The Museum of Words: a memoir of language, writing and mortality
by Georgia Blain
Published August, 2017
‘…words, words, words on the page, as though I could somehow build a fortress to encase myself, a word structure so robust that I wouldn’t crumble’.
Georgia Blain, The Museum of Words
Georgia Blain began to write The Museum of Words shortly after undergoing surgery for removal of an aggressive, malignant tumour from the language centre in her brain. The tumour was incurable. Blain knew that, at best, she ‘wouldn’t last more than a couple of years’. She died thirteen months later, in December 2016. The Museum of Words, as its subtitle – ‘a memoir of language, writing, and mortality’ – signals, is less about dying than it is about the beauty, complexity and necessity of language. ‘Language’, Blain insists, ‘is at the core of our being. The way in which we express ourselves is inextricably linked to who we are and how others see us.’ Blain expresses herself with a decided absence of sentimentality or self-pity. Her valedictory memoir is a celebration of the lives of four women, their relationships with each other and with language and writing. It is also a love letter to three of those women, to her life partner Andrew Taylor and to her own writing life.
Blain had noticed a slippage in her linguistic ability even before her diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme. But she had been under considerable stress. Her revered mother, the writer and broadcaster Anne Deveson, was suffering from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, eventually succumbing to a catastrophic loss of language. Just a fortnight before Blain’s diagnosis her mother had been settled into a nursing home. Two weeks before that, Blain’s beloved friend and mentor, the writer and activist Rosie Scott, had been delivered the very same diagnosis. Astoundingly, Scott’s tumour was also in the language centre of her brain. Throughout the sadness, shock and upheaval, Blain was completing the final edits on what was to become Between a Wolf and a Dog; a novel that charts, among other things, the final day in the life of a mother who is dying of brain cancer. The fourth woman in this memoir is Blain’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Odessa.
Blain was ‘determined’ to write about her experience despite knowing that ‘[i]t is order that has been disarrayed’:
The filing cabinets in my brain, the ones that contained the building blocks of sentences were scrambled. I now had to hunt for the right clause, the right tense, whereas once they were all there, at my command, without having to think.
In a wryly amusing scene with an occupational therapist, she is reminded of how her mother hated the banal cognitive tests she was forced to undergo. Blain too wants to rail against the programmatic exercises. She comforts herself that even with her diminished vocabulary she is, like her mother before her, able to ‘duck and dart when the right word didn’t come to mind’.
Again and again, Blain reaches for known experiences as a way to cast her situation in a familiar light. She remembers Odessa’s ‘absolute panic’ when, as a lonely fifteen-year-old exchange student in Belgium, she had to write an essay in French ‘on the definition of philosophy’ and felt that she had ‘no way to articulate her thoughts’. Perhaps there may be something useful in understanding how personality and expression are affected when speaking, thinking or writing in translation. She muses that Beckett, Conrad and Nabokov chose to write in a language other than their native tongue. She is interested in the ways in which Jhumpa Lahiri, surrendering her first language, English, to write solely in Italian, found the constraint exciting: ‘She was learning to write again… to innovate’. A parallel appears with her predicament: ‘It is like taking a journey. In an unfamiliar environment, your senses become alert again.’ Lahiri was recently asked if writing in Italian changes the act of writing. Her response maps beautifully onto Blain’s tone: ‘I think, see, and feel differently in Italian. I say things more simply but also more directly’.
Blain has long been intrigued by the ways in which writers have embraced forms of constraint. Her first published short story — inspired by Georges Perec — stemmed from a self-imposed restriction to write a narrative without using the letter ‘e’. As a teacher she set her students similar exercises. Now, she refuses to buckle under the far greater, unwanted, constraints imposed upon her.
Her reminiscences about Odessa’s first forays into language — largely the parroting of animal sounds — facilitates a discussion about another of Blain’s longstanding preoccupations: the relationship between language and silence. In her powerful and haunting novel Names for Nothingness (2004), Caitlin, a deeply intuitive and preternaturally calm child, does not speak until she is four. When she does, she asks her mother’s partner why people use words. She struggles with his replies, unable to grasp why words are necessary for expressing feelings or needs. Ultimately, she asks: ‘“Can you not want anything? … Like me … Before I talked”.’
