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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Deaf Sentence


This darkly comic tale, set in academia, of Prof. Desmond Bates who has lost his hearing.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Twice short-listed for a Booker Prize, David Lodge, a British author, has a novel in a sub-genre I really enjoy – those set in Academia.  His 2008 novel, Deaf Sentence, is a darkly comic tale of Professor Desmond Bates and his wife Fred.  Professor Bates headed the linguistics department at a university.  He began losing his hearing, and when he was offered an early retirement he took it.  Fortunately, his wife had partnered with a friend in the opening of a home décor shop, and as he retired, her business picked up to give the couple a healthy income.  He also cares for his elderly father, whom he visits once a week.

Desmond occasionally regrets his retirement.  Lodge Writes, “At first it was very enjoyable, like a long sabbatical, but after eighteen months or so his freedom from routine tasks and duties began to pall.  He missed the calendar of the academic year which had given his life a shape for such a long time, its passage marked by reassuringly predictable events: the arrival of the excited and expectant [freshman] every autumn; the Department Christmas party with its traditional sketches by students mimicking the mannerisms and favorite jargon of members of staff; the reading week in the spring term when they took the second year to a residential conference centre in the Lake district; the examiners meetings in the summer term when, sitting round a long table heaped with marked scripts and extended essays, they calculated and classified the Finals results like gods dispensing rewards and punishments to mortals; and finally the [commencement] itself, processing to organ music in the Assembly hall, listening to the University Orator fulsomely summarize the achievements of honorary [graduates], shaking hands afterward with proud parents and their begowned children sipping fruit punch under the marquee erected on the Round Lawn, after which all dispersed to a well-earned long vacation.  He missed the rhythm of the academic year as a peasant might miss differences between seasons if they were suddenly withdrawn; and he found he missed too the structure of the academic week, the full diary of teaching assignments, postgraduate supervisions, essay marking, committee meetings, interviews, and deadlines for this and that required report, tasks he used to grumble about but the completion of which, however trivial and ephemeral they were, gave a kind of low-level satisfaction, and ensured that one never, ever, had to confront the question: what shall I do with myself today?  In retirement, he confronted it every morning as soon as he woke” (28).

This passage seems eerily prescient as I inch toward retirement myself.

David Lodge has a peculiar style, which required some adaptation.  Most obvious are long sentences and extensive use of the English Major’s carefully protected punctuation mark – the semi-colon.  All in all, a pleasant read for anyone who has spent more than a few years teaching.  David Lodge’s novel, Deaf Sentence, holds a well-earned spot on my shelf of fiction set in academia.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!