“Deafinitely Lodgean…”

An interview with David Lodge


David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence (published in May 2008), is about ageing, deafness and death. It is also deeply touching, more “seriously funny” than ever, even though the author, a well-known novelist and literary critic, has his own usual way of dealing with those very serious themes, mixing up humour with what he has always been interested in: the fate of the human lot, religion and literature.
This novel bears the same characteristics as the novelist’s brilliant Rummidge campus trilogy or Thinks (2001), another academic novel located in Gloucester.Yet, this time, the story is set in an unnamed Northern town where the protagonist, Desmond Bates, a professor of linguistics who retired early, struggles with a predictable life he describes in his journal, his wife, Winifred, who is eight years younger and Mr Bates, his 89-year-old father, who refuses to leave his house until he is overtaken by illness and death – a comic and moving portrait of the father figure recalling that of Mr Wilcox in Nice Work (1988) or Mr Walsh in Paradise News (1991). The reader cannot therefore help smiling at the dramatic irony implied by Desmond’s remark while talking to his former colleague, Colin Butterworth: “It wouldn’t surprise me if we both turn up lightly disguised in a campus novel one of these days” (Lodge 2008a, 286). “Post-campus” might even be a better definition according to some critics (Lichtig 2008, 22), though this is a term that does not entirely satisfy the writer.
A funny carnivalesque reversal of Lodge’s usual binary oppositions yet takes place in this novel, which has also been defined as “a 21st-century farce in which an ageing professor is the pursued sex object and the blonde young woman is the predator, inviting him, by e-mail of course, to indulge in some kinky sex with her” (Rosenthal 2008). Thus, when Desmond’s agenda is suddenly disturbed by a young American Ph.D. student, Alex Loom – whom he vaguely agrees to help with her thesis – he is nevertheless reluctant to engage in her “spanking fantasy…” For, in Deaf Sentence, Lodge’s characters are getting older and adultery seems to have given way to conjugal harmony. If “Sex [was] a sublimation of the work instinct”, for Morris Zapp in Small World (Lodge 1993, 287), almost twenty years later, it has become an object of anxiety rather than pleasurable anticipation for Desmond.

Thus, after writing Author, Author, (2004), a “biographical novel” which was based on the life of Henry James, David Lodge seems to have gone back to this self-reflexive academic genre, both critical and self-conscious towards its own mode of being, giving information to the reader as well as a reflection on the relationship between fiction and reality. Once more, in Deaf Sentence and as often in the writer’s novels, facts mingle with art and fiction. David Lodge is now also a retired professor who taught English literature at the University of Birmingham from 1960 to 1987, when he became a full-time writer and has been increasingly suffering from hearing loss himself. Writing this story was therefore undoubtedly a therapy for the novelist, who drew from his own experience to build on Desmond’s character: “My own awareness of having a hearing problem was […] gradual. I was in my late forties, teaching full-time […] and finding it more and more difficult to hear what students were saying in tutorials and seminars” (Lodge 2008b). Later, the novel was then a way to turn frustration and bereavement into a more positive experience while offering entertainment for all those willing to thread their way between puns and intertextual references.
As the English cover indicates, mishearing leads Desmond, and the reader, into a funny maze/haze where linguistic misunderstandings and wordplays are scattered. There is, throughout the novel, a subtle balance between humour and emotion, the very title playing with the homophony of the words deaf and death as well as the polysemy of the word sentence – a pun which is alluded to in the French title La Vie en sourdine* since living in a “muted world” could almost be compared to being dead. As Desmond explains, “sometimes the words seem interchangeable. Deafness is a kind of pre-death, a drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse” (Lodge 2008a, 19). Seriousness and laughter yet cohabit on the same page. And this sad reference to his handicap is preceded by a much lighter one, related to the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, when Desmond knowledgeably defines the consonant “f” as both a labiodental fricative and a continuant, so-called “because you can continue making the sound as long as you have breath: fffffffffffffffff… though I can’t imagine why you’d want to, unless perhaps you started to say ‘Fuck’ and thought better of it”.
The reader is also entertained with biographical information on great deaf artists such as Beethoven or Goya – the latter’s painting, “Dog Overwhelmed by Sand”, standing for a perfect, if morbid, image of the slow suffocation that deafness is, according to the protagonist. He also quotes Milton, Conrad, Larkin, Harrison… He looks forward to reading a novel entitled Being Deaf before realising it is actually Jim Crace’s Being Dead (1999). Sometimes black humour also arises, the choice of the subject of Alex’s thesis – a stylistic analysis of suicide notes – recalling the paradoxical humorous treatment of suicide in Nick Hornby’s A long Way Down (2005) whereas the themes of religion, deafness and death are also those dealt with by Julian Barnes in Nothing to Be Frightened of (2008).

