Recounting the haunting episodes of a mind breaking down, The Tenant is one of the most psychologically disturbing books I’ve read since Rosemary’s Baby. A descent into madness that snowballs faster and faster the more you think about it.
Initially published in 1964, The Tenant follows Trelkovsky who’s looking to hire a new flat. Upon seeing an advert, he decides to visit the previous owner, Simone, in hospital – where she later dies.
Despite his initial wariness, due to the last owners attempted suicide and the strange landlord, he takes the apartment on as he’s desperate for a place closer to work.
It’s from here that the building begins to take on a character of its own, alienating Trelkovsky from his friends and pushing him deeper into madness.
Roland Topor was part of the Panic Movement, formed in Paris 1962. It also included Fernando Arrabal, and one of my favourite directors Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The Tenant dives deep into the realms of paranoia, obsession and detachment. These are all elements usually found in Dostoevsky, Kafka, or Camus. Yet, Topor uses his own branding of identity crisis to piece the jigsaw together.
By forcing the character through a crisis, he comes to see his own worthlessness, his own insecurities played out in his neighbours. It also allows us, the readers, to identify these same disconcerting attributes in ourselves.
That’s not to say I’d ever been as brash and sexist as Trelkovsky.
For example, as he walks down the street, he often references the women passing him by. These are often crude comments pertaining to their figure or their appearance in general. They’re also skewed to present himself as a stud that no woman would ever turn down.
The same goes for when he recounts his meetings with Stella, a friend of Simone’s. Often plunging headfirst into depravity, he spares no details describing just how she looks (and feels) when clothes free.
It’s in these moments that Trelkovsky becomes a lot more menacing and unrelatable. Except when his neighbours’ psychological punishment begins, Topor has an excellent knack of bringing the reader back onto his side.
This is partly due to the eerie third-person perspective employed to offer a distant view of the surrounding activities. It allows for a remaining distance between the main character, his neighbours, and the suffering inside his mind.
A constant barrage of torment and abuse is brutal to take, even for such a deplorable character – more so when his mind begins to fracture. The height of this being the waking up to find his face covered in women’s makeup and his suit changed out for a dress.
Is he tortured by his fellow apartment goers, or is he suppressing his own personality beneath his every day? A frightening thought that’s only heightened as the plot progresses.
Although I mentioned the severe themes of this book, most of them read as tongue-in-cheek, much like reading the more modern collection, Goth.
There’s an element of suspense but also a component of cheesy 60s consciousness floating on the surface. You never truly believe you’ll leave this book with your mind-blown.
That said, there’s still plenty of mystery and suspense to keep you coming back for more.
As I mentioned Rosemary’s Baby earlier, it’s worth noting that Roman Polanski adapted both of these books into his haunting Apartment Trilogy; along with Repulsion. If you’ve not watched either of them, they’re both two of my favourite films due to their incredibly intense atmospheres and slow-burning psychological horror.
Whilst The Tenant isn’t a ground-breaking masterpiece, it does explore new territory concerning mental health and the effects of constant insecurity. Yes, these glimpses can feel a little out-dated in the modern world, but there’s certainly plenty to keep you guessing up to the final pages.
If you’re a lover of psychological horrors, especially those with a supernatural twist, then definitely take a look at this one. You won’t be disappointed!
I thoroughly enjoyed The Tenant and will explore Topor’s work further in the future. If you’ve any recommendations on books similar to this, let me know in the comments below.