Decrepit Lit

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Deaf Sentence by David Lodge
    Harvill Secker, 294 pp, £17.99, May 2008, ISBN 978 1 84655 167 3

Thirty years ago, the campus novels of David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury mythologised a setting that expressed, better than any other, the cultural and ideological chaos of the 1960s and 1970s. The main characters were rarely students, but all the energy in these comedies of social transition flowed from the young: it was their politics and their sexuality that the generations above them were forced to flatter or fight, exploit or succumb to. Lodge’s middle-aged professors were shaken out of their rut by the impressive oddness of the young. But the demographic centre of gravity has moved the other way since then; most students I know already act middle-aged, while society finds itself gazing at old age with the fascinated uncertainty that was formerly reserved for the young. By next year, apparently, there will be more pensioners than children in the UK. Not long after that it will become practically impossible to die. We shall have decades in which to watch ourselves rot.

Lodge’s new novel, like his earlier work, has its finger on the zeitgeist. Maybe it inaugurates a new genre for people like me, mid-fifties and upward, to be marketed as decrepit lit, or the coming-of-old-age novel. The post-campus category as exemplified here contains no nubile freshers, pot-scented liberations, ruthless struggles for the soul of literature or happy sex. Retired male academics, it seems, have nothing to look forward to beyond the decline of their own increasingly long-lived parents, a dormant social and intellectual life and the guilt of merely fantasised adultery, against a general background of impotence. On top of this, the narrator of Deaf Sentence, former head of linguistics Desmond Bates, still living in the unnamed Northern city of his university career, has been going deaf since his mid-forties, about twenty years before the book begins: a long time in which to feel daily more isolated, irrelevant, ‘foolish and pathetic’.

Straight away – as if to set up the poles between which the novel will vacillate – Desmond resentfully contrasts the comedy inherent in deafness with the tragic, ‘poetic’, ‘sublime’ affliction of blindness.

Take Oedipus, for instance: suppose, instead of putting out his eyes, he had punctured his eardrums . . . It might arouse pity, perhaps, but not terror. Or Milton’s Samson: ‘O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon . . .’ What a heartbreaking cry of despair! ‘O deaf, deaf, deaf . . .’ doesn’t have the same pathos somehow.

(Shouldn’t it be ‘O still, still, still . . .’?) Then he tries out ‘Smoke gets in your ears,’ ‘There’s more in this than meets the ear,’ before returning to antiquity: ‘Prophets and seers are sometimes blind – Tiresias for instance – but never deaf. Imagine putting your question to the Sybil and getting an irritable “What? What?” in reply.’

Lodge has set himself a difficult task with this self-portrait of an ordinary man who’s past his prime. In his earlier novels, he personified types or ideas and let the different subjectivities fight it out, with a bit of cheerful tweaking from him. Here, by contrast, he confines himself to one, unrelativised viewpoint: Deaf Sentence is Desmond’s journal, in which he swaps the colloquial first person for a more distanced third person whenever an episode strikes him as deserving of a writerly set-piece – the ordeal of New Year in a holiday complex called Gladeworld, for example. But there’s no psychological tension between the two voices. Take sexual hope, the mark of a cowed conjugality in which Desmond must guess at his busy, successful wife’s disposition and try to make the most of it. First person: ‘I undressed and got in [the bath] behind her . . . Afterwards we went to bed, both naked and I with a quite promising erection, but I fell asleep in the middle of our first embrace.’ Third person: ‘He heard the sound of the shower running, which was an encouraging sign . . . He gazed at the ceiling in happy anticipation of the intimacies to come, and fell fast asleep.’

In Thinks . . . (2001), Lodge’s last but one novel, a debate about the sensation of selfhood, the cognition and AI scholar Ralph Messenger invokes the difference between ‘I’ and ‘he’ to show how science proposes to crack the problem of privately felt experience, by reaching ‘an objective, third-person account of a subjective, first-person phenomenon’. We won’t find this taken further in Deaf Sentence. Something more difficult is attempted: the expression of a single consciousness that sometimes – in the third person – attempts to perform itself. On the other hand, Lodge hasn’t taken a leap into the unknown. Just as Messenger was a version of the theoretically inclined American academic Morris Zapp, first seen in Changing Places, so Bates is the latest avatar of Philip Swallow, Zapp’s English foil: fussy, well-meaning, vain, hypocritical about sex, unable to resist a bad pun and, one fears, increasingly an old bore.

