Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Roland Topor - The Tenant

Written in 1964 in French, Roland Topor's The Tenant is a mundane and horrific example of the most depressive strains of horror. As the novel opens, Trelkovsky learns of an apartment just vacated by a suicide. Nominally in order to pay his respects, and really to ascertain if she'll die so he can move in, he visits her in the hospital. Semi-conscious at best, the former tenant opens one eye to see a friend and Trelkovsky, and she responds with an "unbreakable scream." (p. 20) At the time, neither Trelkovsky nor the reader can understand her terror. By the end of the book, both will know all too well, for Topor's world is one where all of humanity is at once utterly absurd and grotesquely terrifying, and there is no escape.

I came to The Tenant, as a fair few others no doubt did, because of Thomas Ligotti. In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti discusses Topor as both an outsider and as an exemplar of the "anti-idealist position." (p. 195, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race) As far as those goals go, Topor does not disappoint, and it's easy to see why Ligotti – and the man's fans – found the novel so captivating. That being said, my Ligottian expectations were not perfectly accurate. It's true that, in the end, Topor's bleak vision is one comparable to Ligotti's, but his method of achieving that darkness is quite different.

Topor's writing is clear and rational throughout, conveying description and action in a carefully controlled fashion. This is a novel filled with both insanity and the most caustic of humors, but the organized nature of the prose proves a stabilizing bulwark against both. Like all the best of the hapless, Trelkovsky is unaware that his life is a source of bleak amusement, and, as for the madness, it's the logical way it's shown that makes this such a harrowing read. Topor describes the impossible, but he does so with such a straight face that, even in the midst of the climax's melodrama, you may take a few lines to catch the absurdity.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Topor and Ligotti, however, is that The Tenant is a fundamentally interpersonal story, one focused almost entirely on each man's relationship to both his friend's and his neighbors. Moments of eroticism, too, pervade the text. All of those however, proves hollow, sex a goal not for its own ends but for what it averts: And little by little, in the presence of swooning women and writhing flesh, the image of death became less clear, faded into the distance, and eventually vanished completely, like a vampire at the first light of dawn. (p. 27) Friendship, too, is, by the end of the novel, a tool to avoid loneliness rather than a boon on its own. Trelkovsky's interactions with his old pals is forced and unbearably awkward, and his romance with Stella is worse, a mixture of self deception and disgusting detachment sewn together by a talismanic fixation on her breasts and body.

Trelkovsky spends much of the novel studying those neighbors, spying into the building's toilet with a set of binoculars from his apartment window, and therein comes the second authorial comparison that I want to make. While the theme of The Tenant might be pure Ligotti, the execution is more similar to Cornell Woolrich's It Had to be Murder, which may nowadays be better known by the film adaptations by Alfred Hitchcock (entitled Rear Window, which the story itself now often seems to goes as in anthologies) and the more recent Disturbia. Like Trelkovsky, Woolrich's main character is a people watcher, spying on the inhabitants of the apartment building across the way with a set of binoculars and, eventually, he catches a murder by observing the subtle signs of nervousness he displays. That story's greatest quotation, too, applies just as well to both tales: The chain of little habits that were their lives unreeled themselves. They were all bound in them tighter than the tightest straitjacket any jailer ever devised, though they all thought themselves free. (p. 2, It Had to be Murder)

Both Woolrich and Topor believe that people reveal themselves with their habits and traits. Furthermore, I'd argue that both show that to break those traits is to transgress, to reveal your true self. That, however, is where the two stories diverge sharply. It Had to be Murder is a Crime story, and, as such, is exceedingly rational in its approach to the world. When the main character is cut off from the outside world, he remains connected to it in any way he can, but the villain reacts differently and abnormally. By deviating from the common path – a path that the protagonist, the other characters, the author, and the reader are all assumed to be adherents to – the antagonist gives himself away as a criminal. In Topor's tale, on the other hand, the common path is all there is. Underneath that, we humans are nothing. We're but a set of traits, but – as Ligotti might put it – puppets stumbling about their routines with no mind or soul underneath our felt skin, and we're only here because we delude ourselves into thinking that we are, as dear Trelkovsky realizes after passing street after street of grotesque humanity:

Martians – they were all Martians. But they were ashamed of it, and so they tried to conceal it. They had determined, once and for all, that their monstrous disproportions were, in reality, true proportion, and their inconceivable ugliness was beauty. They were strangers on this planet, but they refused to admit it. They played at being perfectly at home. He caught a glimpse of his own reflection in a shop window. He was no different. Identical, exactly the same likeness as that of the monsters. He belonged to their species, but for some unknown reason he had been banished from their company. They had no confidence in him. All they wanted from him was obedience to their incongruous rules and their ridiculous laws. Ridiculous only to him, because he could never fathom their intricacy and their subtlety. (pp. 97-8)

