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Why the Silence?

Andrew Hodgson gets trapped in an unbreakable scream with Roland Topor.

Roland Topor is a relatively unknown figure in the anglo-sphere. A cursory google brings up an anemic Wikipedia page and the two of his novels affordably purchasable in English, The Tenant and Joko’s Anniversary.  A deeper click, to search results pages 12 and 13 and the cusp of the middle-internet and it is possible to find specialist horror forums discussing his work. However he has yet to enter the general literary milieu.

Born in Paris in 1938 and dying in that same city in 1997, Topor was primarily an artist and writer. Although in France he is regarded as a “latter-day Surrealist” for his films and illustrations, his work was given short shrift in Britain. As his stolid advocate and publisher John Calder writes in his obituary of Topor:

His play Vinci avait raison (“Leonardo was Right”) was a farcical comedy where a policeman and his wife invite a colleague and family to spend a weekend in their new house, where the lavatories are blocked … at a public reading at the Arts Theatre Club in London in English, not many of the audience waited for the end.

Calder goes on to explain that this out-and-out rejection of Topor is down to the simple fact that “few modern European writers are read in Britain these days”, although this assessment seems to me reductive.

Topor’s output was prolific: he wrote novels, short stories, and plays, and he painted, illustrated, instigated ‘happenings’ and directed and acted in film and television. Of his vast oeuvre four books are publicly available in English, the novels The Tenant and Joko’s Anniversary, a collection of stories and illustrations entitled Stories and Drawings and the well-received play Leonardo was Right. Perhaps more well-known is the Roman Polanski film version of The Tenant which apparently “infected” Primo Levi with the will to commit suicide a short time after viewing. You may also recognise, in the picture below, Renfield from Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht.

While the themes discussed in this essay are present in much of Topor’s work, I will refer largely to his two most accessible books, The Tenant and Joko’s Anniversary.

The Tenant begins without conceit: Trelkovsky is threatened with being thrown out on the street and must find a new apartment. He finds one under lease to a girl called Simone Choule. She is in a coma after attempting suicide. She soon dies and Trelkovsky gets the place. After moving in he slowly becomes convinced his neighbours are breaking him down, disintegrating his self to force him to take on Simone’s personality and then complete the cycle by murdering him. There is slippage between Trelkovsky’s identity and Simone’s until he becomes her, and is thrown out the window. He wakes from a coma where he sees himself as at the beginning of the story and lets out the “unbearable scream” that bookends the narrative.

And again in Joko’s Anniversary, the novel begins with dreary habitude: Joko has missed his alarm and is late for work. However on his way an old man jumps on his back offering Joko gold to become his human-horse, Joko refuses. At work his colleagues cajole him into accepting and appeasing the raft of rich ‘delegates’ that are in town and require human transportation in return for gold pieces. Joko becomes the best human-horse he can be until he bursts out in pink pustules and all seven delegates become attached to him. They constantly shout at him, beat him, torment him, torture him and eventually kill his family. In the act Joko’s parents finally kill the delegates. After which his body becomes the receptacle for the selves of all seven delegates and Joko; the delegates take control of the body and go on a chaotic killing spree. In a rare moment of self-control, Joko attempts suicide but does not achieve freedom, instead becoming the delegates’ immortally decaying tomb.

After “surrealist”, “horror” is the second most frequent lumpengenre applied to these two novels. But such labels seem inadequate; misapplied. There is nothing of the idealist in Topor, no dream, no fantastic rupture; the terror of his writing (and it is terrifying) emanates from its quotidian referentiality and possibility. Trelkovsky in The Tenant is just looking for a new flat; Joko of Joko’s Anniversary missed his alarm and is late for work. It is weird, maybe even precursory new weird, depending on how you wish to apply the term. The protagonists or “victims” of his narration have been plucked from silent inexistence and thrust into a cell of unbearable noise. The horrific episode that then befalls them is not derived from the introduction of some tentacular five-armed, split-tongued, horned octopus-beast, nor a nausea inducing absurdist keel, but from a shocking turn on the star of the show by the cast and crew.

This horror is drawn from Topor’s own experience of being arbitrarily separated from the flock. Topor, like his victims, did not attain otherness, but had it thrust upon him. The son of Polish-Jewish artist Abram Topor, during the French Vichy regime his family were denounced to the Gestapo by neighbours and colleagues because they were Jewish, or foreign, or had accents, or out of sheer civic-bloody-mindedness. Roland was smuggled out of Nazi Paris and went into hiding in Savoy. It is easy to forget that, for a time, there was a Nazi Paris. By the time he returned a new veneer had been applied. The regime of accumulation took hold and accelerated. As in his art and writing, in the blank everyday consumption of post-war Paris he saw a peaceful neutrality overlaying a deeply held bestiality. The same people who had tried to have him killed, and had countless others killed, he now swapped hollow smiles and “bonjours” with on the stairwell. The silence only barely hid the screams of the holocaust.