Blain, now acutely aware of the vital and complex role language plays in communication, canvasses a range of experiments, performed largely on animals, that investigate the innate and learned capabilities of language. She takes comfort in her conclusion that language ‘is a living entity, beautiful, fluid, and so remarkable in its adaptability’. Crushingly, in the course of the narrative, both Rosie and Anne lose the ability to speak. Yet the women do find some comfort and communication through touch and song.
As a child, the young Georgia craved her mother’s bedtime stories. In her earlier memoir, Births Deaths Marriages: true tales (2008), she describes their evening ritual when Anne would craft yet another story about a girl ‘just like me’:
‘And then what happened?’ I would ask as the girl in the story separated from the girl in the bed, and that is what I loved: the tension between effecting this separation, yet maintaining a connection with my own life as the story reached out into fantasy while still finding a hook upon which to curl a tendril in the world that surrounded us.
Little wonder that Blain was ‘absorbed…totally’ by Karl Ove Knausgård’s epic My Struggle. I suspect she would have read James Wood’s exchange with Knausgård, published in the Paris Review in 2014, with interest and, in parts, affirmation. Speaking about Paul Celan, and the power of visual art and poetry to communicate, Knausgård says:
I try to imagine a world without words, a world without language, and the world collapses. It’s nothing. It’s chaos. Language is the thing that makes the world, and it’s the thing that makes the world disappear.
I suspect also that Blain might have agreed with Wood’s response: ‘One difficulty I have with a certain kind of Anglophone fiction is precisely that there are too many words easily at hand, that language isn’t put under enough pressure.’
Blain was able to write only under the most stringent circumstances. In the morning, assisted by meditation, steroids and two strong coffees, she could carve out an hour to find and assemble the appropriate words. As she edits the previous day’s work, she is ‘dismayed to see how convoluted and strained’ her expression becomes near the end of the hour. After that, nothing makes much sense: ‘It is like the cotton in the branches of the cottonwood trees … Each spring this cotton forms, floating away on the breeze, wafting, insubstantial, and always so maddeningly out of reach.’
Back in 2000 the historian Inga Clendinnen published Tiger’s Eye, a memoir in which she narrates, seemingly in real time, much of the physical and psychological ordeals she underwent while critically ill with Active Auto-Immune Hepatitis. As Clendinnen’s liver failed her body and mind were flooded with toxins, causing her memory to disintegrate and her vocabulary to turn ‘into a scree-slope’. Writing years later, with a need to articulate the terrifying experience of the withdrawal of language, Clendinnen observes:
to try to understand any of this by transforming inchoate, unstable emotion and sensation into marks on paper is to experience the abyss between fugitive thought, and the words to contain it.
In a somewhat similar vein, Blain describes her darkest moments thus: ‘I do well for weeks at a time, and then I come undone. I am on the brink of an abyss so dark and deep I cannot breathe.’ Yet she always claws her way back:
Time and time again, writing is my lifeline, the rope that I use, inch by inch, word by word. It is the way in which I forget myself, even though I am writing about myself. Some days, I feel it is the means by which I am keeping myself alive, escaping the death sentence of this illness for another day.
In The Museum of Words Blain states categorically that she has ‘always wanted to be a writer.’ With joy she recalls cracking the code of letters, learning to read, making up and writing down stories. Writing has been the way she has understood herself and her world; it has been the touchstone of her identity. In Births Deaths Marriages she recounts that having struggled as a new mother and reached a point where she was wracked with ‘terror and anxiety about loss of self’, she knew it was essential that she return to writing because only through writing could she make herself whole.
On diagnosis Blain knew that she had made an irrevocable boundary crossing; she ‘was leaving the world…never really being able to join the living again’. She was ‘fascinated’ by her predicament. She wanted to write in order to ‘try and pin down this strange new planet that I had found myself in—the land of the walking dead’. In the early weeks she penned over 20,000 words. They were raw, ‘awash with sorrow and grieving’, unpublishable.
She changed tack, surrendering the idea of a journal, and wrote instead a series of monthly columns titled ‘The Unwelcome Guest’ for the Saturday Paper in which she fearlessly interrogated herself, her prognosis, and her challenges. Charlotte Wood rightly describes these columns as being ‘incandescent with truth and power’, noting that Blain’s ‘deepest scrutiny is of herself but as with all the best writing [she] turns outward, speaking of broader things: meditation, euthanasia, fear, the meaning of language, of vulnerability.’ That self-scrutiny, coupled with unflinching honesty, was also why she stopped writing for the paper. She grew tired of the need to polish and shape her experiences into neat and palatable stories. She refused to ‘sell’ a less than honest version of herself and she most certainly did not want to be defined by her illness. In the memoir, she mentions moments of crisis in spare single line paragraphs: ‘The mental battle is extraordinary.’ ‘I regularly buckle under the weight of uncertainty.’
