Perfume:the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

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He had withdrawn solely for his own personal pleasure, only to be nearer to himself.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
ISBN-10: 0141041153
ISBN-13: 978-0141041155
Source: My own copy (an earlier edition)

Sunday Salon

Reading today:

Eden’s Outcasts: the Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. I’m making heavy weather of this book, mainly because I’m finding Bronson Alcott such a difficult person. I’m only reading a few pages each morning, which is about all I can put up with Bronson’s self-centred approach to life.

It will take me a while to finish this book as it’s over 400 pages long. So far, I’m up to page 118, and Bronson has tried and failed at almost everything he has undertaken in his search for perfection. His efforts at running a school have failed and he is about to embark on a new project – a self-sufficient commune, a ‘beacon of morality in a fallen world.’  This was to be ‘an earthly heaven‘, anything that came from the work of slaves was excluded, they would do away with money, shun the use of animal products and rely as little as possible on animals for work.

He asked Emerson to join him in his venture and also to back him financially. Emerson refused and wrote in his diary:

For a founder of a family or institution, I would as soon exert myself to collect money for a madman. (page 114)

I have to agree with Emerson.

There has been little yet in this book about Louisa but I’m hoping that will soon change as she is now 11 and beginning to rebel against her father, who baffles him with her stubbornness.

I’ve also started to read Perfume: the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. I’m not sure yet what I think of this novel. It begins well, grabbing my attention with a description of the birth of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Paris just before the French Revolution began. The description of the smells of Paris at that time is breath-taking in its awfulness:

The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots. The stench of sulphur 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.  (page 3)

Grenouille born in this stink, is not an attractive character either. Having no odour of his own but a highly developed sense of smell, he is a strange character to say the least. 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.

Peter Ackroyd is quoted on the back cover:

A meditation on the nature of death, desire and decay.

I’m reserving judgement for the time being.