Value the Passing Time: David Lodge’s “Deaf Sentence”
Chaim Herman, living the hell of Auschwitz, wrote a letter to his wife which was later found buried at the camp. In it he asked her forgiveness for not sufficiently appreciating their time together. “If there have been, at various times, trifling misunderstandings in our life, now I see how one was unable to value the passing time.”
In a lecture at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival, Robert Dessaix described encountering this passage in David Lodge’s novel Deaf Sentence while recovering from the heart attack that nearly killed him in 2011. He had already been prompted to think about valuing the passing time by one of the paramedics working around him in the ambulance, who asked him: ‘Have you had a good day?’
In Deaf Sentence David Lodge quotes Philip Larkin’s poem, What are Days For? Dessaix used the poem as the basis for his lecture, on which I reported in a previous post.
The protagonist of Deaf Sentence, Desmond Bates, has high frequency deafness, caused by accelerated loss of hair cells in the inner ear, which convert sound waves into messages to the brain. Everybody starts losing hair cells from the moment they are born, and if this is accelerated by loud noise, infection or inheritance, hearing loss can become disabling. This affects many people in their sixties, and some at an earlier age, including Desmond and David Lodge himself. Consonants are voiced at a higher frequency than vowels, and we mainly depend on consonants to distinguish one word from another. As Desmond tries to listen to another person in a noisy environment, he only catches odd words: ‘flight from hell’ – or was it ‘cry for help’?
For someone with previously normal hearing, deafness is frightening, because it tells us that we are declining into old age, reminding us of our mortality. Focussed on his decline, Desmond is unable to value the passing time. A professor of linguistics and a believer in interactive teaching, he has retired early because he could no longer hear his students. Social events become an ordeal. At cross purposes in every conversational exchange, he sees himself as a damper on every party, a dud at every dinner. He begins to drink too much, and the relationship with his wife becomes brittle and strained. He feels like the dog in the stone-deaf Goya’s painting, Dog Overwhelmed by Sand.
Can Desmond claw his way out of the engulfing sand, stop focussing on his decline and the fragility of our grip on life, and accept that, as Robert Dessaix says, ‘while the whole of my life is hopeless, a well-shaped day is not’, and that, as Larkin suggests, ‘Days are where we live’?
Deaf Sentence is a comic novel, filled with clever word-play, humorous set-pieces and little essays that both entertain and inform. The plotline is slight, and centres around Desmond’s changing relationship with his wife, his efforts to support his aged father, and a dangerous connection with an attractive young woman who wants his help with her PhD topic, a stylistic analysis of suicide notes. I remain uneasy about how Lodge has used a character who apparently has a mental illness and is possibly suicidal as the source of much of the humour in the book. The trope of old man lusting after young woman does not sit well with the rest of the novel, but perhaps the device is needed to provide more tension.
Apart from that, the book is a quick, enjoyable read that speaks to us about our fears of old age and death, and what is of most value as we move towards our later years. As a by-product we learn much about age-related hearing loss, which affects a great number of people but is mostly hidden or denied.