Best Foot Forward

Roland Topor – Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne (Andrew Hodgson, trans. Atlas Press, 2018)

An individual shoe, as Steve Hanson noted, is funny. Why it’s funny is anyone’s guess. More mysteriously, the presence of two shoes is not twice as funny, but entirely mundane.

Feet, shoes, legs, whether in pairs or standing solitary, clearly hold some unconscious power. A potential that surrealists have long tapped into. Think of Dali’s crutches, the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Noises for the Leg”, or Ed Barton’s poetry collection, Bad Leg.

Roland Topor’s surrealist novella, Portrait en pied de Suzanne (1978), is a love letter to the phantasmic foot. A dreamlike journey through an unnamed Eastern European capital, the story follows a gastronomic obsessive as he guzzles eggs, offends crowds, buys shoes that don’t fit, and eventually falls in love.

The journey is surprising, shocking, laugh-out-loud funny and over far too quickly. Topor, a playwright and master satirist, knows always to leave us wanting more.

Topor’s work is little known in the Anglophone world. His bug-eyed, cigar-chomping visage that graces the front cover of the book will feel oddly familiar, especially for fans of Werner Herzog who cast him in his Nosferatu.

Only a small portion of his broad and eccentric body of work – including art, literature, music and theatre – has ever been translated into English. From his early work on Hara-Kiri, the precursor to Charlie Hebdo, to his novel The Tenant that was adapted by Roman Polanski, Topor’s work presents a strange but highly entertaining body of French literature waiting to be discovered.

Andrew Hodgson, the translator of this new book, describes the renewed interest in Topor’s work currently sweeping Paris, Topor’s adopted home city. It is his hope that this new translation will bring Topor-fever across the channel. Fast-paced, clear and uncomplicated, Hodgson’s prose has its own momentum and it carries the reader along with it.

As so much of the Head-to-Toe Portrait depends upon surprise for its effects, I am hesitant to write too much about its contents. Instead, I’ll offer you the image of a sexually agitated fat man pulling his own foot off. Picture this in your mind. If it raises a smile, you’ll love this book.

The journey to this image is hilarious, and the places to which it leads afterwards are even more quirky and enjoyable.

The book itself is short, less than a hundred pages, and is accompanied by Topor’s original illustrations. This makes it the perfect entertainment for a rainy afternoon or a long train journey. The kind of book that you can read in one sitting, or lend to a friend and get back the next day.

At the very least I feel this book will initiate a new Roland Topor cult following within hip circles, although its humour is broad and accessible enough for a wide audience. A seriously wild ride, and a perfect first step into Toporland, Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne is one of the most original works to cross the channel all year.

– Joe Darlington

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