Some critics have noted, and praised, the way in which Blain’s struggle on the page is at times palpable. Her friend and fellow writer Tegan Bennett Daylight observes:
I had the sense as I read of the writer on the spine of a bare hill. She makes her way carefully across a sentence with the concentration of someone who might lose her balance and has nowhere to fall.
One of the many triumphs of this memoir is its structure. It opens with ‘Looking back…’, and concludes with a statement of gratitude for life. In between those moments, we journey through a multitude of lives, books, ideas, theories and emotions.
Blain recalls once attending a course in scriptwriting taught by ‘a Joseph Campbell devotee’ who seemed to believe that all writing could be reduced to simple formula. When asked to name a script for a film that ‘defied the hero’s journey’, she couldn’t. She explains that as a writer she has found herself ‘growing ever more frustrated by the need for plot … What interests me more is mood, or character, or setting, and I want the plot to be woven in artfully, almost invisible, a narrative drive humming underneath, propelling us forward.’ The Museum of Words is structured in this manner. Blain offers a potted critique of Vladimir Propp’s analysis and categorisation of Russian folk tales into thirty-one narratemes. She acknowledges the truth of what he identifies as sequential steps towards an effective plot. She accepts that she is ‘in the third sphere of Propp’s morphology’, where the hero is challenged, responds to the test, reaches a destination and defeats the villain, then comes to some resolution or at least a partial understanding about the initial misfortune. She feels the force of such a narrative trajectory, but she does not want to tell this tale: ‘I have so many other stories to tell, and I hope to keep weaving words and language into new structures’.
Blain resists unfurling her narrative in linear time. For example, reflection on how the toddler Odessa crafted stories slides into commentary on her own narrative experimentation. She then traverses narrative theory and delves into Greek myth. She constructs her own version of the Persephone and Demeter tale, touches on the ways in which Anne’s deterioration and her own seizure have placed them in Hades, and moves on to Odessa’s explanations on the finer points of French grammar.
She switches seamlessly between the continuous past tense and the present: ‘Andrew was in the front seat next to the ambulance driver… I tried to laugh… I couldn’t utter a sound’; ‘As I type this I am aware that I have reached my limit’. Elsewhere time is marked by the medical scans that track her illness, or, more beautifully, the seasons. When Blain had her first seizure, she ‘collapsed on a bed of jacaranda and flame-tree blossoms’. Writing in winter when ‘[c]urled-up fronds littered the dying lawn, and the garden became winter-bare, the ground traced with wheat-coloured grass runners, stark branches against the impossibly blue sky’, she dreads the return of the ‘lilac and coral-red’ blossoms. In these descriptions Blain enacts her belief that vocabulary is a ‘gorgeous paint box of so many different hues’.
Blain remembers the time she told Odessa ‘that writing was the only activity in which I could forget time, and when you forget time, you forget mortality’. Now writing allows her to forget she has a terminal illness: ‘I become so absorbed in the words, every one of them, and the layering, the structure, the balance.’ She casts herself as a Scheherazade figure, believing that writing will save, or at the very least prolong, her life.
And it is writing more than reading that she needs. She eschews reading Cory Taylor’s brilliant Dying: A Memoir, likewise Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude. She skims Tom Lubbock’s Until Further Notice I am Alive, but cannot bear to read the latter pages where his language fragments. She identified too closely with Lubbock, yet another writer who battled glioblastoma multiforme with a primary tumour in his language centre. Lubbock’s memoir—crafted from journal entries, emails, notes and letters—is never as fluid or complexly structured as The Museum of Words.
As a four-year-old Odessa asked, ‘How fast is the speed of life?’ The question, Andrew explains in the Foreword, ‘took on a whole new meaning watching Georgia’s mother’s rapid decline with Alzheimer’s, and Georgia’s demise’. Anne’s story features strongly throughout this memoir. Previously, in Births Deaths Marriages, Blain wrote about realising how much she ‘circumscribed her mother, making her incapable of thinking or feeling beyond the limited orbit of me, the child’. Both this memoir and, in a different yet perhaps more powerful way, Between a Wolf and a Dog celebrate her mother’s individuality and achievements. The novel, Blain now realises, ‘was very much informed by Anne’s mortality. It was my love story to her.’