Desmond starts his journal in response to the idleness and isolation of early retirement, an option he took up in part because of his growing deafness. It begins brightly in the third person, with a self-mocking story of aural embarrassment. He is the grey-haired, bespectacled man at a noisy gathering, ‘stooping very close to the young woman in the red silk blouse’ as though he were her priest or psychiatrist; ‘nor has he adopted this posture the better to look down the front of her blouse, though this is an accidental bonus of his situation, the only one in fact.’ Unable even so to hear what the young woman is talking about, he effusively agrees – as it later turns out – to a private assignation to discuss her research.

Deafness is thus responsible for the only element of the novel that could be called a story. Desmond’s risky brushes with the flirtatious, unstable postgraduate student Alex Loom provide all of the novel’s suspense and most of the innuendo, plus the element which even a post-campus novel can’t manage without: professional/sexual rivalry between male academics. Undeservedly, he gets away with everything. His wife, Fred, never detects the lies; he symbolically defeats the younger, more attractive professor, and he grandly forgives the girl at the end, as though he really were both priest and shrink: ‘As for Alex, it is hard to know whether she is mad, or bad, or a bit of both; but now that she has gone I can feel a little sorry for her, and hope that somewhere, somehow, her unquiet soul will find some peace.’

This drama unfolds at intervals, almost on a separate plane, in the form of lurid shards of plot stuck into the rambling, meditative mass of the work. There is a great deal about the experience of going deaf. There’s the technology, complicated and unreliable even with ‘a remote control concealed in my watch (very James Bond)’; there are the clumsy mortifications of everyday life; and there is the spectre of oneself in coming years as 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.’ While moments of rueful humour lighten the self-pity, the mishearings are not as funny as they should be, and the detail is indiscriminate – as it would be if one were writing only for oneself, about oneself. Being a linguist rather than a literature man, Desmond can analyse his predicament in technical terms:

For programmes I’m really interested in I prefer to use both headphones and subtitles, on the belt and braces principle, because I still miss occasional words and phrases through the ’phones, and the subtitles don’t always reproduce the speech with total accuracy. Sometimes the subtitles abbreviate the dialogue so as not to lag behind or take up too much space on the screen. I have noticed a curious and interesting phenomenon in this connection: when I watch using both headphones and subtitles together I hear spoken words and phrases which are missing from the subtitles, which I’m sure I would not have heard using the headphones alone. Presumably my brain . . .

But these obsessions are themselves a wrapping around the book’s core theme, as the title shouts. ‘Deafness is a kind of pre-death, a drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse. “To every man upon this earth,/Deaf cometh soon or late,” Macaulay might have written.’ The pun is done to deaf (that’s one he left out) and masks moments of deeper self-interrogation: ‘Could there be a Deaf Instinct, analogous to Freud’s Death Instinct? An unconscious longing for torpor, silence and solitude underlying and contradicting the normal human desire for companionship and intercourse? Am I half in love with easeful deaf?’ The answer might be yes, given Desmond’s hostility to the modern world – in its pettier manifestations, that is. A retired intellectual might find himself reflecting on the mess his generation has left, but there is little on politics, the environment, or other big issues: there is a page about the failure of the miners’ strike and how it was for the miners’ own good, and a testy note about Saddam’s hanging, though nothing on the war. With formidable realism, Desmond is shown to be far more exercised by ‘art-bollocks’, ‘creeping Christmas’, mobile phones, target-driven education, holiday camps, foreign films, Viagra spam – a bumper edition of Grumpy Old Men, in other words. But over and above the fogeyish mutterings and erotic fantasies, which include a great spanking scene, the overarching theme of the monologue is death. And death comes in many forms.

