SPEECHLESS by Tom Lanoye


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Nine years after its original appearance in Belgium, the most celebrated work from Flemish writer Lanoye (Fortunate Slaves, 2015, etc.) makes its dazzling North American debut.

Josée Lanoye—the author's mother—was a butcher's wife, an enthusiastic amateur actress, a mother of five...and a woman fiercely loquacious and nimble-tongued. Her literary-veteran son, author of more than 50 works, imagined that his prose tribute to her "would scarcely need a writer. It would compose itself, through the energy of its core." But that hope proved a vain one, and Lanoye's autobiographical novel puts the anguished labor of doing his mother justice front and center, with a long, digressive (and delightful) section about the difficulty of beginning. After a stroke at 80, Josée was left severely aphasic—unable to speak coherently, with only noises and gestures and a few snippets from foreign tongues (like the English "a little") to work with—and unable to return home to live with her husband. Lanoye's book is exuberantly maximalist, often comic, as he describes his childhood home, his siblings and colorful neighbors, and, above all, his parents. Lanoye's father features prominently and charmingly, but as Lanoye remarks, one can leave one's fatherland; what's inescapable is the mother tongue. His eulogy for Josée takes the form of a hymn to her as the wellspring of his love of language; everywhere, and poignantly, Lanoye conflates mother and mother tongue. "Literature is letting go," he writes in that first section, trying to psych himself up for the task. "Writing is dispelling." But first Josée's spirit must be invoked and anatomized and lamented and celebrated.

A playful, touching, and verbally extravagant memoir-novel of grief.

Pub Date: Nov. 6th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-64286-006-1
Page count: 360pp
Publisher: World Editions
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2018


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