It is easy to see where Topor’s sense of alienation stems from; as his maxim goes: “live in the margins or die in the milieu”. While his Parisian contemporary Alain Robbe-Grillet was espousing a need to subjectify the new veneer in neo-Balzacian exhaustion, Topor’s victims seem to be entrapped by it; they have fallen through its cracks and come face to face with the horrific true character of modern man below. Too deep to return to the peace of the surface veneer, or the peace of inexistence, they are immortally trapped. Roland Topor’s writing is dark farce inhabited by lacunae; vampires, ghosts, cannibals and golems. It is scatological, shot through with grotesque carnival and coprophagia. These are works, as the jacket of the 1976 edition of The Tenant informs me, “of nightmare evil”, in which the victim fights to reclaim peace and silence but is caught in a perpetually spiralling “unbearable scream”.

It is on the same jacket that the oft repeated comparison with Kafka is made, and inside John Fowles is quoted as placing The Tenant in “the Kafka tradition”. Perhaps a permeating mood of alienation is shared by Topor and Kafka, but Kafka’s system of oppression is faceless; bureaucratic. There is always another department, another office, another corridor. In Topor the subject is forced to look into the eyes of his oppressor. This differs starkly not only from Kafka but from Topor’s contemporaries. While the likes of Robbe-Grillet and Georges Perec strove to emulate the new epoch of ‘administrative numbers’, Topor magnified the diminished significance of the self to grotesque proportions. It is from this loss of individual human significance that Topor derived a sense of horror and humour. It is here that a more striking contrast between Topor and Kafka lies, as can be seen in their differing treatment of death. For Kafka the realisation of death is a moment outside of the social structures that imprison the independent self, and death an escape from them. For example take Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis:

He recalled his family with sympathy and love. His own belief that he must go was if possible even firmer than his sister’s. He remained in this state of vacant and peaceable reflection … then, independently of his will, his head sank to the floor and his last breath streamed feebly from his nostrils

But for Topor death is yet another moment of appropriation as the corpse is objectified in a series of arcane religious rituals of mourning for the benefit of acquaintances, neighbours, colleagues; nouns Topor uses interchangeably with “enemy”. For the corpse to be immortalised in its decay by a stone slab, to be canonised in Tours, remembered in a long nullifying mass or for Joko to become the tomb itself is to remove the silent ‘nothing’ of death. Like the cannibalisation of holocaust victims’ body parts for soap, or pillow stuffing, the body is a commodity to be consumed. And, as Topor writes, the self along with it:

“At what precise moment,” Trelkovsky asked himself, “does an individual cease to be the person he – and everyone else – believes him to be? I have to have an arm amputated, all right. I say: myself and my arm. If both of them are gone, I say: myself and my two arms. If it were my legs it would be the same thing: myself and my legs. If they had to take out my stomach, my liver, my kidneys – if that were possible- I could still say: myself and my organs. But if they cut off my head? By what right does the head, which isn’t even a member like an arm or a leg, claim the title of ‘myself’? Because it contains the brain? But there are larvae and worms, and probably all sorts of things, that don’t possess a brain. What about creatures like those? Are there brains that exist somewhere, and say: myself and my worms?”

For Topor, the self and the body are a combined object that from the moment of birth is doomed to eternal appropriation like any other commodity. As Joko realises after multiple failed suicide attempts,

Death was a part of him, it both fed and consumed him, and it was death that made him immortal. He would always be disintegrating, forever tending towards nothingness without ever attaining it

This form of perpetual appropriation is borrowed from Georges Bataille. It is a system of constant consumption and excretion, the margin cannibalised by the milieu, the heterogeneous appropriated by the homogeneous. Throughout The Tenant Trelkovsky watches his neighbours enter his toilet yet not use it. He observes even his landlord who has his own toilet do the same without explanation until the end of the book, when one and then 30 of his neighbours kneel around the bowl and drag handfuls of his excretion out and consume it: “she plunged her hand into the toilet bowl, withdrew it filled with excrement and deliberately smeared it across her face”. In this he witnesses his own appropriation, and by the conclusion of both novels Trelkovsky and Joko come to resemble, in their unity of appropriation and excretion, Bataille’s sacred-profane god, “a half decomposed cadaver fleeing through the night in a luminous shroud”.

The narrative of Joko’s Anniversary runs the course of a single year, from his birth at the beginning of the text to his undeath at the end. The Tenant begins with Simone Choule awaking from a coma in a room with Trelkovsky and Stella and ends with Trelkovsky, the new Simone Choule awaking from a coma in the same room with the as yet unappropriated Trelkovsky and Stella. They are trapped in an eternal loss of self. In the course of this loss they try and fail to reject the slippage between their identities and exterior identities being forced upon them, as seen in the very French first stages of the process: Trelkovsky is manipulated into giving up coffee and Gitanes in favour of chocolate and Gauloises, the destruction of his individuality has begun!

