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Obituary: Roland Topor

John Calder
Friday 18 April 1997 23:02 BST

Topor was the modern enfant terrible of French art and letters, a humorist whose very appearance, always bubbling over with sly merriment, made one laugh.

Like his six-year-younger fellow-writer Arrabal, whom he much resembled, he was short and leprechaun-like, giving the impression of constant, untiring activity. Like Arrabal, he dabbled in films, produced art derived from Surrealism (the former ordered his art by telling a painter exactly what he wanted, while Topor was a trained artist), and could seldom be accused of good taste.

Born in Paris in 1938, the son of Polish Jewish refugees, he spent the war in Savoy and eventually studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His father had been a conventional painter of landscapes and the son's work is indistinguishable from his in style, but very different in subject matter. Topor's cartoons appeared in many newspapers, most notably Liberation. Among the films made from his work was Polanski's The Tenant (1976).

His greatest success was as a macabre cartoonist. He used his work to illustrate his novels, plays and other writings, produced many volumes of graphics, and exhibited his work widely in galleries both in France and abroad. His drawings in many ways resembled the graphic novels of Max Ernst and the similarly grim work of the Alsatian artist Tomi Ungerer, but the humour was always there in the absurd situations he depicted, many based on fantastical images of the deeper associations of sex and erotica, others on pictures that linked mankind to the world of worms and insects or reptiles. Although ebullient in public, it was known among his friends that he had black periods of extreme depression, and the bizarre fantasies that he drew and painted undoubtedly reflected a mind that brooded on death and decay and the many germs and viruses that live in our bodies.

His novels tackled the same themes, cruelty and metamorphosis being depicted in a matter-of-fact, unemotional way, his characters Rabelaisian and his plots stretching the imagination to its limits.

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. Piles of excrement emerge all over the house and only the constipated visiting policeman escapes suspicion: the end of this unusual detective play confounds everyone, but at its Brussels premiere and at a public reading at the Arts Theatre Club in London in English, not many of the audience waited for the end.

Coprophagy is a frequent theme and religion a favourite target in much of his work. Giving offence came so naturally to Topor that he was almost unaware of the shocked reactions he was likely to get, as for instance from the series of dialogues, accompanied by drawings, examining all the possible uses of a baby, starting by nailing one to your front door.

His novels are misnamed, being mainly a string of incidents depicting unusual happenings or strange turns of events, often being little more than an invention that is easier to put into words than a picture. They include Four Roses for Lucienne, Joko's Anniversary (which appeared in English), Le Locataire Chim-erique, Cafe Panique, plays, film scripts and a variety of small volumes, appealing to his considerable cult following.

Reactions to him would have been stronger in Britain, although volumes of both graphics and prose appeared here, but he never achieved the special reputation that he enjoyed in France, where the Surrealists had already blunted philistine and taste considerations. He will be regarded historically as a latterday Surrealist, with his reputation as an artist likely to outlive his fame as a writer. France has a tradition of minimalist writing - Max Jacob, Andre Breton, Aragon and Obaldia are only a few of the names that spring to mind - but there is no British tradition other than a few essay writers like Charles Lamb. In any case, few modern European writers are read in Britain these days.

At the age of 59 Topor suffered a massive stroke and brain haemorrhage, having appeared until then in the best of health. In person he was generous and warm with a large body of friends, who, although they were aware of his black moods, never had to suffer from them.

John Calder

Roland Topor, artist and writer: born Paris 7 January 1938, married (three children); died Paris 16 April 1997.

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