The journal as fictional form in Deaf Sentence is anything but anecdotal, and is often used by novelists to express a character’s feelings of failure or frustration. Here, the alternation between the first and third person is often a way for “the tall, bespectacled, grey-haired man” writing his diary to try and come to terms with embarrassing or painful events and memories. As for Chapter 16, it is the most literary in form of the third-person narrative passages of his journal, written “as a kind of short story” (Lodge 2008a, 231). It is therefore the only one to be given a title, “Deaf in the afternoon”, thus echoing Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (1932). Lodge already used this form, if partly, in Ginger You’re Barmy (1962), Paradise News (1991) and Thinks (2001). He used it again more extensively in Therapy (1995), a novel with which Deaf Sentence is generically connected and where the central figure and narrator, Lawrence Passmore, is a scriptwriter for television going through an existential crisis. This exasperating but captivating narrator only finds relief in the reading of Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, and in the writing of his journal. As opposed to religion as the only genuine solution for life proposed by Kierkegaard, Tubby finds in love and art means to reconcile himself with life.
In all of Lodge’s works, the question of faith is at stake and what he said about the “gradual waning of orthodox religious belief in the ‘implied author’” (quoted in Vianu 2001), which can be traced in his novels, is all the truer today. Thus, in Deaf Sentence, Desmond, a non-Catholic, both envies and resents religious people their beliefs while the novelist now describes himself as a “very marginal sort of Catholic”, who thinks that “the disappearance of his literal belief in his novels […] perhaps, is one reason why his male characters are so lacking in guilt” (Cooke 2008, 8).
As regards the impact of deafness on writing, Lodge comes back to the various disadvantages it can entail, such as missing “opportunities to eavesdrop on humanly revealing conversations on buses or in shops and to keep up with new idioms, coinages and catch-phrases that give flavour and authenticity to dialogue in a novel of contemporary life” (Lodge 2008b). Yet, the writer stresses more positive aspects: “You might think that of all the professions a novelist is least affected by hearing loss and, up to a point, that is true. We compose books in silence, consumed in silence by solitary readers” (Lodge 2008b). Deafness can also change one’s way of life and Lodge then alludes to Colin Dexter, who “gave up teaching and turned to writing the enormously popular Inspector Morse mysteries because he was tired of pupils mocking his deafness” (Lodge 2008b).
The fact that Lodge first thought of making the protagonist a “deaf detective” seems to have left marks on the text such as Desmond’s ironical allusions to himself when he finds Alex’s undergarments in his pocket: “I looked at myself in the hall mirror, a gaunt, grey-haired man in a formal dark overcoat holding a pair of white knickers, like a detective with a piece of incriminating evidence” (Lodge 2008a, 96), or his remark to the young woman that she has “been reading too many spy stories” (Lodge 2008a, 149). Some passages seem almost drawn from this very cinematic genre as well and when Desmond meets Mr Barker, his father’s neighbour is then described as looming in the hall, “a cordless power drill held like a weapon in his hand” (Lodge 2008a, 167). Desmond’s “scenarios” when he imagines himself “punishing” Alex, are therefore like blue movies played in his head featuring himself and the young woman: “I have no intention of keeping the proposed appointment, but I can’t get the Sadean scenario out of my mind. It is so easy to picture myself approaching the apartment building, as if in a film […]” (Lodge 2008a, 130).