In Topor's world, humanity is omnipresent and oppressive, a corrupting force that can't be stopped. By knocking on his walls, they leave him a frightened animal cowering alone on his bed. They strip him of his personality and friends, turn him into a shut in too tamed to raise the slightest dispute. For dozens of pages, Trelkovsky tries to escape them by surrender, tries to turn into the perfect tenant. But they never stop. At some point, he begins to wonder if it's not simple malice that's driving them: The Bastards! What the hell do they want – for everyone to just roll over and play dead! And even that probably wouldn't be enough! (p. 95) But that's not it either, as Ligotti points out when discussing the book and that passage in the aforementioned Conspiracy Against the Human Race: [Trelkovsky] is more right than he knows. Because what they wants is for everyone to roll over and play them. (p. 198, Conspiracy…)

That, right there, is the core of The Tenant. This is a book, in the end, about the influence that we have on each other. So, Woolrich's solidly insider story written for insider readers, acts almost as proof of Topor's.  Here, the herd of humanity demands compliance and will achieve that end at all costs, forcing the outsider into whatever role it must to maintain the illusion of a sane society and a sane world, casting – as Woolrich's narrator does – the deviant unacceptable, a criminal, an enemy of all society. Trelkovsky, occupying the same apartment as the former tenant, finds the world pushing him into her role, and he can't refuse.

In The Tenant, the only reality is the purely physical. As such, when Trelkovsky's apartment is burglarized by his neighbors, causing him to lose his pictures and mementos of his childhood, he realizes that he "no longer had a past." (p. 64) Later, when he dons a dress in a fit of submissive dementia, he realizes that: It was a picture of a woman he saw in the mirror now. Trelkovsky was astounded. It was no more difficult than this to create a woman? (p. 121) Stripped of what he has, what is Trelkovsky now? What was there that was uniquely his, that made him an individual? What was there that differentiated him from everyone else. What was his label, his point of reference? What made him think: this is me, or, that's not really me? He sought the answers in vain, and was forced to admit at last that he didn't know. (p. 128) When those around him take the old physical hallmarks of his life away, Trelkovsky ceases to exist.

But, you're no doubt thinking, such a conspiracy is ludicrous. What would his neighbors gain from forcing him into a dead woman's life? What advantage could they possibly achieve by pushing for his suicide? When it comes to those questions, Topor plays a fine game. To outright write such a conspiracy, devoid of the supernatural or any other mollifying factors, would be to immediately distance the reader via the unlikeness of the whole affair. Instead, Trelkovsky is clearly insane, and so the conspiracy is at first easily dismissible and more. The novel seems an exploration of dementia. And then, at the height of Trelkovsky's madness, proof piles up. Conversations become inexplicable, and the actions of those around him go from absurd to malevolent. But no conclusions can be drawn, for our narrator is, alas, quite far round the bend. So, as the neighbors cavort in an obscene parody of a circus beneath Trelkovsky's window, the reader can retain his suspension of belief while, of course, anticipating the final blow. But that anticipation renders the result no less effective, for, in the superb final scene – the only one in the book to directly show the supernatural – we finally see undeniable proof that Trelkovsky's mania was real. And it is far too late.

All that praise having been dispensed, and Topor's (sadly deceased) head having no doubt swelled to its full capacity, it's time to turn to the book's main flaw: the pacing. Now, condemnation here is difficult. As I discussed in the above paragraph, the normalcy at the beginning is absolutely necessary for the insanity at the end. That being said, the first two thirds of the book pass at a pace that can best be described as an amusing but near eventless crawl. Topor's dry, dry wit prevents the reader from ever growing genuinely bored, but little momentum is acquired until the reader's halfway through. I don't think it's a coincidence that the vast, vast majority of my memories of the book – and I only read it the morning of this writing – came from the final third, and so I was at least thirty or forty pages too early each and every time I went to search for a particular quotation.

Still, the Tenant is a labyrinthine and disquieting exploration of interaction and madness, with the ultimate conclusion that the two may not be all that far off. Though not the flawless gem that Ligotti's or Lovecraft's finest tales are, this is still one of the bleakest novels I've read. Beginning and ending on the same interminable note, The Tenant is a novel likely to haunt the back of your mind for weeks, coloring your every conversation. Upon finishing, you may cast about for what makes you you. And, if Topor's to be believed, that search will be at once brief and endless, fruitless and hopeless…

[A final word of caution: as I've no doubt made clear, Thomas Ligotti's analyses of the story in The Conspiracy Against the Human race is fantastic, and is – I believe – published in similar form in the introduction to the Centipde Press edition of the novel (which I, alas, do not own). That being said, his analysis of the story is filled with spoilers and reveals the end. While this is far from a twist based story, I would still advise reading the novel before the analysis.]


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  2. Do you really think Trelkovsky's mania was real in the final scene, rather than the swansong of a dying amind, one more mirage 'for the road' ?

  3. Impossible to say, and I suppose both can work. I guess my interpretation was slightly biased going in, as I came to the book through Ligotti's reading of it, and he certainly leaned towards the real approach.

  4. What a terrific review! I'd seen the Polanski movie years and years ago, found it pretty creepy, then bought the paperback not long after. Only got around to reading it earlier this year, and really enjoyed it.