photo: Anna Rezulak

Bedside table #81. Agnieszka Taborska: Topor is becoming increasingly topical

Agnieszka Taborska, writer, art historian, Romance scholar, and translator, talks about her work on Roland Topor's Dzieła Wybrane (“Selected Works”), the renaissance of his work in France, her acquaintance with the author of The Tenant, the French Surrealists, as well as the Polish 'Toporologists'.

The second volume of Roland Topor's Selected Works came out in the last year, and the reviews were scarce. Topor was quite popular in Poland in the 1980s...

One of Roland's accurate observations was about the principles of literary life: in order to judge books, you have to climb to the top and look down. It is difficult for reviewers to take an outsider's perspective, as they often review their friends. This is why Roland preferred to read non-contemporary authors. The success of his work in Poland in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s was probably due to the fact that the topics he addressed were close to us - even though it was a voice coming from the West.

Today, Topor is becoming increasingly topical. Everything he wrote about statehood, politics, religion, sex, violence, and dozens of other important issues has not lost its value at all. Several decades ago, he said that limiting the role of women to that of wives and mothers was a crime against humanity. In 1967, he created a character long misunderstood by critics of a rebellious girl: Princess Angine, a kindred spirit of Raymond Queneau's Zazie. He has also written about gender identity - in The Tenant, Trelkovsky transforms into the previous tenant, dresses as a woman and behaves like one. In the drama Ambiguous, Don Juan discovers a woman living in his body, and from their union a child is born, who is both a girl and a boy. When I tell my American students about Topor (and the Anglo-Saxon world knows little about him), they usually experience sort of a revelation. I am not sure whether young Polish readers will react similarly, but I hope they will.

Do the French value Topor today?

In France, his art is experiencing a renaissance. A major retrospective was held at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in recent years. Three monumental volumes of collected drawings have been published (with a fourth on the way); there have been reissues of short stories, plays, novels, and picture books based on them. Interestingly, it is young people who have not had the opportunity to meet him who are behind these activities. When I was collecting friends' accounts for the book Abecadło Topora (“The ABC of Topor”), the director Jacques Coutureau shared the following thought, “Topor knew that he was a complex person, and artistic circles are conservative enough to hate complexity. I constantly had the impression that he was miles ahead of us." Sage, philosopher, and comedian in one person - such a combination does not happen often.

In Selected Works, the drawings he made for La Princesse Angine (“Princess Angine”) were reprinted. Can you tell us about his artistic work?

Selected Works features 27 illustrations - inspired by 19th-century puzzles - from Princess Angine, Topor's best novel in my opinion. His artistic work is a book-size topic. It consists of paintings, drawings, linocuts, lithographs, photographs, collages, posters, book covers, as well as illustrations, designs for animated films, costume designs, and theatre sets... All these forms share common features. There is seemingly a lot of difference between the painting “La femme à la boule orange” (“The Woman with the Orange Ball”) and the drama Yoko fête son Anniversaire (“Yoko Celebrates Her Anniversary”), but both depict characters struggling against imposed rules. The photographs from the collection Made in Taiwan. Copyright in Mexico, depicting hardly recognisable parts of the human body, are completely different from the drawings, but ambiguity prevails in both.

Was he keener to draw than to write? What was the story of his non-literary works?

He drew, painted, and wrote alternately. When he grew tired of one, he would take up another. He called both those activities different ways of enjoying freedom. When we talked about this kind of 'two-field system', he recalled the similarly double-track artists from our backyard - Schulz, Mrożek... Today, his paintings, drawings, and collages are in private collections: those of his son, friends, collectors, and gallerists with whom he had his exhibitions. All the more praise for Alexandre Devaux, literary historian and curator, who collected and published the scattered drawings.

For the Surrealists, the visual arts were inseparable from literature. What happens in Princess Angine is that the drawings give a whole new meaning to the adventures the characters live through.