Eventually, it is through the art of writing that Desmond, like Tubby in Therapy, tries to make sense of his life – the word “sense”, thus being given full play in Deaf Sentence: sense of hearing, sense of humour, sense as meaning. For the novelist has always seemed to keep in mind Dr Johnson’s formula, underlining the therapeutic value of laughter and how “literature allows us better to enjoy life and better to endure it, partly by providing an escape from it, partly by offering models with which to negotiate it” (quoted in Gutleben 1996, 264). A feature shared with religion and which Lodge already emphasized in How Far Can You Go: “Just as when reading a novel, or writing one for that matter, we […] know that however absorbing and convincing we may find it, it is not the only story we shall want to read (or as the case may be, write) but part of an endless sequence of stories by which man has sought and will always seek to make sense of life. And death.” (Lodge 1980, 240)

Towards the end of the story, the few lines uttered by the deaf bard in Philip Larkin’s timor mortis – from “Aubade”, his great “death-poem” according to Julian Barnes – are thus purposely quoted by Desmond (and, unsurprisingly, by the narrator of Nothing to Be Frightened Of as well):

The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true. (Lodge 2008a, 290)

They, indeed, mirror the theme at the very core of David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence: a meditation on the inescapability of death. An inescapability that writing might challenge, inducing “in the tiniest kind of way, the chance of a literary immortality” (Lodge 1991).

David Lodge accepted to answer a few questions and give some “clues” about his novel:

1) Deaf Sentence, relates the story of Desmond Bates, early retired and hearing-impaired Professor of Linguistics. His life follows a predictable way – the very thought of writing an academic article now filling him with “proleptic mental fatigue” (30) – until he meets a strange American PhD student, Alex Loom… After the biographical novel (Author, Author, 2004), it seems that you’re going back to the genre of the “campus novel,” or rather “post-campus novel.” Would you agree with this term?

The term “campus novel” can imply a certain formulaic quality, which is why some novelists who write about academic life (like my friend the late Malcolm Bradbury) dislike having it applied to their work. I don’t object to it, but I have always tried to extend and experiment with the form of the classic campus novel, such as Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, or Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, which is usually focused on one university and its inhabitants, and tried also to deal with different aspects of academic life, and to use it as a microcosm for wider issues. In Changing Places there are two campuses, in Small World there is a global campus, and in Nice Work the university is opposed to the world of commerce and industry, and these three novels dealt with the counter-culture of the 60s, the globalization of high culture in the 70s and the impact of the Thatcherite economic revolution on Britain in the 80s, respectively.
You could say that Deaf Sentence is a campus novel about retirement, specifically “early retirement”, which was a phenomenon unknown when I entered the profession, but is quite common nowadays as universities ease out their more dispensable and highly paid staff. But really it is about universal personal experiences – ageing (mainly signified by deafness in my novel) and bereavement – rather than social and cultural change. I made my narrator a retired professor of linguistics because that would allow him to speak knowledgably and (I hope) entertainingly about hearing loss, which has a special irony for him since he has been professionally committed to the study of speech. Probably the element of the novel which most obviously reminds one of other campus novels is the sub-plot involving Alex Loom, in which intellectual and sexual strands are entwined. As to “post-campus novel” – I have a problem with that term. The prefix “post” must logically be followed by a word pertaining to time, but the campus is a word that designates a space, or a place.

2) Your last “diary novel” was Therapy (1995). In Deaf Sentence, the reader is gradually discovering Desmond’s life through his journal but this time, the narrative switches from the third to the first person, with hints of metafictional irony – for instance through Desmond’s remark that “if this were a novel…” (73) Why did you choose this particular form or, to quote Desmond again, “what difference does it make to the effect?”

You are right that there is a generic similarity between Deaf Sentence and Therapy. In both the central character struggles to come to terms with affliction and dissatisfaction and finds relief in expressing his feelings and experiences in a journal. I think there is a danger with all first-person narratives, that the voice of the narrator can become monotonous, excluding rhetorical effects that are not consistent with it.
In Therapy I tried to avoid or mitigate that drawback of the journal form by having the narrator, Tubby, who is a professional script writer, impersonate the voices of other characters, without the first-time reader being aware of this.
Death Sentence is less radical in form, but I thought that by making Desmond stand back from his own experience in places and narrate it as if he were a character in a novel, and also by varying the tense between past and present, I could get some variety into the discourse. That he used to employ this kind of exercise as a teacher makes it plausible that he should do it in his journal.
Another reason: the premise of the novel is that Desmond begins writing his journal without premeditation, and goes on with it for his own amusement and relief, without intending to show it to anyone else. It would therefore be unnatural for him to summarise the facts of his own previous life, which he knows very well himself, in the first person. But the reader needs to know them to understand his character; using the third person for these sections solved the problem. Also it was more comfortable for him (and me) to write about his sexual experience in the third person. You may recall that Helen comes to the same conclusion in Thinks

