May 24th, 2014
Perfume by Patrick Süskind. What a riveting novel. I read it in a day, which I can’t remember ever having done before; a breathless binge, gulping chapters and chapters, forgetting to swallow.
The novel’s about a scent-prodigy, Grenouille, who grows up in Paris in the late 18th century. He’s not only a gifted man, but a supernaturally gifted man, one who can identify odors by even their remotest traces, find them in the dark, and track them expertly through the stenchy, dense heart of the City of Lights circa 1750. Industrious, obsessive, mole-like, Grenouille is forever seeking new scents to experience. He processes everything around him nose-first, like an animal; all other modalities a distant second. He’s also a sociopath of the highest order, from an early age decisively cut off from humanity, from all empathy and fellow feeling, living only through his eerie gift for detecting, tracking, identifying & mixing scent.
What’s more, he casts no discernible odor himself, which makes this already strange being even more supernatural, alien, wraith-like. Combine Grenouille’s odorlessness with his endless thirst for new scents, for sucking up experience through his nose, and what you have for a protagonist is a kind of scent-vampire (think of the classic description of the vampire casting no reflection in a mirror).
As the novel unfolds, Grenouille comes more and more into his own, realizing the extent of his powers and how he can use them to achieve greater and ghastlier ends. He stops at nothing to learn all he can about alchemical extraction of scents from matter, willingly enduring an apprenticeship to a washed-up talentless rich perfumer, Baldini, who takes credit for all his new underling-savant’s astonishing creations. Eventually, having fine-tuned his scent-extraction skills under Baldini (whereas his talent for identifying and mixing scents, being already virtuosic beyond measure, needed no further refinement), he realizes the olfactory sense is the most primitive, most direct channel to the brain, and that the way to influence and dominate others to meet his own ends is through nostrils. He will do this by extracting & making use of the rarest, most potent scent of all, regardless of what heinous acts he has to commit to obtain it.
I loved this novel for many reasons. Its narrative flow, for starters, was superb. Süskind is one of those authors who makes you realize how a novel’s narrative, in expert hands, is capable of pacing like an irresistible melody. When the harnessing of detail is right, when the emotional crests and valleys are timed just so, you’re carried along from page to page to page until you realize two hours have passed and you forgot to eat lunch. The gifted melodist has that special something too, that ability to string note to note in effortless fashion, smoothly transitioning to remote chords, transposing to odd keys, riding over changes in rhythm or tempo, with the listener hanging on each measure.
Not only did Perfume have me breathlessly skipping from page to page, forgetting the flow of time, but it also had me straddling the sensuous and the philosophical in a delicious way that I count among the great pleasures I take in reading fiction. I’m always happy to meet fiction I can consume and graze upon at the most surface levels — or slowly bore down into to investigate its underlying abstract themes. Fiction of many many strata: not just core, not just crust.
As for sensuous detail, the novel has this in bounteous supply. Any book covering the subject of scent had better, right? But Perfume doesn’t just excel in providing the reader with richly described odors & fragrances — there’s an abundance of vivid sensory detail throughout the book: for instance, that unforgettable opener where the infant Grenouille is birthed into the fishmonger’s offal pile in some dank festering Paris ghetto; the time-stopped description of the girl peeling plums in the night whose delicate scent Grenouille tracks across Paris, and whom he impulsively murders; the generous descriptions of alchemical appurtenances that are designed to separate the rarefied essences of scent from matter; all the scent-bottles, tinctures, scented gloves, pastilles, soaps, sachets and phials in old Baldini’s perfume shop.