Topor creates a sense of constant noise—from bullying, suggestion, manipulation, torture—that reshapes and alters the victims’ minds, just as, in the inertia of having seven delegates stuck to his back and then inside him, Joko must share his body in a constantly revolving game of pass-the-cogito, where the conference delegates who he at first violently rejects, then succumbs to accuse him of being only concerned with his “precious little self”. And their bodies too are moulded: Trelkovsky begins wearing lingerie, a wig, make up and a dress, and Joko becomes a well-honed golem. The self is a weak and irrelevant element and the body is a receptacle for other people’s selves to impose upon; it is caught in the objectifying interrelation of objects. If our selves are not infallible, if like Joko they can be subsumed by others, then our bodies are objects to be created in pregnancy, thrown screaming into the world in birth, harnessed as a productive commodity in life and again harnessed as a sacred and profane object in death. If this is the case then at what point can the self within this harnessed object be said to be individual, separate, significant or free? If the world is an interrelation of objects objectifying one another, as any number of phenomenologists tell us, then the space between them is not a void, but a frozen network of interrelation, as Topor writes in The Tenant:

It was as if the space had been flooded with water which then turned to ice. The space between the objects in the room had abruptly become as hard and solid as an iceberg. And he, Trelkovsky, was one of those objects. He was imprisoned again… in a void of space

The body here is an object suspended in concrete space. Our selves are not our own; in so much as its phenomenal projection is objectified by so many other selves, the body is a profane golem for the sacred word. In this Topor attacks the idea of the independent cogito: as he writes in the avant-propos of his untranslated novel Erika: “my main literary activity consisted of removing the words from all the books I could lay my hands on. It is perhaps significant that one of these books was The Discourse on the Method”. He does not erase the words, or copy them; he blots them out with pen and ink until the pages of the book run as a series of black non-signifying smears, including the phrase cogito ergo sum. He writes of words on a page as a “mob” or a “rabble” that “bully” one another, that “on each unit is exerted huge pressure, to bring them under the auspices of the public cause”. A word, like a narrated character, like an individual within a social system, is too trapped in its relation to others. It is caught in a rabble of objectification, its meaning extrapolated to this or that dictated by its neighbours, relatives and acquaintances, its enemies. Topor fantasises about being Robinson on his beach, alone, outside of society, and applies this premise to Erika. He isolates a single word on each page which free of its relation evokes its myriad meanings, implications, it is a free and open sign.

The novel, again a hollow receptacle, is driven once more by something borrowed from Bataille, the idea of carnal love. Away from divine love, carnal love is, according to Bataille and Topor, “hidden from the vicissitudes” of the exterior; it is something that is wholly individual: a beloved can be separate in a crowd in the perception of its corresponding beloved. Thus in employing love Topor finds a fragile individualism, an isolation, a silence. And the silence of Erika is striking, as each blank page fills with free expression and myriad interpretation, it is not nervous, desperate, screaming like the prison narratives of The Tenant and Joko’s Anniversary. Like the rivers that in these texts represent in utero nostalgia; a flowing dreamlike peace, Erika flows silently from page to page in its vague ambiguity: unquantified; unquantifiable. The text stands as an example of the silence Topor saw in being marooned alone and stands far apart from the terrifying inertia of the objectified commodity the individual becomes in his other texts. It is a flowing free association, bookended by the pages “Even after all this time, I still remember Erika”, and “I never saw Erika again”. The love affair remembered begins as always with a cigarette, a coffee, and silently flows on to disappear again back into the vague shadows of memory—for Topor it is a tiny internal refuge cut off on the distant beach of disappearing possibility from the use-value of the productive unit of self and body.

In The Tenant and Joko’s Anniversary you are presented with the terrifying premise that the people around you are vampires: your neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances. That your peaceful quotidian life is little more than a façade and like Joko you sleep “peacefully among the corpses”. With these books Topor highlights the power of the mob over the individual, the impossibility of otherness and the inability of escape: our misunderstanding that our thoughts or actions are individual, impartial or independent. For Topor we are all both golems and vampires; feeding and consuming each other. In antithesis to these texts Erika stands as a utopian fantasy: a vague internal idyll which is surplus, ambiguous, of such little use-value to the public cause it is left alone. And the silence of one word; one person, on a blank page; on a white beach, free from the rack of external objectification attains for Topor a kind of transient sublime. It achieves a fleeting freedom from objectification; from the terrifying noise of modern life.

Roland Topor’s absence from literary discourse is stark. As a writer who lamented the impossibility of concrete individuality, Topor stands in contrast to his contemporaries who sought to embrace the new numerical veneer. Topor sensed a grotesque inhuman control at the heart of modern society, whether it was Vichy, the fourth republic or the fifth. Like his character Renfield in Herzog’s Nosferatu, there is a malevolent spectre that maintains a total control of the individual, and that spectre is other people.


100 Good Reasons to Kill Myself Right Now by Roland Topor

Les Escargots by René Laloux and Roland Topor

John Calder obituary of Roland Topor

Roland Topor smoking a pipe

Andrew Robert Hodgson is a PhD researcher based at Université Paris Est, and a lecturer in English language and literature at various universities in Paris.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013.