Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
translated by John E Wood
originally published 1986
Vintage, 23rd printing, 2001
Genre: Horror, magical realism, literary fiction, suspense
Synopsis & Review: On July 17, 1738, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born at the most putrid place in Paris, in all of France. Born to a mother who not only did not want him, but fully intended to discard her newborn son just as she had her four previous children, Grenouille cried out spitefully, gathering the attention of the crowd around her fish stall, and thereby condemned his mother to death. From there he was taken into the care of the government, and then religious authorities, going through four wet-nurses in rapid succession. The infant is a greedy monster, devouring twice as much as the other infants, sucking the wet nurses dry of their assets. This, along with his bizarre lack of personal odor, causes Grenouille to be passed along until he lands in the care of Madame Gaillard. Lacking any sense of smell herself, Mme Galliard doesn’t notice Grenouille’s lack, treating him the same as any other child in her care. His peers, however, recognize him as an alien, a monster, and alternately shun and attempt to murder him, setting a pattern for his life.
For Grenouille is a monster born, and his lack of scent is a warning for people to avoid him, one they often cannot mark in a world filled with stenches and overlaid with perfumes. But Grenouille is also blessed with a singular sense of smell, able to recognize changes in weather, a person’s imminent arrival, or the location of lost objects. When he realizes what scents are, he is driven to accumulate them, to catalog every scent in Paris. The discovery of the most thrilling, enticing, beautiful scent leads Grenouille to his first murder, and also into the arts of perfume making, as he is determined to capture and recreate that perfect scent for himself, leaving a wake of destruction in his path.
I was not that impressed by the film version of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. It was pretty to look at, and there was definitely an interesting story, but there was no magic; it was curiously sterile. But, it still made me want to read the novel it was based on. Which, I might add, took me FOREVER to acquire. Every time I put a hold request on it, the hold would simply disappear. And then one day, after three months of irritation, it suddenly appeared, ready for pick up! I was really excited when Eli brought it home, but also a little concerned. What if Perfume was another The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which started out promisingly, then became The Unbearable Fucking Czech Novel that Makes Me Feel Bad and Irritable Through No Fault of Its Own? (And which I still have not yet finished. I am a bad, lazy reader.) Well, it wasn’t.
I read Perfume straight through, practically in one sitting. It opens beautifully, with a vivid, lyrical description of the smells of the eighteenth century, and establishes a nice momentum that keeps going until he leaves Baldini and Paris. At that point, it sputters and chokes for a while before regaining momentum in Grasse. Unfortunately, the novel peters out completely in the finale; once the Laure chase was over, it totally lost me, and I was barely able to make it through the (thankfully short) farcical finale.
Character development and relations are not the strong point of Perfume; instead, the novel relies mostly upon the power of its poetic, kaleidoscopic descriptive passages. Süskind depicts eighteenth-century France in all her filthy, gilded glory, managing to pack his novel with historical detail that integrates perfectly with the narrative. But it is also a sensory experience, with lush, evocative prose that brings to life a cacophony of odor, from new wood to jasmine, babies to the sea, even human essence, which contains notes of cheese and cat shit.
Grenouille is virtually the only developed character in the novel, a Romantic trope of the mad genius, convinced of his own greatness and the inferiority of others. Though he spends much of his life pursuing a perfect scent, one that will make the people around him adore him, Grenouille holds himself aloof, despising all other people. He lives for scent, and even the virgins he murders are nothing more than vessels for the odor they harbor, materials for his art. He is all ego, a complete narcissist, at once both subhuman, barely articulate, yet exercising mastery over others. The scent he devotes himself to creating will establish for Grenouille the identity he lacks in having no odor of his own. However, all of his parental surrogates appear to be similarly lacking; each rejects Grenouille, unable to feel any warmth or attachment for the child, and many–such as Baldini, Taillade-Espinasse, and Druot–exploit Grenouille just as he exploits others. Is he then merely the result of an uncaring, narcissistic world? The personification of the Enlightenment?
I don’t know.
And I’m not sure any answer was intended.
Read it if you like. There is a great deal to recommend it, but as I mentioned, Perfume falls apart at the end. A flawed, but engaging, entertaining, theatrical work about the brutality of existence and the ego, positively resplendent with irony.
Read also: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Cover: Images of fruit, flowers, and a nude woman in bright shades of orange, red, and yellow. Vivid, lush, and sensual, fitting for the novel’s descriptive powers.
In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench.