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Distributed for Reaktion Books

Speaking East

The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Speaking East

The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou

A vibrant account of both the sensuous cultural scene of postwar Paris and the life of an alluring icon of modern art.
Isidore Isou was a young Jew in wartime Bucharest who barely survived the Romanian Holocaust. He made his way to Paris, where, in 1945, he founded the avant-garde movement Lettrism, described as the missing link between Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, and May ’68. In Speaking East, Andrew Hussey presents a colorful picture of the postwar Left Bank, where Lettrist fists flew in avantgarde punch-ups in Jazz clubs and cafés, and where Isou—as sexy and as charismatic as the young Elvis—gathered around him a group of hooligan disciples who argued, drank, and had sex with the Parisian intellectual élite. This is a vibrant account of the life and times of a pivotal figure in the history of modern art.

324 pages | 7 color plates, 30 halftones | 6 1/4 x 9 1/4

Art: Art--Biography

Biography and Letters

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"Riveting. . . . Isou remains the least well-known of the major avant-gardists of the twentieth century. Following upon a major retrospective held at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2019, Hussey’s rich biography aims to correct that oversight, providing an engaging, readable narrative of Isou’s multiple dimensions and sprawling ambitions."

Los Angeles Review of Books

"This fascinating biography, by an author extremely well-versed in Parisian cultural life (see Hussey’s book on Guy Debord, The Game of War), traces the turbulent life of a difficult man, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust to become 'a theoretician of utopia,' with all its follies and splendors. Isou and the Lettrists are still little known and barely translated in this country—an omission which Speaking East, successfully, seeks to redress."

Jon Savage | New Statesman

"As Hussey puts it in his enthralling new biography, Isou is 'grandiose, exasperating, self-regarding, brilliant, piercing, and poetic, often all in the space of the same page.'"

Literary Review

"Hussey’s beguiling biography, Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou, delivers a long and lush cultural cache that sympathetically—but also critically—conveys at last the complete story of the indefatigable Romanian-French theorist, poet, painter, filmmaker, playwright, Left Bank megalomaniac intellectual, and rogue avant-gardist of avant-gardists; Isidore Isou. Hussey’s painstakingly researched writing here is masterfully performed and informed. . . . This book is a vivid tour de force of readable precision—and a must have for art historians of late-Modernism and/or early-Conceptualism."

Whitehot Magazine

"Hussey is an engaging raconteur and his biography of Isou is a fine companion to his earlier work. . . . In Speaking East, Hussey points out that Isou is 'endlessly elusive,' a biographical subject who is 'full of contradictions, truths and untruths.' And while Hussey succeeds in capturing 'something of his extraordinary voice, his ideas, and his art,' the book raises some questions about the biographer’s role. In the process of capturing Isou’s voice, Hussey slips into the role of the omniscient biographer, who claims to know the inner workings of his subject: what he was thinking, when, and why. It’s a technique, however, that succeeds; Isou emerges as a complex, dark, and charismatic figure, whose brief ascendance in the world of the postwar avant-garde is documented with panache."

Review 31

"Like Antonin Artaud before him, Isou lived his art. He also paid the price for it. In Hussey’s account he emerges as a man always on the brink. As his disciples betrayed him and his movement disintegrated, so too did his mind... Hussey writes kindly about this chapter of Isou’s life, without romanticising Isou’s illness or naively criticising psychiatry..."

London Review of Books

“Isou’s life is at once tragic and farcical: a whirling reprise of all of the twentieth century’s artistic avantgardes played out against the backdrop of Paris’s Left Bank in its heyday. Hussey is the ideal chronicler, and his biography, with its exuberant prose, both channels Isou’s restless creativity and positions it within the main currents of postwar French thought. Essential reading.”

Will Self, author of "The Quantity Theory of Insanity" and "Umbrella"

"A sympathetic account of an extraordinary life. Hussey has the depth of historical understanding necessary to do justice both to Isidore Isou’s glamorous, sometimes absurd, life as a hero of the Left Bank and to the horrors of the Romanian Holocaust he had escaped. This is an expertly told story about Paris, Europe, and the interplay of private passion and public trauma."

Sebastian Faulks, author of "Birdsong"


Isidore Isou was not his real name. He was born on 29 January 1925 with the name Ion-Isidor Goldstein in the city of Botoşani in northeast Romania. His mother affectionately called him Izu, the Romanian-Jewish form of his name, which he precociously adopted as his avant-garde nom de guerre when he moved to Bucharest when still an adolescent. In his use of an alias, he was following in the footsteps of another Jew from the same region of Romania. This was Samuel Rosenstock from the town of Moineşti, who had renamed himself Tristan Tzara and had come from this eastern outpost of Europe and conquered Dada and the Parisian avant-gardes in the 1920s. For a long time, Tzara was possibly the greatest man alive to the young Isou.
For most of his life Isidore Isou refused to even mention Romania by name. He gives, however, a vivid and intense account of his early life there in his first book L’Agrégation d’un nom et d’un messie (The Making of a Name, a Messiah). This astonishing work was published by Éditions Gallimard in the prestigious collection of the Nouvelle Revue Française on Isou’s arrival in Paris in 1947, when he was only 22 years old.
In this book, the country of Isou’s birth is never specified; it is only ever an inward-looking backwater – ‘a small, insignificant country without culture’. The same applied to the Romanian language, which Isou spoke fluently and which he scorned as a provincial dialect, ‘a language with its feet cut off by customs officers.’
As we spoke, I realized that nothing about Isou could be taken at face value or on trust. He was endlessly elusive, as you might expect from someone whose earliest hero had been Luigi Pirandello, the Italian writer whose characters are always changing, undoing or identifying with the text at will, and apparently at random. One of the first difficulties of reading Isou, therefore, is to work out how much is true and how much is invented. Isou was always full of contradictions, truths and untruths.
The same applies to his life as well as his art. To give just one example, having later claimed a conversion to Catholicism, he never spoke about his Jewish background to the staunchly middle-class Catholic family of his wife and indeed observed all the rites of the Catholic Church with reverence. At the same time, during this period he was talking to his psychiatrist incessantly about Israel, Jews and Jewishness. His work is almost always deeply imprinted with Jewish themes. We will never know whether the tales of Irina Galia or Bif, as recounted in L’Agrégation, are real or simply fantasies within fantasies. Similarly, Isou at first did not classify this early work as either an autobiography or a work of philosophy. Finally, he decided it was philosophy.
For all the reasons cited above, a critical biography of Isou is a daunting task. But it is not impossible. What I have sought to do is make a portrait of Isou, trying to capture something of his extraordinary voice, his ideas and his art, and thus his true place in the history of the twentieth
For all of his trickery, Isou’s work is rooted in reality. One of the most powerful, and overlooked, aspects of L’Agrégation as well as other later works is how so much of Isou’s writing, especially about Romania, is a true document of his life and era, a precise eyewitness account of the destruction of the Jewish world of Romania. His writings describe a coming of age in a place that was once paradise but has now become hell on earth.
Isou is physically attacked, made to work in a forced labor camp, keeps trying to escape, is caught up in massacres, and all the time hears rumors of the terrible slaughter of Jews in the north of Romania. Many of the names used in L’Agrégation, whether Romanian or Jewish, belong to real people – Jewish journalists, writers, landlords, shopkeepers. This is history, described in real time; a history that only now is being properly excavated by historians in Romania and elsewhere. This is why Isou’s ‘autobiography’ plays such an important role in the first part of this book: my focus has been to uncover what really happened to Isou, and his role in the era.

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