3) The various “scenarios” crossing Desmond’s mind, be they comic or erotic, are often very cinematic. From his ironic allusions to James Bond and Inspector Clouseau to the scene in a restaurant where “sounds ricocheted off […] surfaces like machine-gun fire” (117), his character and deafness often turn him into an odd detective in a mock spy story – a detective who’s yet searching for “sense,” both literally and figuratively. Would you comment on this?

It’s strange you should make this suggestion because at a very early stage of making notes on this novel I did think of making my main character a detective, a “deaf detective”, who uses forensic linguistics to solve crimes, but I soon dropped the idea, mainly because I don’t know enough about the law and investigative procedure, and its not a genre I’m naturally at home in.
I honestly don’t think Desmond is enacting the role of a spy or detective. He is not investigating a mystery or enigma, except insofar as he is baffled by Alex’s behaviour. He is much more of a victim, or potential victim, handicapped by his deafness. There are certainly scenes and passages which have a cinematic quality, notably his fantasy of responding to Alex’s invitation to “punish” her, but this is often characteristic of my work as you have observed before. (Gaberel-Payen 2007)

4) As you wrote in its dedication, “this novel, from its English title onwards, presents special problems for translators,” especially the wordplay on “deaf” and “death.” How was the French title, La Vie en sourdine, decided on?

It was an early suggestion of my translator Maurice Couturier, when he first started work on the translation, and I immediately embraced it. There is no way one could replicate the deaf/death pun in the English title. La vie en sourdine translates into English as “the muted world”, but in French the root of sourdine means “deaf” so there is a kind of pun in it. I was asked to choose between this phrase and “Le monde en sourdine” and I chose it because it reminded me of the cadence of “La vie en rose” and because it is very much a novel about one man’s life, not a whole world.
I [was] in discussion with my German translator about the title in that language and we [settled] for “Wie bitte?” [“I beg your pardon?” a politer form of “What?”]. I expect there will be a lot of variation in the titles of foreign editions of this book. The Polish one is […] entitled Skazani Na Cisze, but I’ve no idea what that means.
I have been more involved with the French translation of this book than with any previous ones, because of the special problems it poses, and I have found it a fascinating process. I have done a little re-writing to make the task easier, and suggested cuts where it would be more disruptive to explain a non-essential bit of wordplay in a footnote. I have learned some new French idioms, and also discovered to my surprise that French apparently has no word for “suicide-bomber”.

5) The puns and verbal mistakes – especially the translation of English verse, homophenes, misunderstandings, or the hilarious dialogue between Desmond and Sylvia Cooper at a University party – must have been a challenge to your French translators, Maurice and Yvonne Couturier. Did you discuss these particular aspects with them?

I authorised all my translators to find equivalents in their own languages for these mis-hearings, as long as the referents are appropriate to the context. Maurice and Yvonne have been very ingenious and resourceful, and I think the French edition will be just as entertaining in this respect as the original.
The real difficulty is when the wordplay in the English text is thematically important – notably all the variations on the near-equivalence of the words deaf and dead/death, which runs through the whole novel, not just the title. Sometimes it has been necessary to use footnotes, sometimes we have simply cut the reference.

6) As often in your novels, art and reality are closely linked. Many references are made to the world of fiction, for example through the family names given to your characters (Bates, Fairfax, Norfolk…) Yet, Deaf Sentence is also quite autobiographical and “Brickley” (Brockley) is the place where you were born. Why did you decide not to name the northern city where the story is set? Could it be “Rummidge” again?

