‘Deaf Sentence’

This is the arresting title of David Lodge’s new book, which I have just finished reading. Often very funny indeed, it tells the poignant story of a retired professor of linguistics, Desmond Bates, who is growing deaf and it recounts his adventures in coping with the affliction, and, often unsuccessfully, in trying to conceal the fact from others.

He gets involved in conversations and situations that, through misunderstandings, quickly get out of control , as he struggles to cope with the mental confusion of his elderly father, the commercial enterprise of his achieving wife and the unwelcome attentions of a student who wants his advice on a PhD thesis she is writing. (I found that the least convincing part of the book). Otherwise I kept on laughing out loud at a book that gave me enormous pleasure, but also a new empathy for people with hearing difficulties.

Behind the book is the story of Lodge’s own experience. Now 73 he became aware of his hearing problems in his late 40’s.

An academic himself, he thought his students were mumbling and asked them to speak up. For a year he tried to manage, but when his wife and three children accused him of not listening to them, he realised he had to do something about it. He was diagnosed as suffering from presbyacusis, or age-related hearing loss which normally affects people in their mid-50’s. Apparently it involves the hair cells in the inner ears. Born with 16,000 of these cells they die as we age and by 65 we have lost 40% of them.

Lodge retired from teaching, began the laborious journey of finding the hearing aid that suited him best, and became a full time writer amassing the amazing total of 15 novels, and 11 non-fiction books which are often associated with his love and wide knowledge of literature. In an interview with him which I have found on the Web, he says his deafness has caused him to retreat into himself.

‘I get anxious, and deafness makes me more so which adds to my depression.’ He misses most the ability to take a full part in conversations. ‘I feel I’m not so amusing any more as I’m always struggling to keep up with what’s being said. I used to be ahead of the conversation. Now I lag behind’.

Clearly Desmond Bates is Lodge’s alter ego, and perhaps in writing a book that is often very funny indeed, he has exorcised some of his own demons, but also introduced his readers to a condition which many of us have to deal with as we grow older.