19 December 2009

Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge

I really enjoy David Lodge books. They're a bit idiosyncratic, with somewhat random observations about literature and language smuggled into their storylines, but they're generally charming and fun and quite pleasant books. Thus, I cannot help but me somewhat worried about Mr Lodge after reading this book, which is in many ways similar in style to the others, but is also far darker and more grim than his other works - to the point that it's actually somewhat unpleasant to read, despite being for the most part pretty well written, if not quite as winsome as his other books.

The novel's main protagonist is a retired linguistics professor, Desmond, who is going increasingly deaf. This in itself is pretty depressing stuff, though well written and poignant. Lodge captures his frustration and sense of alienation as well as the growing annoyance experienced by his wife, who has to repeat everything three times. Desmond seems to be gradually withdrawing from life in a subtle way that's fairly devastating to witness - until he his interest is piqued by a young female graduate student who wants his help on her dissertation. Unfortunately, she turns out to be completely demented. This is taken a bit far perhaps, but it's also written for maximum squeamishness - you read with a growing sense of dread. Luckily Lodge doesn't rely on this for the main narrative drive, because, well, I just didn't want it to keep going, and instead turns his focus more towards Desmond's relationship with his wife and his father, who's growing increasingly demented. The novel definitely starts to flag at this point, and then perks up somewhat with a random trip to Poland (of all places) before chugging to a halt.

The strength of the novel is its portrayal of deafness, first and foremost, evoked in the typical Lodge style with lots of literary references. Secondarily, its a fairly poignant portrayal of aging and retirement, albeit a rather melancholy one. For the rest though, it's a somewhat disappointing book, in that it's not really all that great a read, and definitely falters in comparison to his other books.

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