David Lodge's Deaf Sentence.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 17 2008 12:04 PM

Country for Old Men

David Lodge's touch wavers when the topic is aging.

David Lodge.
David Lodge

I have long considered David Lodge's novels a guilty pleasure. They are comedies of manners that, despite Lodge's literary aspirations, succeed mostly as what Graham Greene called entertainments.

Lodge chooses themes that are serious enough. The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965) and Souls and Bodies (1980) explore the difficulties of practicing Catholicism in an age when abortion seems necessary and adultery appealing. Changing Places (1975) and its sequel, Small World (1984), capture the vanities of academic life. Therapy (1995) contrasts medical and religious views of what ails us; Thinks … (2001) extends the discussion to embrace the cognitive sciences. And Lodge, who began his career as a professor of modern literature in Britain, embeds his novels in the canon of great books. The British Museum is pastiche, with chapters that mimic Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and others. Jane Austen scholarship permeates Changing Places. Therapy becomes a meditation on Søren Kierkegaard's existentialism.

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But Lodge's erudition can feel gossamer-light, more fascinating than edifying. For instance, Therapy contains a half-page riff on how Kierkegaard's name on the page looks to the English eye, and then another half page on how it should be said: "Apparently the o is pronounced like eu in the French deux, the Kierk is pronounced as Kirg with a hard g, the aa sounds like awe in English, and the d is mute. … I think I'll stick with the English pronunciation." It's hard not to love this snippet of knowledge, but we're not exactly wrestling with existential dread. Moreover, the resolution—why stretch ourselves?—has a reassuring, even pandering quality. Often, Lodge's writing is overly comfortable in this way, relying on the complicit assumption that writer and reader share the same middlebrow views. The coziness extends beyond Danish pronunciation to those big issues Lodge raises. We don't really take much stock in psychotherapy (or neuroscience, abortion, literary exegesis, or Modernism); we value traditional faith and common sense.

As a result, the setup of Lodge's novels is the reverse of what one might imagine. The plot complications and sexual high jinks don't seduce readers into confronting uncomfortable questions. The movement is in the opposite direction. The specialized knowledge supplies assurance that we're in the world of intellect and thus not wasting our time—so that the business of plot and character can proceed. On this level, Lodge is a master: In Souls and Bodies, set in the transition from the '50s to the sexual revolution, he manages to braid the fates of 10—yes, 10—main characters and in the process to expose the range of mores of young British Catholics.

In his new novel, Deaf Sentence, Lodge would seem to be on familiar ground. The setting is a redbrick college in the north of England. The protagonist and narrator, Desmond Bates, is a retired professor of linguistics who suffers from hearing loss. When we meet Des, he is looking down the blouse of a comely young graduate student, Alex, as he tries to make out what she is proposing. Inadvertently, Des agrees to a private meeting that, we understand, will not amuse his dauntingly competent wife, Winifred, or "Fred." Beware of women with manly names! Alex, we learn, is American, which is to say ambitious, unstable, and provocative. Des seems about to take the sort of misstep that sets comedy in motion.

The problem is, he doesn't. Lodge never places Des in jeopardy. Instead, our hero is allowed to expatiate on concerns that, as the acknowledgments section indicates, Lodge has shared in his own life: hearing loss and the death of a father. So closely is Lodge identified with his protagonist that the book often devolves into a personal meditation on decline.

It's not that the elements of a typical Lodge novel are missing. As in Therapy and Thinks ..., Lodge showcases a mind-and-brain discipline—in this case, a branch of linguistics with psychological overtones. In his quest for guidance about mortality, Des turns to the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin. Switching between first person stream-of-consciousness and a diary Des keeps in the third person, Lodge creates variations in narrative voice. But these efforts are desultory, more a reference to the material of academic satire than the thing itself.