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Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, By Tom Lubbock

Why we must think before we speak

Tom Lubbock had his own language. Although most of his writing was as a critic, art, for Lubbock, was a response to life, and so the language he used to write about art was also the language with which he examined living. It was an important subject, and it called for plain speaking – not the affected plainness of blimey-criticism, but genuine simplicity, the kind you can only have if you know all the big words (Lubbock read philosophy at Cambridge) and choose not to use them.

I am conscious, in reviewing his book Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, of avoiding easy hyperbole, which Lubbock hated. So I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that life and language were more vitally entwined for him than they are for most people, that judgement and the mot juste went more closely together. And as with his living, so his dying.

As he began to die of a brain tumour in the summer of 2008, the first signs of what was happening to him were linguistic: Lubbock's cancer was in the part of the brain that deals with language. His reaction to the loss of words – sporadic at first, then faster and more consistent – was to find the right words to describe it. The result is Until Further Notice, published posthumously (Lubbock died, aged 53, in January 2011) with an introduction by his wife, the artist Marion Coutts.

At the heart of this book is a paradox that intrigued Lubbock as a philosopher: how do you find words to describe their loss? He reached, instinctively, for the language of criticism. "We occupy a limited patch of space for a limited stretch of time," he wrote in the month of his diagnosis, being less fatalistic than precise. "Pictures hold an equivalent in the confined areas which they enframe, the brief narratives or actions they represent."

Life and words being one, Lubbock measures the diminution of the first by the failing of the second. "To test myself, I read aloud a passage that I'd just written in an article. There were probably several glitches, but I could only pin down one. When I read the word 'weightlessly', I said it as 'walterkly'. To be sure that it was a mistake ... I had to construct it phoneme by phoneme."

The night before a dangerous operation to reduce his tumour, he wrote to his son, who was then not quite two. In what might have been their last communication, Lubbock bequeaths the boy a language memory of his own, of Eugene looking at a toy car in his hand and then in a film his mother has just made and saying "Same".

In the end, with the last words he could write, Eugene's father found an unexpected answer to the paradox of this book, and of his life. "My thoughts, when I look at the world are vast, limitless and normal, same as they ever were," he writes. "My experience of the world is not made less by lack of language but is essentially unchanged." Then, after a Lubbock pause, "This is curious."

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