Susan Wyndham points out that Anne’s decline in The Museum of Words ‘is marked by Blain’s dismantling of her vast home library’. As the house is prepared for sale, Odessa and Andrew take some books, others are put out on the street, but there remain ‘at least four or five thousand … in those floor-to-ceiling shelves that lined her work room’. In Births Deaths Marriages Blain, thinking about the difficult family dynamics of her teenage years, mused that albums of happy photographs ‘provide a record of one layer of our lives, but there is always so much more, and it swims, shimmering beneath the surface, glittering with all the inherent contradictions of who we are, the changes that time brings, the very elusiveness of a life slipping through our fingers’. It is significant, therefore, that Blain mentions her final act in readying Anne’s house for public viewing. She decorated a corkboard with a collage of photos from Anne’s life: dogs, children, grandchildren, family holiday snaps. And felt as though she was ‘creating a museum of happiness’.
One hour before her surgery Blain finished reading the fourth of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. She feels like she ‘wasted the last book’, but also appreciates that ‘it was the whole project that mattered, not the end’. Such statements belie the careful structure of this memoir. Twice Blain insists unapologetically that she has written one story, her life, over and over again: ‘As I look back on my work, I know that so much of what I have written is about the intricacies of family relationships; about distrust; guilt; corrosive anger; dependency.’
Blain was encouraged by Odessa to read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Thrilled by the rage and power of each novel’s closing scene she states: ‘I will love a book forever if the final pages mark my subconscious.’ Blain chooses to end her narrative after another seizure, ‘the beginning of the decline’, while she, Anne and Rosie are all still alive. In language reminiscent of her earlier description of family photos, she hopes to live long enough to edit the memoir to ensure that it offers ‘a precise but shimmering picture’ of what she hopes to represent. ‘This miniature’, she concludes, ‘is my life in words’. More than that, it is a ‘museum’ of words. A museum collects, preserves, organises and displays things of value and interest, always with an eye to the future. In choosing her title Blain, in a sense, defies any sense of an ending.
In the Foreword, Andrew explains the final editing process. A filmmaker, he pays tribute to Blain’s editor, Marika Webb-Pullman, for performing the ‘fine cut’ on the manuscript. Photographs were inserted into the original manuscript, all of which add texture and poignancy to the narrative: the luminescent image of a seven-year-old Blain writing; the title page of her story written when thirteen complemented by a paragraph of Odessa’s first published story; each parent reading to baby Odessa; the lives, careers and friendships of all four women; glimpses of the hospital corridors.
For me, one photograph stands out from the others. It is the image of Anne Deveson’s starkly vacated work room. The magnificent bookshelves are bare, the desk cleared, the chair empty. And yet there is a shaft of brilliant light that rises toward the patterned ceiling. The photograph speaks simultaneously of loss and plenitude, an end and a beginning. Those thousands of books have gone out into the world. Some are gone forever, but others have found and will continue to find readers. I am reminded of the recurrent theme of Derrida’s farewells to his great friends Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-François Lyotard and Maurice Blanchot: That the death of a cherished writer initiates a conversation and becomes a time of reading and thinking.
Georgia Blain died in December 2016, two days before turning 52. Anne died on Georgia’s birthday, and Rosie in May 2017.
Bennett Daylight, Tegan. ‘In praise of Georgia Blain and her final words’. The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 August 2017.
Blain, Georgia. Births Deaths Marriages: true tales. North Sydney: Vintage, 2008.
– Names for Nothingness. Sydney: Picador, 2004.
Clendinnen, Inga. Tiger’s Eye: A Memoir. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2000.
Derrida, Jacques. The Work of Mourning. edited by Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003 (2001).
Diski, Jenny. In Gratitude. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Knausgård, Karl Ove and James Wood. ‘Writing My Struggle: An Exchange’. Paris Review 211, Winter 2014
Leyshon, Cressida. ‘Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing in Italian’. The New Yorker, 22 January 2018.
Lubbock, Tom. Until Further Notice I am Alive. London: Granta Books, 2012.
Taylor, Cory. Dying: a memoir. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016.
Wood, Charlotte. ‘Remembering Between a Wolf and a Dog author Georgia Blain’. The Saturday Paper 140, 24 December 2016- 27 January 2017.
Wyndham, Susan. ‘Blain’s Museum of Words: A Memoir of Language, Writing, and Mortality’. The Australian, 26 August, 2017.