Literature, at least initially, was much more important to them than the visual arts. Breton's first Surrealist Manifesto is a treatise on the philosophy of movement, on literature, on the study of the course of thought. The antecedents mentioned are mainly writers (and include one poet, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore). The names of a few painters - Picasso, for example, who is not associated with Surrealism today - appear in a footnote.

The drawings for Princess Angine are not illustrations in the traditional sense. They rather reveal the other layer of the story, emphasise its poetic nature, its cruelty, its black humour. They bring to mind what Roland said about Alice in Wonderland: that young and adult readers find very different content in this complex book. The same is true of Princess Angine. Largely thanks to the drawings-puzzles. This nature of the illustrations is explained by the 'Illustrator's Caution' at the beginning of the book: "Presenting someone who might as well be a girl as a disease is an extremely delicate task. Instead of his own solution, the illustrator therefore preferred to present the riddle itself. That's why he came up with illustrations inspired by 19th-century puzzles - mainly Maurisset's".

Are there many of those metaliterary interjections in Topor's work?     

The whole of Princess Angine is metaliterature. Just like Memoires d'un vieux con (“Diary of an Old Fart”), in which the narrator presents himself as a co-creator of all the art movements of the twentieth century. Roland playfully entertains his readers by quoting many famous names from the world of art and literature, slightly and amusingly misspelled.

The title alone suggests that Topor is fiddling with the conventions of memoir in his own way in this book - why "an old fart"?

It is a parody of the autobiographies so loved by readers. The old fart is behind the rise of all ‘-isms’, he is proud of himself and does not hide it. It is also a parody of the snobbish art circles, based on mutual adoration, towards which Roland has always been distrustful... Let's take a passage like this: "I enjoyed my success at the Venice Biennale. My work was displayed in ten rooms. Other exhibitors took their works off the walls as a sign of respect for me. I was pleasantly surprised to discover such captivating personalities among them as André Varolle, Lichtenberg and Oldedimbourg. No doubt they too have succumbed to many influences from which they have found it difficult to break free. This is quite understandable. They carried the works of their great predecessors on their shoulders. Plagiarists do not arouse dislike in me, provided they respect the original.”

And while we're talking about metaliterature - did Topor read the American postmodernists?

He read noir American crime fiction. Mainly Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who speak in a voice similar to his, brimming with linguistic wit. As with the author of Princess Angine, their stories about the real world are thoroughly imbued with dreaminess. It has been well captured by the most prominent film adaptations, such as Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai. Roland recalled that when he was reading noir crime fiction at university and watching Welles' films, he couldn't go back to Racine. His friends remembered him talking in the bar on the last night before his stroke about his plans to write a roman noir. And, by the way, the name ‘noir fiction’ (in reference to the ‘noir series' of crime novels) was invented by French film critics when this new genre of American cinema appeared in France just after the Second World War.

Theatre and cinema are two areas of Topor's work that have been somewhat forgotten today. And yet it was a chunk of the artist's life - such as the Panic Movement, collaborating on animations, creating posters...

We may have forgotten a bit about theatre, but not about films. Many people certainly don't remember the posters made for the Munich Chamber Theatre, the sets and costume designs, for example for Apollinaire's The Breasts of Tiresias, for Penderecki's opera Ubu Rex, or the production Ubu Roi (“Ubu the King”) directed by him. René Laloux's Fantastic Planet, for which Topor did the drawings, is nevertheless an 'iconic’ film. Fans of Topor also often return to Les Escargots (“The Snails”), telling the story of the madness of humanity, ecology and the apocalypse, while cinephiles watching Schlöndorff's Swann in Love or Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampire await the appearance of Roland as the Painter and the mad Renfield. Not to mention Henri Xhonneux's Marquis, where the actors wear animal masks designed by him!

Did he choose his roles himself?

