Book Explores Alternate World Of Deafness

Deafness creates its own dialogues: between what was said, and what someone hears. In David Lodge's new novel, Deaf Sentence, a deaf man knows that as he mishears words and responds with non sequiturs, he becomes an object of fun.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Deafness creates its own dialogues between what was said and what someone hears, the utterance and the impression. In David Lodge's new novel, "Deaf Sentence," Desmond Bates is recently retired from teaching linguistics at a university in the north of England. He is getting just a bit - no, often he is quite a bit bored. His increasing deafness cuts him off from conversations which modern science has not yet managed to subtitle. He's smart and sensitive enough to know that as he mishears words and responds with non-sequiturs, he becomes an object of fun.

"One thing we deafies are good for at parties," Professor Bates muses, "is to give people a few laughs with our mistakes." "Deaf Sentence" is the latest novel from David Lodge who's considered the modern master of the academic comedy. His writings have drawn wide praise, beginning with his first comic novel, "The British Museum is Falling Down." That came out in 1965. David Lodge joins us now from the studios of the BBC in Birmingham, England. Mr. Lodge, so nice to have you.

Mr. DAVID LODGE (British Novelist; Author, "Deaf Sentence"): I'm very pleased to speak to you.

SIMON: And in part, the premise of this novel was inspired by your own difficulties with hearing. Can you tell us what put that in place for you as an idea for a novel?

Mr. LODGE: Well, I remember exactly the moment that I had the idea. I was in the bathroom shaving, which is always a good place to have ideas. And the thought came into my head that I might write a comic novel about hearing loss, about deafness, exploiting just those aspects of the subject which you've just mentioned. And I made a note to that effect in my notebook. And I added in that I thought I might combine it with the experience of monitoring my elderly father's welfare in the last year or two of his life. And he was deaf from old age, so it was the deaf speaking to the deaf. And he didn't wear a hearing aid, or wouldn't wear one, as elderly people often don't. So those were the two main strands I started with.

SIMON: Well, you say at one point, deafness is comic as blindness is tragic.

Mr. LODGE: Yes. I found that a useful way to encapsulate Desmond's sense of being both excluded and handicapped, discontented and yet not really inviting much sympathy, because I think deafness is an affliction that doesn't generate the same kind of sympathy as blindness. And being an academic, he develops the idea and finds literary cultural examples to prove his point. I think the fact is that deafness is not a life-threatening condition, unless of course you don't hear the bus that's going to run you over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LODGE: But the deaf person, I think, feels locked up in his condition, really - or her condition - isolated, increasingly unable to connect with people but not really invoking very much sympathy, not perhaps inviting it because of trying to conceal the problem.

SIMON: Mr. Lodge, I want to get you to read the very first page of your novel because it strikes me, if I may, I don't think anybody writes with your combination of erudition and intellectual slapstick.

Mr. LODGE: Well, thank you very much.

(Soundbite of novel "Deaf Sentence")

Mr. LODGE: (Reading) The tall, bespectacled, gray-haired man standing at the edge of the throng in the main room of the gallery, stooping very close to the young woman in the red silk blouse, his head lowered and angled away from her face, nodding sagely and emitting a phatic murmur from time to time is not, as you might think, an off-duty priest whom she's persuaded to hear her confession in the midst of the party or a psychiatrist conned into giving her a free consultation. Nor has he adopted this posture, the better to look down the front of her blouse, though this is an accidental bonus of his situation, the only one in fact.

For the man now almost nuzzling the bosom of the woman in the red blouse as he brings his right ear closer to her mouth, the noise reached some time ago a level that makes it impossible for him to hear more than the odd word or phrase of those she addresses to him. Side seems to be one recurring word, or is it cider? And flight from hell, or was it cry for help? He is, you see, hard of hearing, or hearing impaired, or not to put too fine a point on it, deaf.

SIMON: It picks up with a young woman named Alex Loom, who's an American student, approaching Desmond. And when he doesn't quite understand, she ultimately figures out a way to draw his attention with a note.

Mr. LODGE: Yes, she was the third element in the book, really, which - I mean, again I made a very early note that there were possibilities for comedy in erotic situations with somebody who wasn't hearing what the other person was saying. And this developed into, really, the relationship between Desmond and Alex, the American postgraduate who's a bit of a wild character, a wild loose canon.

SIMON: We mentioned that your first novel came out in 1965, "The British Museum is Falling Down."

Mr. LODGE: It wasn't the first novel, actually, but it was the third.

SIMON: I'm sorry.

Mr. LODGE: No, it goes - well, you wouldn't know about the first one, which was never published in America, "The Picturegoers." So I started in 1960. And then there was another one called "Ginger, You're Barmy." "The British Museum is Falling Down" was the one which sort of first made any kind of impact, certainly in America.

SIMON: Well, all right, I stand corrected, but it makes the point I want to explore with you even more fascinating. At least here a novelist - and I must say the reviews for "Deaf Sentence" that I have read have been as enthusiastic as the ones for "The British Museum is Falling Down" were. So we're talking about a span of 40 years in which you haven't lost a step.

Mr. LODGE: You know, I don't think you can ever relax as a writer. I mean you're always ups and downs. Some novels are better than others. And I've lost track of the times I've been told that I've returned to form, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: David Lodge speaking with us from the BBC in Birmingham, England. His new novel, his 14th, "Deaf Sentence." Mr. Lodge, so nice talking to you. Thank you for all your time.

Mr. LODGE: OK, thank you.

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