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Originally published Friday, September 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Wit and frustration come through loud and clear

British author David Lodge uses his own experience with deafness to inform his novel, "Deaf Sentence," about a retired professor who is losing his hearing.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Deaf Sentence"

by David Lodge

Viking, 294 pp., $25.95

British author David Lodge has spent much of his distinguished literary career (including 12 earlier novels) adroitly skewering academia with a mixture of home truths and absurdist humor. As a professor, he has mined his own life experiences — exchange teaching, academic conferences and the perils of involvement with students — in such novels as "Changing Places" and "Small World."

Now it's retirement and old age that are Lodge's foci in a terrific new novel about retired professor Desmond Bates, who is in his early 60s but has been losing his hearing for several years. (In real life, Lodge also has retired and is frustrated by his increasing deafness; he has modeled Bates' current northern England domicile and his old London-suburb family home after his own present and former homes.)

Bates, bedeviled by troublesome hearing aids and struggling to understand everyone around him, initially liked retirement but now misses the structure and the rewards of teaching. He has a hard time coping with his wife's late-life success as an interior designer, especially since it means going to lots of social events where he can't quite comprehend the conversation. Further, his sex life is losing its vitality, and his elderly widowed father is gradually sinking into dementia.

You wouldn't think Lodge could make all of this funny, but somehow he does, with a wry wit that reveals the lighter side of Bates' various dilemmas. He is not above resorting to puns: The lip-reading class in which Bates finally enrolls is referred to as "Deaf Row," and an unfortunate encounter with a disturbed and manipulative female grad student — in which Bates can't hear the conversation, but implies that he can — is described as "Deaf and the maiden, a dangerous combination."

Dangerous indeed, when Bates encounters American-born Alex Loom at one of the parties his wife drags him to. To his dismay, he finds that in nodding empathetically during the conversation, he has acquiesced to her request that he supervise her doctoral dissertation on "a stylistic analysis of suicide notes." Alex turns out to be big trouble, but not as much trouble as Bates' frail and frugal father, who refuses to leave his home (where he has stashed wads of cash underneath the grimy floorboards), even though it's increasingly clear that he can't manage on his own.

A last-minute invitation to lecture in Poland sends Bates on a side trip to Auschwitz, when the denouement of the novel means some big changes all around. By now, it is clear that the novel really is about death: suicide notes, Auschwitz, the decline of Bates' father, the truth about what really happened at Bates' first wife's deathbed. And, of course, it's about deafness, which erodes so much joy from Bates' life (and presumably also from Lodge's).

Yet in "Deaf Sentence," the humor is always there; Lodge muses about how blindness is considered tragic, but deafness is often considered funny, especially when the hapless Bates misconstrues crucial words in conversation.

Lodge takes us on little side trips into the lives of famous deaf people (Beethoven, Goya, Philip Larkin), but even more interesting are his discussions of home truths about living with diminished hearing: infrared headsets in live theater, for example, convey "a thin, distant timbre, as if you are listening to the performance through a telephone on stage that has been left off the hook."

As Lodge puts it: "Deaf, where is thy sting? Answer: everywhere."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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