Well, I did think of setting the story in Rummidge again when I was planning it, but precisely because the novel has an acknowledged autobiographical element I didn’t want to encourage readers to assume that everything in it is autobiographical, which I thought might be the effect of setting it in Rummidge, a thinly disguised version of Birmingham where, as is well known, I taught for many years and live in retirement from academic life.
The whole of the Desmond-Alex subplot, for instance, is completely fictional and I wanted to make that quite clear. So I invented a nameless northern city and university as the location of the novel.

7) Your novel is both amusing and particularly moving in tone, addressing very serious issues such as ageing, mortality, religion, the comedy and tragedy of human life… Desmond and his father “leaving the cafeteria […] like walking off the stage” (139), Desmond’s father talking in a hoarse stage whisper” (207), or a funeral being compared to “a form of a theatre…” (279) – these allusions seem to echo Shakespeare’s famous words in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players” (II, 7) You’re both a novelist and a playwright… How far would this theatrical reading apply to your work(s)?

I started by thinking that hearing loss would be a good subject for a comic novel, but as I worked on it, it developed, like most of my later novels into a more complex work with elements of comedy and tragedy, or at least pathos, combined. This was partly the result of deciding to write not only about deafness, drawing on my own experience (and deriving some therapeutic pleasure from turning it to positive effect) but also combining this theme with the experience of looking after my father’s welfare in the last years of his life (he died in 1999 at the age of 93). That plot-strand brought death into the book, and the deaf/death theme. The challenge was to make the story both funny and moving, without these two effects undermining each other. I think the tone of the book is predominantly comic up to the Gladeworld episode, but then becomes increasingly elegiac as it moves towards its conclusion.
As to the occasional theatrical effect you mention, I think that, like the cinematic effects, it’s part of any modern novelist’s repertoire. “Dramatise! Dramatise!” as Henry James exhorted himself. The best way to bring human interaction to life in a verbal narrative is to present it “scenically”, with plenty of dialogue. But essentially this is a very novelistic novel, in which an individual consciousness is revealed in an intimate way that only the novel can achieve. I think it would be quite difficult, though not impossible, to adapt for performance. Film would probably be a better medium than stage drama, but it would have to be quite an experimental film to represent Desmond’s deafness as he experiences it. I haven’t had any offers yet!


Cooke, Rachel, “Nice Work”, The Observer, 20 April 2008, p. 8.
Gaberel-Payen, Sophie, “De l’écrit à l’écran : Nice Work de David Lodge”, Pre- and post-publication itineraries of the contemporary novel in English, ed. François Gallix et Vanessa Guignery, Paris: EPU, 2007, 101-113.
Gaberel-Payen, Sophie, François Gallix et Vanessa Guignery, “From Then to Now and Next: An Interview with David Lodge”, Sources 18 (2005): 9-28.
Gutleben, Christian, Un tout petit monde : le roman universitaire anglais — 1954-1994, Strasbourg: PUS, 1996.
Lichtig Toby, “Is Silence Really Golden?”, The Observer, 11 May 2008, p. 22.
Lodge, David, How Far Can You Go?, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980
—, “The South Bank Show: Profile of David Lodge”, London: LWT, 29 September, 1991.
—, A David Lodge Trilogy: Changing Places (1975), Small World (1984), Nice Work (1988), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.
—, Therapy, London: Secker and Warburg, 1995.
—, Thinks…, London: Secker and Warburg, 2001.
—, Author, Author: A Novel, London: Secker and Warburg, 2004.
—, Deaf Sentence, London: Secker and Warburg, 2008a.
—, “Living under a Deaf Sentence”, The Sunday Times, 20 April 2008b.
Rosenthal, Tom, “Now It’s Till Deaf Do Us Part”, Daily Mail Online, www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-562041/Now-till-deaf-part.html
Vianu, Lidia, “Desperado Literature”, www.lidiavianu.scriptmania.com/david_lodge.htm


* The image of the mute, a device used to soften the tone of stringed or brass instruments, is also figured out by the crossed and jagged letters of the French title, resembling notes on a sheet music.

Cet article a été publié dans Etudes britanniques contemporaines, n° 38, juin 2010, pp. 91-100.