Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics who lives with his second wife, "Fred," in a "northern" British town. He is becoming increasingly deaf, and, although he wears hearing aids (except when he doesn't), his social interactions--even those with Fred--are fraught with difficulty and occasional hilarious misunderstandings. His deafness is at the center of the novel, providing the title of this work of fiction, but also serving as an extended, often funny, but ultimately serious impetus to riff on aging, disability, and mortality. "Deafness is a kind of pre-death, a drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse" (19).

Bates is at loose ends. His wife is busy with her successful interior decorating business, his adult children live elsewhere. He considers himself a "house husband" and does not really enjoy it. His aged, widowed father insists on living alone in London although he cannot be trusted to take care of himself without endangering his life (such as starting a fire in the kitchen during meal preparation). Bates visits him dutifully once a month with a mixture of dread, obligation, and guilty relief when it is over.

Desmond's hearing difficulty and boredom set him up for an encounter with a female graduate student and its unexpected complications. She is working on a thesis about suicide. Their interaction is threaded throughout the book and drives the "plot," but the details of life with hearing impairment, loss of professional involvement and purpose, and coping with an old, stubborn parent who is slipping into dementia are the main events of this clever, well-written, entertaining novel. And along the way are witty commentaries on contemporary life. The link between the narrator's profession of linguistics and his difficulty hearing the spoken word are also significant.


On the Acknowledgments page, which appears at the end of the book, David Lodge notes that "the narrator's deafness and his Dad have their sources in my own experience" (293); the reader has guessed as much, especially with regard to being deaf, because the experience is so richly detailed and sympathetically rendered. Nor is deafness depicted as unrelentingly grim; quiet has its virtues -- "one is, as it were, naturally insulated from a lot of irritating or unpleasant environmental noise" (40) and one can more easily absent oneself from insipid conversation.
The narrator tells his story in the form of a journal.  The journal is written in both first and third person--as a way of experimenting, amusing himself, and gaining control of his situation. At first, the reader will be startled by this device, but Lodge pulls it off well, keeping the reader off balance. The journal begins on November 1 and ends on March 8, spanning the difficult holiday season. This provides opportunities for the author/narrator to explore subtle and not-so-subtle family tensions that come to the fore at such times.
Near the end of the narrative, Bates accepts a short speaking tour in Poland and, at the urging of his son, visits Auschwitz, which is accessible from Kraków where he is staying. The enormity of the suffering that took place there provides an opportunity for narrator Bates/author Lodge to place deafness and aging in perspective. "You could say that birth itself is a sentence of death -- I expect some glib philosopher has said it somewhere -- but it is a perverse and useless thought. Better to dwell on life, and try to value the passing time" (290).


Viking Penguin

Place Published

New York



Page Count