He played episodic roles with great directors who chose him for his vis comica, famous cackle and expressive screen presence. Although, of course, the role in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampire is not an episodic one. In Swann in Love, Schlöndorff 'tweaked' the Proustian character by developing a scatological theme dear to Roland - the character he plays convincingly talks about paintings painted with faeces. In turn, Raoul Ruiz, in Three Lives and Only One Death, cast him in the role of a vagrant, which Topor played brilliantly.

I am fascinated by the rascal nature of Angine. Unlike Lewis Carroll's Alice, Topor's heroine is mischievous, derisive, and does everything out of spite, yet she is charming. We know that Alice was one of Topor's favourite literary characters, he even wrote a short story entitled Alice in the Land of Letters, which you translated into Polish.

Without Alice, there would be no Angine, but there is a hundred and two years between the writing of these books and Angine is a much more modern character. She is the perfect embodiment of the 'little rebel'. The ending of Alice in Wonderland brings disappointment: the wild adventures turn out to be a dream, and the heroine returns to a life full of conventions, as befits a well-born and well-behaved Victorian girl. One can imagine her attending the Debutante Ball for marriageable young women a few years later. The Pinocchio finale is a similar disappointment: a surreal object, a piece of wood, is transformed into a banal boy. Roland used to say that Alice and Pinocchio were like a petit bourgeois couple from the twentieth century who followed all the rules of savoir-vivre: they read the right books, have the right friends, and spend weekends at their house near the city. Angine, in the final scene, causes an elephant-truck accident in which she dies. The unhappy-end is the perfect conclusion for this reading, full of humour and brilliant thoughts. It encourages readers to reflect on the price to be paid for freedom. I am not at all surprised that Roland's sister, Hélène, cried as she typed the manuscript of the text.

Did his sister often help him with such matters? Little is mentioned about her today.

Hélène d'Almeida-Topor, who died in 2020, was a distinguished scholar of African history, mainly Benin. Since their traumatic childhood - Hélène and Roland, as Jewish children, hid in the countryside away from their parents - the memory of which only penetrated through to the Jachère-party, they have remained very close with Roland. She often said how proud she was of her brother. She was the main guest at the naming ceremony of the Topor arcade in the 10th arrondissement of Paris in 2017. Her partner, writer and literary critic Salim Jay, published the memoir Merci Roland Topor in 2014.

She typed the manuscript of Princess Angine during a holiday together in the early 1960s. The author wanted paper strip to read, "The book that squeezed the typist's tears from her eyes". It didn't happen in France, but it did in the Sonia Draga publishing house, in the second edition of the Princess in Poland.

You knew Topor well and used to visit him in Paris. He hung around in interesting company.

Roland was always surrounded by friends he had been seeing for decades and people he had met moments earlier in a bar. Most often they were not French. He was afraid of planes, so he travelled by talking. One of my favourite thoughts from his Pense-bêtes (“Reminders”) says, “Accent loosens tongues because it raises questions”. The people I met through Roland formed not only friendly bonds with him, but also creative ones. I met some of his friends during his lifetime; others, when I was collecting voices for the book. They included Fernando Arrabal, a dramatist and novelist; Wojciech Pszoniak, playing the title role in the Ubu the King, directed by Roland; Olivier Olivier, artist and member of the Panic Movement, as well as his daughter Sarah Olivier, actress and singer; Yuksel Arslan, a writer and artist who, just like Leonora Carrington, made his own paints from natural ingredients; Jacques Coutureau, theatre director and composer who wrote the music for Roland's works; and Elisabeth Jeznach, founder of the Miettes de Spectacles theatre group. I had known the legendary graphic artist and Topor's closest friend, Roman Cieślewicz, before. Thanks to Roland, I also spent many evenings with writer Kazik Hentchel, who ran the legendary independent cinema Accattone near the Pantheon.

