"When the university merged his Department of English with Linguistics, Professor Desmond Bates took early retirement, but he is not enjoying it. He misses the routine of the academic year and has lost his appetite for research. His wife Winifred's late-flowering career goes from strength to strength, reducing his role to that of escort, while the rejuvenation of her appearance makes him uneasily conscious of the age gap between them. The monotony of his days is relieved only by wearisome journeys to London to check on his aged father who stubbornly refuses to leave the house he is patently unable to live in with safety. But these discontents are nothing compared to the affliction of hearing loss — a constant source of domestic friction and social embarrassment, leading Desmond into mistakes, misunderstandings and follies. It might be comic for others, but for the deaf person himself, it is no joke. It is his deafness which inadvertently involves Desmond with a young woman whose wayward behaviour threatens to destabilize his life completely."
You could be forgiven for thinking that Lodge was a one-trick pony: in taking the maxim of 'writing what you know' almost to an extreme, his experiences of Catholicism and academia are recurring themes in several of his books. It's perhaps therefore difficult at times to pinpoint exactly what keeps his readers coming back, and certainly this latest effort from Lodge takes time to gather momentum, due precisely to this repetition of themes. However, as the novel gathers pace, and readers become ever more drawn into his manipulation of character and plot, it is easier to see where Lodge's mastery lies. Arguably this is Lodge at his best, with more focus on the human situation and less on the lampooning of academia.
The novel's central themes of deafness and of life and death cleverly intertwine, right from the pun in the book's very title, which must make this a difficult piece of work for translators (something that the author acknowledges in the novel's dedication). However, while the tale of decline of the protagonist's father, and the sinister edge that is introduced by the bizarre Alex, one could say that this novel is less about death and more about life's multifarious peculiarities, though this would imply that the novel had an overriding message. It is more correct to say that it doesn't: it is affirmative, but not didactic, and rather than pushing an underlying moral, readers are left instead to make their own inferences.
As mentioned, too, Lodge focuses very precisely on the novel's human elements by zoning in on a small number of characters, rather than relying on the internal and complex politics of university departments, which perhaps allows the notion that this is among Lodge's more accessible works of fiction. It is stronger and more believable overall than The British Museum is Falling Down (in spite of the aforementioned slightly bizarre and macabre elements), and will without doubt reach a wider audience than Lodge's non-fiction works. Lodge is a visible and active member of the academic and literary communities already, and this novel only continues to cement his already laudable status.
Other works by David Lodge
The Picturegoers (1960)
Ginger You're Barmy (1962)
The British Museum is Falling Down (1965)
Out of the Shelter (1970)
Changing Places (1975)
How Far Can You Go? (1980)
Small World: An Academic Romance (1984)
Nice Work (1988)
Paradise News (1991)
The Man Who Wouldn't Get Up (1998)
Home Truths (1999)
Author, Author (2004)
First three Chapters....
8 years ago