressively. Undoubtedly, he remains Britains most enduringly successful novelist.

In his novel Thinks, Lodge brought together the campus novel and the novel of adultery with the aim of revealing the rival claims of science and art and, thereby, to tell the truth about life. He now returns to the campus comedy with all satiric zest and slapstick humour, and plunges the reader into the post-retirement shenanigans of the protagonist, Desmond Bates, struck with high frequency deafness and who maintains: One thing we deafies can do at a party is give people a few laughs with our mistakes.

For Bates deafness is comic, as blindness is tragic. One of the strongest curses in the English language is Damn your eyes! Damn your ears! does not cut it. Or imagine if the poet had written, Drink to me only with thine ears....

The polemics of tragic versus comic, poetic versus prosaic and sublime versus ridiculous take Bates to the realm of great prophets who, he argues, are sometimes blind Tiresias for instance but never deaf. He visualises a rather hilarious situation: Imagine putting your question to the Sybil and getting an irritable What? What? in reply.

The novel can be put in the category of great comic novels such as Decline and Fall and Summer Lightning. Wacky, witty and wise, it bounds along at a cracking pace, veering between laughter, pity and outrage. Lodge is himself hard of hearing and thus most suited to this subject of aging and death. Damaged people can be funny. They are often busy designing survival strategies by integrating their traumas and destabilising experiences into their writing so as to fashion them into something they could live with and bear to concede. Forgetting the pain is an easy escape, but a weak way of overcoming the experience.

Lodge said in an interview about his novel Therapy, One of the sources of the novel is a certain introspection about my own moods. In middle age, Ive found myself prone to more depression and anxiety than I can give a rational explanation for. The novel didnt start out like that, but thats what it turned into.

He went on to explain his sadness that underlies the comic veneer: I have lots of theories, but I dont want to confuse myself with the character in the novel. In a novel, you can offer explanations. In real life, its harder. This is so true of the latest novel.

On his way to buying Being Deaf by Jim Grace, Bates learns that the book is really called Born Dead. The title of the novel is itself a play on Deaf and the maiden, Deaf Row, and I had not thought deaf had undone so many. Pretending that his hearing is not impaired, Bates continues to nod to Alex Loom, a busty American Ph.D. student whom he meets one day at an exhibition. When he later receives a phone call from her accusing him of not keeping his appointment with her, he visits her in her apartment.

She tells him: Come to Wharfside Court at exactly three oclock and ring my bell three times.... Youll find the door of my apartment unlatched.... Youll see me bent over the table, with my head on a cushion. Ill be naked from the waist down.... Use just the flat of your hand, but no stick or other implement, but hit me as hard as you like. This arouses him and he reaches her flat, only to discover that he has agreed to guide her research on A stylistic analysis of suicide notes.

As he leaves, she secretly slips her underpants into his pocket. This makes him wonder if she is trying to seduce him, and instead of writing letters to her, he begins to write letters to himself about all that transpires in the adulterous affair. He fantasises about regaining his potency, which is further titillated by emails on the use of Viagra. As he says, Deaf and the maiden, a dangerous combination.

Though deaf people are mostly withdrawn and quiet, bordering on unsociability, Bates deafness compels him sometimes to talk incessantly and at other times pretend that he has understood what others say. For him, it has become an existential condition and a crisis.

He comes to the conclusion that he was aware that he was talking far too much.... More and more he found himself struggling to pick up the gist of an argument, falling silent, afraid to intervene.... Then he would sometimes catch the ghost of a smile on someones lips or an exchange of amused glances across the table and realise that he had misunderstood something.

Being deaf becomes a rather comic ailment. For instance, spoiled by tourism becomes soiled by Cubism, or being deaf becomes being dead. Though Bates continues to live in the valley of the shadow of deaf, and plays on T.S. Eliots famous line in The Waste Land, I had not thought deaf had undone so many, he has the capacity to see the comic side of it all.

The narrative takes up instances of deafness, in certain Victorian novels and in famous artists such as Beethoven and Goya, as a kind of rationality for lessening the misery of the victim, but deep down the protagonist sees it as more comic than tragic.

A linguistics expert, Bates knows why he is facing this problem of hearing. The consonants are of a higher frequency and thus more difficult to catch than vowels, which have a lower pitch. In social gatherings, the problem becomes acute because of the need to be louder than the rest. This misconstruing was the cause of his seeking an early retirement.

The novel continues with the burlesquing of the sexual side of Bates life after he decides to move on to focus on his fast deteriorating marriage. Lodge explains, The sexual revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s brought about the most extraordinary change in peoples personal behaviour. Because I was on campus, all this was under my nose all the time, and so of course I wrote about it, but as a war correspondent, never a combatant.

Bates wife goes for cosmetic repair of her hair and face with utmost concern for getting her breasts firmed up. Her metamorphosis into a presentable woman evokes the late-flowering lust in her husband who begins to often get quite promising erections.

Though it is an invigorating experience for him, he experiences a kind of loss of self-esteem. The most dreadful thing that can happen to a man, says Soren Kierkegaard, is to become ridiculous in his own eyes in a matter of central importance. Bates had believed that he would sail through life as a successful professor, and here he finds himself deep in frustration, humiliation, isolation multiplied exponentially, almost losing his dignity and trying to make sense of language, an area that he is an expert in.

He begins to draft a pseudicide note as a stylistic exercise expressing his condition of being at cross purposes in every conversational exchange. In the home, a silent, withdrawn, unresponsive companion at the best of times; a surly, self-pitying misery at the worst. A damper on every party, a dud at every dinner table. A grandfather unable to communicate with his growing grandchildren, in the presence of whose blank looks and idiotic misunderstandings they must strive to stifle their giggles. Its not a life worth living.

But he is amused at using a semi-colon in a suicide note and abandons the exercise, returning to life from the dead. The death sentence is replaced by the deaf sentence and its implicit side-splitting potential.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 02, 2009.)

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