Just as rich and engrossing are the themes & ideas explored in the novel. I love, for instance, when Baldini and Grenouille meet, how a gradual tension is drawn out between patient, years-earned traditional craft (represented by Baldini, even though he lacks talent) vs. wild, improvisational, visionary inspiration (Grenouille). Learned skill vs. raw talent. When Baldini first begins to suspect he has a wunderkind on his hands — no, even before then, when he thinks he just has perhaps a somewhat-talented presumptuous weirdo coming to show him tricks — he uses the opportunity to downplay Grenouille’s instinctive, unerring scent-craft stunts and instead praise skills earned and learned through rites of passage & with strict adherence to tradition. In fact, throughout Grenouille’s apprenticeship with Baldini, the old hack perfumer always looks for chances to remind Grenouille that his gifts need the rigor & refinement of notation, of system, of process & formula, without which the talent would remain only locked in Grenouille’s noggin (which Baldini, shrewd businessman that he is, distinctly wishes NOT to happen). Baldini tries to transform Grenouille’s automatic, effortless scent-mind into a flowchart and process document. He succeeds, but only because Grenouille is too busy sponging up all the old man’s information and habits and methods to put up a fight.
Tradition and rigorous attention to craft are vital for artists because they link them to other humans in time, allow them to pass down elements of techniques to other artists, and allow for artists to benefit likewise from their predecessors. It’s about community. So it’s no wonder that Grenouille cared nothing for this — he wasn’t quite human, he was a scent-vampire sociopath. He had his magic nostrils, and the world of shifting, intriguing scent around him that he burned to fully discover and distill, and from which processes create new complex temples of never-before-experienced scent — for himself to enjoy.
I also liked the vivid sense the book gave of the Enlightenment era’s welter of scientific theories & movements, many of which were still quite alchemical in nature, despite the Enlightenment’s emphasis on scientific, quantified reasoning (in 1781, for instance, one James Price claimed to have a powder that morphed silver to gold). For instance you have Grenouille learning, through alembics and distillers & actual material processes, what generations of perfumers had long utilized — an alchemy of separating & capturing the purest scent-essences of things — of transforming one thing to a higher thing (a staple of alchemical thought). And through this process, he proves himself by novel’s end to be a true, fearsome arch-alchemist, achieving a transformation of base matter to rarest essence in order to achieve unheard of effects — not merely on people’s sense of smell, but on mass human perception, thought and feeling.
Just in the same way, “Age of Reason” be damned, you still had a strong current of residual, throwback alchemy lingering in the way intellectuals thought about the world. Here I mean alchemy in its speculative & mystical sense, with learned men still seeking to transform human body, mind and spirit through un-scientific theoretical hunches & visions. The novel accurately depicts these alchemical holdovers’ misguided, muddled philosophies through the fluidum letale theory of the character of marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse, with whom Grenouille finds his fate entwined. Returning from a seven-year stint in the mountains (more on that later), Grenouille wanders back to civilization looking like some kind of decrepit neanderthal; the marquise de la Taillade-Espinasse catches wind of this strange specimen and decides to test his half-baked theories on him. Now the marquis’ fluidum letale theory holds that the closer you are to earth’s core, the closer you are to its inherently life-sapping energies, & the sooner you’ll perish; meanwhile the loftier your are in your habitat, the closer you are to all that is health & well-being. Grenouille, who looked like a mole-man and center-of-the-earther at this point in the novel, offered the perfect chance for the marquis to test out his ideas.
Much hilarity ensues as Taillade-Espinasse “heals” and “transforms” his guinea pig using his fluidum claptrap, to the delight and fascination of the townsfolk (essentially he shaves, washes, feeds him & puts clothes on him; meanwhile Grenouille uses the hapless marquis to access a nearby perfumer’s supplies so he can work on constructing his fake-human-odor scent-cloak). I love thinking of the Enlightenment and all its intellectual upheaval & uprooting as providing such ripe ground for the weird ideas — like Taillade-Espinasse’s untested, unquantified fluidum — it was meant to displace. As if the destruction of all the old hoary toadstools of a pre-scientific age created a few last gasp spores that still managed to find purchase in the fresh-tilled dirt & maintain their hold. Especially while the new gestalt was not not yet rooted enough to supplant them.
