I enjoyed both David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence and Penelope Lively’s Cleopatra’s Sister. Both take what turns out to be a deceptively light tone to explore ideas that are actually quite serious and interesting.
Deaf Sentence lures us in with the funny side of deafness, particularly the misunderstandings, frustrations, and mishaps that arise from Desmond Bates’s attempts to carry on as if he can hear what someone says. Drawing on his own experience, Lodge is very specific about the technical options available to those struggling with hearing loss, including about their inconveniences and shortcomings. But as he remarks early on, deafness is not, really, very funny, and even as he points to the greater pathos conventionally attached to blindness, he frequently invokes the suffering of famous “deafies” including Philip Larkin and, of course, Beethoven, to illustrate the deprivation and isolation that follows from losing one’s connection with the sounds of the world. There are a lot of pretty lame puns (of the “deaf in Venice” variety), but the wry chuckles they invite also prove a kind of trickery, as the most common slippage is between “deaf” and “death,” and that relationship turns out to be the central one in the novel: death is, after all, our ultimate “sentence,” the ultimate end to conversation and relationships. Everything comic in it thus becomes infused with tragic potential: as we age, the novel incessantly reminds us, we lose things–our hearing, our coordination, our minds, control over our bodies, our friends and families, ourselves. There’s nothing really very funny about any of that. As Desmond concludes, “‘Deafness is comic, blindness is tragic,’ I wrote earlier in this journal, and I have played variations on the phonetic near-equivalence of ‘deaf’ and ‘death,’ but now it seems more meaningful to say that deafness is comic and death is tragic, because final, inevitable, and inscrutable.” The novel, then, explores the uneasy borderland between the comic and the tragic, or perhaps the uncomfortable proximity between the two (the most slapstick comedy depends on the wince of pain, after all). Deafness functions as a comic device, but also as a metaphor for our inevitable isolation from other people, which culminates in death:
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.
Philip Larkin [ Desmond reflects], the bard of timor mortis.
Deaf Sentence is not, I think, an altogether successful novel. Its various parts did not feel well integrated. The apparent main line of the plot, for instance, about the wacky graduate student with her morbid project on linguistic analysis of suicide notes, leads to some funny scenarios. But as the rest of the novel, especially the decline of Desmond’s father, took on substance, I had trouble understanding what she really contributed. Like many of Desmond’s little set pieces about contemporary life, technology, and politics, the trip to Auschwitz seemed more like something Lodge himself wanted to say than something that had to be in the novel. Of course, the Auschwitz excursion is relevant to the theme (if that’s the right word) of death, but its gravitas seemed excessive for the rest of the book, though I thought Lodge’s writing during that section was among the best in the novel–strong, spare, and evocative, whereas much of the rest of the novel is a bit too prosy and self-indulgently academic (the academic narrator / protagonist can take the blame, of course, as all this is in character, but still…).
Overall, though, I appreciate that this novel is about something. I’ve been thinking lately (for another project) about David Masson’s line that “the desirable arrangement might be either that our novelists were philosophers, or that philosophers were our novelists” (and, as a contrast, Henry James’s objection that in George Eliot’s fiction “the philosophical door is always open” and letting in a cooling draft). Events strung together do not make a great novel, though they may make a briefly entertaining one (take note, writers 0f popular historical fiction). It is much more rewarding, as a reader, to feel engaged with a view of the world and how we live in it, whether the emphasis is primarily ethical, aesthetic, political, or something else. Kazuo Ishiguro made a comment in an interview that I like a lot, about fiction being “an appeal for companionship in experiencing life,” with the author implicitly saying, “it’s like this, isn’t it? do you see it this way too?” You can agree or disagree, but either way, you’re in a good conversation. Lodge is not playing with any particularly obscure or profound ideas, I don’t think, but he’s trying to see and say something about where we stand in relation to other people, and what the inevitable end of our life means, or might mean, or should mean, for how we think about ourselves and how we act. In doing so through a (more or less) comic novel, perhaps he’s also suggesting we not take these problems too seriously, not so seriously, anyway, that they prevent us from enjoying life’s absurdities.
Cleopatra’s Sister is another novel thinking about things. In this case, Lively is preoccupied with the issue of contingency: why one thing and not another? She plays out variations on this theme elegantly across the different aspects of the novel, from the big evolutionary questions confronted by her paleontologist protagonist Howard Beamish, to the day-to-day incidents of chance that drive lives forward–Howard’s discovery of his first fossil, for instance, which turns out to initiate a life-long interest and thus his career. How far are we responsible for our own lives? is probably the novel’s central interest. Co-protagonist Lucy Faulkner, for instance, works hard to develop her credentials as a journalist, but many of her professional advances result from her being in the right place at the right time. If she seizes the moment, is it luck, or can she take credit for her success? What about all the “what ifs”? So many other things might have happened, if things had been just a little different, if somebody had made a different choice, even a minor one. The novel explores the randomness of life: every event is explicable, looking backwards (in this, Lively’s outlook resembles George Eliot’s version of determinism). But it is not predictable, looking the other way, a fact of which Howard and Lucy are repeatedly reminded, sometimes jarringly. The central episode of the plot, in which Howard and Lucy are among a group of British tourists taken hostage in the fictional country of Callimbia, is the ultimate example of the way events are formed by contingencies: the plane happens to have mechanical problems which happen to become urgent as they are closest to Callimbia, where, as it happens, there has just been a political coup (which, as we know from the interspersed chapters recounting the history of the imagined nation, is itself the outcome of a series of unlikely events). That both Howard and Lucy are on this particular plane is coincidental, or, more accurately, meaningless until later events give their meeting the aura of fate–or would, in a different novel. There is an inevitability about each step, and yet at every moment, it might have been otherwise.
Here, as in Moon Tiger, Lively is particularly interested in the way these moments are collected into histories, which give retrospective meaning because, in hindsight, we can see the steps that made a difference, that turned things in one direction or another. The juxtaposition of the Callimbia ‘history’ highlights this process (with due reference to the “Cleopatra’s Nose” theory of history), and also allows for some play on another theme familiar from Moon Tiger, which is the paradoxical relationship of unimportant individuals to the larger narratives of history. Lucy realizes at one point that all the ‘little’ people are the real stuff of which politics is made; this is true too of history, and yet most people live historical lives without knowing it. Thus Lucy and Howard’s chance experience of the political chaos and violence of Callimbia is also a reminder to them that they do not live outside of history: that their own lives can, for instance, become part of something Lucy might write a feature article about, or end without leaving descendents, like the fossil specimens Howard collects. I won’t spoil the ending–the second half of the novel becomes quite suspenseful, and as in Deaf Sentence, the comic potential of the set-up and the light handling of the prose leads us unwarily into much darker territory.
Next up: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, I think. [Update: What actually happened is that I picked up my copy of Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost to take a look and became totally engrossed; I actually stayed up much later than I should have last night because I couldn’t stop reading it, which is something I haven’t felt strongly for a while. It’s a remarkable book.]