Perfume by Patrick Süskind, translated from the German by John E üWoods was first published in 1985. It is an extraordinary novel, a Gothic work in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe, or Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey. It depicts the strange life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and is a book of smells. Grenouille, himself has no body smell, but an acute sense of smell. He can recognise and locate the source of smells from miles away. His absence of smell alienates him from other people and he in turn is disgusted by their odour. He is an outsider.
On the trail of an elusive but exquisite smell he tracks it down to a young girl and kills her to possess her scent for himself. This puts him in a state of ecstatic happiness and
… he felt he knew who he really was: nothing less than a genius. And that the meaning and goal and purpose of his life had a higher destiny: nothing less than to revolutionise the odoriferous world. (page 46)
He knew he had to become a creator of scents, the greatest perfumer of all time.
From then on his life became even stranger, if that was possible. He learnt the various processes of making perfume, then withdrew from the world, living for seven years in total isolation in a cave. There he existed in a world with no human smells, whilst he lived in his mind recreating the exquisite scent of the young girl he had killed.
He had withdrawn solely for his own personal pleasure, only to be nearer to himself. No longer distracted by anything external, he basked in his own existence and found it splendid. He lay in his stony crypt like his own corpse, hardly breathing, his heart hardly beating – and yet he lived as intensively and dissolutely as ever a rake had lived in the world outside. (page 128)
I was fascinated by the descriptive language, by so many different smells, scents, perfumes, stenches and obnoxious odours. The descriptions of how perfume is made, when you know what he had in mind was chilling. He wants the delicious scent of the girl he killed, to peel it off her and make it his own. Quite simply this is a horror story, one that made me not want to read it and yet also want to read it to the bitter end. It’s a tale of obsession, the atmosphere Süskind evokes is tremendous, and the detail it contains adds to the realism. Maybe Grenouille is a modern Dracula.
To say that I ‘enjoyed’ it is not true, but it is a tremendous story and well written.
Publisher: Penguin (re-issue edition April 2010)
Paperback: 272 pages
Source: My own copy (an earlier edition)