Some of these contacts have developed into friendships and creative collaborations. This was always the case around Roland, who generously shared his own friendships. Conversations were usually buzzing with plans. For example, we wanted to create an anthology of texts about letter written by fellow writers. It was to include excerpts from his Alice in the Land of Letters and my W malinowym dżemie (“In a Raspberry Jam”), among other things. We didn't make it, but Roland's spirit, uniting people belonging to a similar spiritual pack, didn't disappear with him. A dozen or so years after his death, Elisabeth Jeznach produced the play Office of Lost Dreams, shown in France and Poland, based on my book Senny żywot Leonory de la Cruz (“The Dreaming Life of Leonora de la Cruz”). The chain of mutual connections and inspiration has never broken. Thanks to Elisabeth, I made it to the legendary Atelier Clot in the Marais district, where Roland and other great artists of the twentieth century created their prints. And in 2016, as part of the Ars Cameralis festival in Sosnowiec, there was an exhibition of three generations, "Planet Topor. Abram. Roland. Nicolas', which was attended by Christian Bramsen, owner of Atelier Clot.

A group of people sitting around a table

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(At Roland Topor's, 1996, photo by Marcin Giżycki)

You talked to all these people when you wrote your book on Topor, Archipelagi Rolanda Topora (“The Archipelagos of Roland Topor”). It's an essay published in 2021, in which you have somehow managed to combine the Parisian Topor with ”ours”, the Polish-Jewish, Warsaw one. Where did the idea for this book come from? And why "archipelagos"?

I collected the voices of friends and colleagues for my first book, 2005's Abecadało Topora (“The ABC of Topor”). There's always a problem with titles: these two are probably too similar. “Abecadło” was the realisation of an idea that Roland and I had discussed. At the time, his drawings, some short stories, novels, and dramas were known in Poland, but there was no book discussing his entire oeuvre. I was going to write one. He suggested I take on the concept of the Toporanapoli album published by the French Institute in Naples in 1995. It is somewhat reminiscent of an encyclopaedia: under the alphabetically arranged entries are reproductions of drawings, posters, linocuts, or photographs corresponding to the entry... Roland considered Toporanapoli to be the best book about himself.

I decided to replicate this idea with two modifications: each letter corresponded not to one entry, but to several, and I decided to balance the proportion between the amount of visual and literary material (there are very few quotations in the original). I have selected extracts from both texts existing in Polish and non-translated ones. However, I translated anew even those known in Poland in order to - in my opinion - better reflect the spirit of the author. One of the entries reads 'Friends about Topor', to which you referred. I worked on this book for a long time, then the heroic task of establishing and paying for the rights to reprint two hundred reproductions and dozens of text extracts faced the editors of the W.A.B publishing house.

Several years of work...                                         

Before I started reading and selecting passages to translate, I spent a lot of time visiting the Parisian second-hand bookshops recommended by Roland. I searched there for books long out of print and scattered magazines where he published great but lesser-known stuff. I only got down to writing when I had accumulated a collection occupying several shelves. The ABC was published eight years after Topor was gone. Today the book is a rarity.

Will you tell us a bit about the contents of this collection and the materials you have managed to gather?

There are various editions of novels, plays, short stories, treatises on Roland, exhibition catalogues, albums, games, and other non-literary objects. Among the rarities is a four-volume edition of Marcel Aymé's tales with Topor's fantastic colour illustrations. The 1975 album by Roman Cieślewicz is a unique piece, there is an interesting book on the films of René Laloux, with whom Topor created The Snails and Fantastic Planet, and a collection of exhibition catalogues by his father, Abram Topor. A jumble of sorts...

Games and songs? How have they helped you write about Topor?

They helped me to understand him better. For despite his melancholic lining, or perhaps because of it, he liked to have fun. Trying to chase away his sadness, he partied till he dropped. He could sing Una paloma blanca until dawn, roaring with laughter. Writing song lyrics - about Paris, about lovers, about the Museum of Horrors - was an expression of his affection for popular culture. Like the Surrealists, he loved games. Of course, the point was not to win, but to spend time together. At one of the meetings, Marcin Giżycki took a series of photos of us playing a new board game: Roland, his son Nicolas, and myself, all very focused. I even have a beautifully drawn game from 1964, TOPSYCHPOR, invented and designed by Roland. A rarity today.

