An unheard-of surprise

Hayley Campbell reviews Gerald Shea's <em>Song Without Words</em>.

Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life
Gerald Shea
£17.99, 320pp. Da Capo Press.

“What matters deafness of the ear, when the mind hears.” – Victor Hugo

When I met Gerald Shea I was painfully conscious of sound. The book launch had been going for two hours, I had arrived late and – after loudly thanking the coat-check lady and trip-trapping my old Cuban heels across highly polished porcelain tiles – found that his speech was already well underway in the carpeted quiet room of the posh Chelsea house. There were glowers, stares, and the overwhelming cloud of expensive perfume hit me with such force it was near audible. I choked. Shea on his pedestal, mid-speech, never wavered. Jokes. Applause. Shea’s recently published memoir laid in piles next to him in a room so quiet I could hear the fabric of a suit as two legs were crossed twelve feet away.

His is a story of a life that could have been completely different, perhaps un-memoir-worthy, had he only known one thing: that he was deaf. By the time he found out he had already made it through Harvard and Yale and became a successful lawyer. He was not profoundly deaf, but partially; not from birth, but the age of 5, when a bout of scarlet fever ravaged the epithelial cells in the lower part of the cochlea, the most complex and vulnerable component of the ear. Most vowels and some consonants disappeared from his world. Before their absence was discovered in a routine test in his mid-30s, he put his failure to understand things down to an intellectual defect rather than aural: he thought he heard the same things that other people heard and they were just better at understanding, that he was slow – a fraud in the world of academia. Girlfriends told him he was a bad listener and left him. They were technically entirely correct. If only he’d listened.

His story is like something straight out of Ira Glass’ radio show, This American Life – one of those episodes where the music stops on the crucial soundbite where our hero says “and I never knew” and makes you cry on the bus. How different would his life had been, what would he have done instead of guzzling Mylanta for stress-related stomach ulcers while looking at his own exhausted face in the public bathroom and saying: “I wish I were dead”? Professionally, he would have done nothing differently – he would still be a lawyer. But he wouldn’t have had to quit in the end and break his own heart.

I’ve had little experience with the profoundly deaf aside from being the only hearing person at a deaf film festival. The crowd was inexplicably noisy: all the sounds that hearing people learn to stifle are there, unmuted. Everything is louder bar the applause, which is a visual jazz-hands style wave rather than anything audible. Sound doesn’t matter here. Being profoundly deaf gives you a separate world to belong to – one with a language entirely of its own – but sound is different in Shea’s world, where being partially deaf casts you adrift between two places, the hearing and the other. Said Shea: “We the partially deaf, are not as well off as those who sign, for we have to combine our dual paths of understanding, our eyes and our ears, to get the message in a medium in which we are not at home.” Everything moves slower in the in-between, where brainpower is devoted to tasks unnatural to it.

In her Harper's Magazine article in 1954 the American writer Sylvia Wright coined a term for the things that Shea would later call “lyricals”. As a child she had misheard a line of the ballad, The Bonny Earl O'Moray: “laid him on the green” had become “and Lady Mondegreen”. She said: “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.” Reading Shea’s book you can’t help but agree with her. Lyricals commonly happen to the hearing in the form of song lyrics: kiss this guy, Alex the seal, and, less commonly, a man I know was genuinely confused for an entire childhood as to what could possibly be romantic about the warts on the knees of a woman. He figured it was something he’d understand when he got older when females were no longer an alien species (as it turns out, the wants and the needs of a woman are still as mysterious to him as the warts on their knees). Shea might hear the lyrical “This is summer’s wilting youth in a Moma” where others would hear “Mrs. Sommer will see you in a moment.” Lee Marvin’s line in the old film Bad Day at Black Rock, “You gotta big mouth, boy – makin’ accusations of disturbin’ the peace” went into Shea’s head as: “You gotta big mouth, boy – makin’ of today a song of second peace.” Infinite possibilities for poetry and beauty and Edward Lear-ish nonsense lie in the most mundane of daily sentences.

These “lyricals” were how Shea lived his life and studied, too, in a language all of his own: taking notes in lectures (to him, verbatim) and, later, in important legal meetings. He was “freezing the lyricals in time and figuring them out” or in other words: deciphering them late into the night instead of sleeping, slowly killing his relationships and himself.

The book is not his just his own history but also that of the profoundly deaf and partially deaf throughout the ages: he talks about Juan Pablo Bonet in the Middle Ages attempting to make mutes speak simply by forbidding sign language; Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian, the first hearing teachers of French sign language in the 19th century; and Helen Keller being made to learn the cumbersome art of fingerspelling instead of her own language of mime. It’s a history of how people find a way – their own way – when one (or more) sense is gone.

Toward the end of the launch I got to speak to Shea, a thoroughly polite and deliberately spoken American man called Gerry who now lives in Paris with his French wife. He wears hearing aids, and as long as you speak to him face-on there is no miscommunication. He talks briefly about hearing birdsong for the first time, the tinnitus locusts in his head replaced by something outside of it: in short, the book spiel, the jacket copy. But then he looked wistful and told me about hearing “the sound of [his] own piss in the john” for the first time. I later wonder why he didn’t put it in the book given it was his most relatable example of hearing loss so far. A lifetime not knowing that piss had a sound?

Humans communicate. It’s not second nature, it’s nature. Without that, what is it like to be human? Shea’s Song Without Words is as eloquent an answer as we are likely to get.

A plate from Gray's Anatomy. Photograph: Getty Images

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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