Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge

Eeyore enters the confessional
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In The Year of Henry James, David Lodge looked into the coincidence that Colm Tóibí*and he – each unknown to the other – published in 2004 a fiction about the identical period in James's career. Lodge's brave and moving Author, Author was very different from anything he had hitherto attempted. But some found Lodge's reactions to discovering himself "scooped" jealous, querulous or unbecoming. His hurt and loss of nerve were palpable: what was to be gained by advertising them?

No danger of duplication attends his new novel, if only because its territory is far harder to define. One of the pleasures of his novels has often been how efficiently they can contemplate one discrete and tightly focused issue: the self-explanatory Therapy, Catholic sexual mores (How Far Can You Go?) academic exchange (Changing Places), or consciousness itself (Thinks...). He is gifted at rendering complex ideas accessible, so that sometimes you remember the ideas better than the characters.

Deaf Sentence departs from this habit, exploring the drift of meaning to which the hard of hearing are subject. The protagonist is Desmond Bates, retired professor of linguistics in a northern town, sententious and brilliant, who reminds his friends of Eeyore: a gloomy, depressed old donkey, pessimistic and, above all, deaf. Eeyore, using one hoof to direct his ear towards sounds, is inclined to fall over. Bates's deafness makes him accident-prone too.

Thus Bates hears a friend tell him that the pastime of the dance went to pot, "so we spent most of our time in our shit, the cows' in-laws finding they stuttered". This turns out to mean: the last time the friend went to France it was so hot they spent most of the time in their gite, cowering behind the shutters. He renders the painful isolation of deafness comic.

Further comic misunderstandings are generated by a highly disturbed and attractive American doctoral student, Alex Loom. She likes committing indiscretions that might earn her a spanking: stuffing her panties into Bates's pocket, lying, sexual blackmail – a theme Lodge earlier exploited in Small World. Alex is writing her doctorate on suicide notes, a subject yielding suspense and pathos in equal measure.

Blindness is tragic, deafness comic, Lodge assures us. There is much witty disquisition on the two senses, and some good jokes. But his story drifts here, from the emptiness of retirement, with its sadnesses and infrequent sex, to deafness, and from old age to death and dying. Lodge encompasses a well-observed family Christmas; an upmarket holiday camp with its chalets in a forest; an evocation of interwar London suburbia and a desolate trip to Auschwitz that brings home the preciousness of time, life and love.

Lodge loves to teach as much as he likes to learn. He builds in essays on deafness, and not only Eeyore's. Goya painted his greatest work when he went deaf, seeing human behaviour as violent, cynical and mad. Beethoven wrote a famous testament dilating upon the loneliness his deafness brought him, and how it made him appear a grouchy unsociable bastard.

An afterword tells us that Lodge put his father and his own deafness to use in this book. The comedy and pain of both yield dividends that protect him from our pity. Some of the best scenes involve the narrator's 89-year-old father, unwilling to give up a routine of comfortable squalor till illness and death movingly overtake him. Meanwhile, how acutely deafness isolates is well chronicled.

This is a deeply melancholic novel, interested in the long littleness of life. It is slighter than Author, Author. Happily any journey in David Lodge's company, as Michelin Guides put the matter, is worth the detour.

But there may be another literary journey his fans are hungry for. One of the shocks of The Year of Henry James was the adoption by this hitherto deeply private writer of the confessional mode. He discloses that his wife is of Irish family and he himself one-quarter Irish. He has been at or near the centre of British literary life for nearly half a century and knows as much about how it has changed over the decades as about his own sense of belonging. It would be good to have his autobiography.

Peter J Conradi's 'Iris Murdoch' is published by HarperPerennial