Can you briefly describe the rules of this game?

It uses the language of psychological tests, mocking them. The red box contains six large boards depicting different places, such as a city street, a cemetery, or a bedroom. The player is presented with thirteen cut-out images that depict, among others, a blind man, an infant, a male nude shown from behind, or a werewolf in a cloak. The player will learn something about themselves, depending on which image they choose and what background they set it against. For example, if an infant is placed in a cemetery, "You enjoy flaunting your provocative views and gloomy thoughts. The clarity of mind that characterises you and your unwillingness to pity others and yourself results in destructive tendencies being attributed to you. Around you, they say, hope dies. How wrong! You are enthusiastic, loving, and have an iron moral backbone. You are a born optimist. The best proof is that you go to all the trouble to face conformists and all the prohibitions."

And what was it like after you had collected the material and published the book?

In 2007, Frantz Vaillant's biography Roland Topor or Strangled Laughter came out in France, translated into Polish two years later. Then, there was nothing for a long time, and I thought my adventure with Roland was over. Until, in 2020, I was approached by Pio Kalinski, head of the Lokator publishing house, with whom we had organised numerous Topor-related events since the beginning of the publishing house and bookshop. The name says it all! (the publisher’s name, ‘lokator’, means ‘a tenant’ – translator’s note). Pio suggested that, for the publisher's twentieth anniversary, I should write my own account of the author of The Tenant: about our acquaintance, our friendship, the anecdotes I had previously only talked about. He also suggested the idea that the chapters should have titles taken from Reminders, a collection of aphorisms that I was still translating for The ABC. And so, the result was a book quite different from the first, much more personal, looking at my fascination with Topor's imagination from the perspective of a quarter of a century. The eponymous archipelagos refer to what Roland once told me. That there are two types of authors: some try to live up to the expectations of a wide audience, while others write what's in their soul. The second path is longer and bumpier, but at the end of the day, it turns out that there are enough archipelago inhabitants who identify with such literature. He himself, of course, belonged to the second group.

Yes, the Topor archipelago community is numerous. This can be seen, for example, in how many translators have translated his works into Polish. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was mainly Tomasz Matkowski, then there was Jan Kortas, Michał Krzykawski, Marta Eloy Cichocka, and Ewa Kuczkowska, whom we associate with Topor's dramas. You yourself have brilliantly translated Jachère-party, Princess Angine, and stories from the collection Made in Taiwan, copyright in Mexico. A separate book could probably be written about the history of translations of Topor’s works.

Someone will do it one day. I, from the beginning, have been insisting on Topor being less youthful-cool and more poetic-nostalgic. Of course, all these tones - and many more - are present in his work, but it seemed to me that this balance was not always maintained in the choices made by his translators. My perception of his language was probably influenced by the fact that we knew each other, and I knew that the clownish pose was a mask, that to reduce the language of the stories to vulgar jargon was a misrepresentation. His literary language, as well as his visual language, is made up of so many different colours! I see the essence of the complexity of Roland the creator and Roland the man in the sad - or perhaps just melancholic - look he once sent me across the table at Brasserie Lipp. This is how Marcin Giżycki immortalised him in a photograph reprinted in The ABC.

How did you insist on a nostalgic Topor? Certainly, the reissue of Jachère-party is a nod in that direction.

By writing about him as a poet and philosopher, not just a jester. In the nineties, together with Marcin Giżycki and Jan and Joanna Gondowicz, I set up the małe publishing house, among other things to publish Princess Angine (none of the existing publishing houses at the time were interested) and later Jachère-party, in co-edition with W.A.B. For the translation, I chose books resonating with the voice of Topor the poet and the philosopher: Jachère-party, Angine, Alice in the Land of Letters, and Made in Taiwan. Copyright in Mexico. Then, I triggered the Jachère-party and Angine to be reissued in the new century at the Sonia Draga publishing house.