The most flippant treatment is given to suicide. Alex Loom’s alleged research concerns the rhetoric of suicide notes, and, following some edgy discussion of statistical recurrence and collocations, she directs Desmond to an internet ‘guide’ – possibly posted by her – that exploits the incongruity between literary craft and terminal despair: ‘It’s best to start writing a day or two before you actually kill yourself. Sleep on it, and read it through the next morning, like professional writers do. You will see all kinds of ways to improve it.’ At the other end of the scale, mass murder. On an unexpected British Council jaunt to Krakow, Desmond visits Auschwitz, where he is lost for words to describe his emotions but records the starkness of what can be seen and heard: ‘I kept the earpieces in, because I wanted to hear the silence, a silence broken only by the crunch of my shoes on the frozen snow, the occasional sound of a dog barking in the distance, and the mournful whistle of a train.’

Between jokey callousness and inadequacy comes the relief of ordinary experiences of human endings. Desmond’s first wife had cancer, and he confesses to Fred that he helped her to die only when, at the bedside of his dying father, he is again faced with the horror of godlike choices. The father is the novel’s most concrete and vital character; his personality, his voice, heard through his son’s, is what’s best about the book. Harry Bates left school at 14, becoming an air-force and then dance-hall musician, adapting his skills to changing tastes and pursuing improbable hobbies on the side, in the way of an ‘instinctive autodidact’. Indeed Desmond feels his own, more successful life to be ‘dull and narrowly specialised’ by comparison. But Dad is pretty diminished, and lives in obstinate squalor. On Desmond’s visits to his childhood home in London, the irritation and pity he feels, the surreal exchanges between him and his father, and the unvarying arguments – age versus old age – in which the dutiful offspring is always trumped by the crafty old parent, evoke a grislier Steptoe and Son.

‘Take my advice, son,’ he said. ‘Don’t get old.’

‘But I am old, Dad,’ I said.

‘Not what I call old.’

‘I’m retired. I’m on a pension. I have a Senior Citizens railcard and a bus pass. I always have to get up in the night at least once. And I’m deaf.’

A faint grin lightened his countenance. ‘Yes, you are a bit Mutt and Jeff, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘I’ve noticed. I wonder where you get that from? At your age I had perfect hearing.’

They stand at different angles to the world around them. If Desmond doesn’t think much of the present set-up, and is able (copiously) to express why he doesn’t, Harry is utterly lost there, and doesn’t even know it; the experience of old age is defined by the memory of what one’s youth was like, and in Harry’s day, trust and suspicion, for example, were tools adapted to a quite different environment. So his son will never convince him that real people aren’t responsible for the baffling things that come through the letterbox. Sure enough, when he writes to Premium Bonds, complaining of not having won anything for six months, three cheques arrive at once: ‘I got ’em rattled. They said to themselves, this Harry Bates is no fool. He’s going to cause trouble if we’re not careful.’ The growth of Harry’s dementia too is handled with the vivid particularity – the good ear, in fact – that suggests a special relationship with this material.

But as his father becomes unknowable, before dying with merciful speed, Desmond’s fustier voice returns. (So too does Alex Loom, for her last, overcharged scene. I had forgotten about her – young women seem as out of place in Deaf Sentence as an incontinent octogenarian in Changing Places.) He comes to realise something important: ‘“Deafness is comic, blindness is tragic,” I wrote earlier in this journal, and I have played variations on the phonetic near-equivalence of “deaf” and “death”, but now it seems more meaningful to say that deafness is comic and death is tragic, because final, inevitable and inscrutable.’

This is a brave novel, which puts a brave face on everything we’d rather not know about ageing, without ducking the atrocity of it all. The final diary entry about a lip-reading class seems to embrace what’s left of life, as the participants laugh at each other’s mishearings and play childish, comforting games. It’s just around the corner, and I can’t decide what will be worse: the gradual inability to keep up with the way the world works, the physical impairment, or the mental droop, so slight at first, so subtly voiced through Desmond in both first and third persons – the unselfconscious dullness of the consciousness in which we might tell our later stories to ourselves.