The story of one of Topor's first translators, Matkowski, is interesting. He lives in Poland but publishes in French and is the author of the first translation of The Tenant and the famous Four Roses for Lucienne, which, at some point, almost everyone had on their bookshelf.

I used to see Tomasz Matkowski years ago at the French Institute in Warsaw. Then our paths diverged when I started spending a lot of time in the States. In preparing the recent reissue of The Tenant, the Krakow publisher tried for a long time to get in touch with him. Unfortunately, without success.

What were the greatest difficulties involved in working on the publication of Topor's Selected Works?

The choice. Embarras de richesse! I settled on novels, dramas, and short stories, but it’s a shame that some of the various forms that are less obvious and less known in Poland are not included.

For instance?

I am thinking of manifestos such as the Auto-School Manifesto or the Short Panic Memento. Or the counting rhymes, for example, A Hundred Arguments in Favour of Immediate Suicide. Aphorisms collected in Reminders, brilliant texts written for books or albums by other artists. In The ABC and The Archipelagos, I have only translated parts of the poetic and philosophical introduction to the album A Small World, showing Martin Parr's photographs of tourists. A volume collecting the kind of hybridised, less obvious forms could include the entire introduction.

Would you share here an excerpt from this introduction?

"Travel has become a commodity, like any commodity subject to the same laws of the market. It fired the imagination of consumers, fuelled by magazines, films, and television. Elsewhere, there are not only enchanting landscapes, but exotic examples of human nature, bizarre drinks, great food, different lifestyles, famous buildings, maybe good business.

Mass tourism grows out of consumer ideology, just as the Crusades, holy wars, or pilgrimages were the fruit of faith. [...]

Tourists never live in local time because they arrive either from the future or from the past, depending on the time zone from which they set off.


At times, the tourist is confronted with doubts: are the alleged wonders they are being shown really authentic? They seem brand new! Are the local people in collusion with the guides too eager to share their cultural wealth? The tourist suspects that the locals have replaced the originals with poor quality imitations. They take photographs which they intend to use later in court as material evidence.

The tourist quickly becomes blasé. He poses against the backdrop of the ruins, but turns his back to them, thus showing that he has been here, but that the place has not made a special impression on him. He adopts the proud posture of a ram who poses in front of a dead lion and is so brave that he pays no attention to it.


Whether it's hot or cold, whether it's pouring - the climate always astounds them. They discover the moisture of the water, the burning of the sun, and the cold of the ice. Every change in the weather is treated as a new experience, designed to make them worthy of Festive Snob Places.


In Venice, in St Mark's Square, they find to their amazement that bird shit is raining from the sky.


There are many strange stories circulating among tourists. Some, for example, claim to have caught a glimpse of the sculptures as they changed position. Others count the temple's columns endlessly, convinced that they have not been shown them all. Transformed into nomads, they accuse settled peoples of thievery.


Children do not grasp the meaning of these absurd parades. However, they are proud to participate in the entertainment of adults whose behaviour they try to mimic. They glare and point blindly with an exclamation of delight in the direction of a church or museum display case.


Sometimes tourists make friends with the indigenous population. They exchange a few trivial sentences that will grow to gargantuan proportions in their memories.


Erotic tourism mainly attracts lovers of unripe fruit. For a modest fee, they can rape boys or girls with impunity. These antics in the Antipodes have such a salutary effect on them that they become uncompromising moralists at home upon their return.


Some tourists, poised by the thought of the Guinness Book or not having much time, tick off several European capitals in one day. The overworked guides unfortunately do not keep up with them. So sometimes tourists mistake the Louvre for Buckingham Palace or El Escorial for the Colosseum. However, the damage caused by these mistakes is minimal.


Every flock has its mangy sheep, mass tourism is no exception to this rule. There are therefore some exhibitionists in its ranks who, under the guise of visiting Places for Festive Snobs, only dream of exposing their intimate parts in front of stunned tourists."


Interviewer: Joanna Piechura

Translated by Justyna Lowe