My favorite part of the novel is an extraordinary sequence which occurs after Grenouille leaves the tutelage of Baldini and decides to travel to Grasse, a town renowned far and wide as a mecca for perfumers, in order to complete his mastery of scent extraction processes. As his journey progresses, he realizes more and more that he cannot abide the smell of humans, and must go out of his way to avoid any hint of it: first it’s passing strangers, then it’s nearby villages, towns, and soon he can’t have even the faintest trace of the creatures hit his nostrils. In his efforts to get away from all scents mankind, he ends up on a mountain, and finds a little burrow to crawl into (this whole passage reminds me of the fantastic “Life and Times of Michael K.” by J.M. Coetzee). Ensconced here, finally free of human stench, he spends most of his time locked in deep reverie, reviewing his life by way of scents he’s known, living in a scent+mind cocoon, acting as a kind of fantasy god over his inner private kingdom of remembered fragrances. Grenouille’s lofty isolated retreat constitutes a strange, hallucinogenic passage in the novel. His is an isolation almost monastic in its purity and fervor, except that instead of using his monastic separation to commune with God, he’s just communing with himself, going into hours-long ecstasies of scent-drunkenness, dramatically re-telling his own life to himself via scent highlights, thrilling to this or that scent-related memory of triumph & tragedy. Soon he’s emaciated, diminished, sunburned, pale, eating lizards and lichen, coming out only to eat drink, shit and piss. Year after year he just lives burrowed into that hole, wormed in there, lost in scent-reverie and in the sense of power that comes from being able to keep re-building your own fantasy world, like an expert lucid dreamer.
Just when it seems like Grenouille will live out the rest of his life in this mountain, having lost all interest in anything involving humankind, something catastrophic happens to him to force his departure. After a night of too much indulgence in old scent memories, he passes out. Süskind writes: “[His] sleep, though deep as death itself, was not dreamless this time, but threaded with ghostly wisps of dreams. These wisps were clearly recognizable as scraps of odors. At first they merely floated in thin threads past Grenouille’s nose, but then they grew thicker, more cloudlike. And now it seemed as if he were standing in the middle of a moor from which fog was rising. The fog slowly climbed higher. Soon Grenouille was completely wrapped in fog, saturated with fog, and it seemed he could not get his breath for the foggy vapor. If he did not want to suffocate, he would have to breathe the fog in. And the fog was, as noted, an odor. And Grenouille knew what kind of odor. The fog was his own odor. His, Grenouille’s, own body odor was the fog.
”And the awful thing was that Grenouille, although he knew that his odor was his odor, could not smell it. Virtually drowning in himself, he could not for the life of him smell himself!”
This is the moment for me when the novel becomes a truly great one: when cold-hearted Grenouille, who at this point in the narrative has clearly emerged as a villain, displays very human vulnerability and fear at what he is. This turn of events complexifies his character, and invites the read to ponder the implications of his predicament. With the fog surrounding him, Grenouille has something of a breakdown, and is barely able to wrest himself from the choking vapor. When he’s calmer, and is able to make sense of what has happened, he realizes with horror what others (most notably his first wetnurse) have long known about him: not only can he not smell himself, but he has no scent at all to smell. That fog that he experienced, comprising “wisps” which are “scraps of odors”, is the only thing Grenouille can say is his odor. But it’s not really, it’s just a proxy field consisting of every odor he’s ever experienced. Meanwhile his own odor is undetectable to anyone, even himself — it’s just void — and so for all intents and purposes he is a scent-cipher, a mammal without odor.
And just what would it mean to possess the odor that is no odor? For our human scents are such powerful means of communicating to the world who we are, they are our unique olfactory IDs, our constantly shifting pheromonal signatures, our passing emotional states. To not possess this unique human signature is to not have impact. It is to not be able to affect others, disgust them, seduce them, pheromonally move them. It is to be ghost, zombie, something undead.
Imagine scent was as important to you as it was to Grenouille, and that you came to this sudden awareness of your own scentlessness. It would feel like having a face that is no-face, just masked flesh. It would be like having an itch you cannot scratch, a voice you can’t hear, such that you’re not even sure if you have skin to scratch, or have a mouth to make speak. Of course this would produce a massive destabilizing surge of unreality. You’d be struck by a nauseating sense of yourself as ridiculous, nothing but accumulated experience (i.e., his fog of other scents he has acquired), but no innate core. With that would come a kind of desperate panicking madness, wouldn’t it? That, to me, is the fog that was described rising around Grenouille. The cold existential vapor of living a fake life, a non-life.
How does Grenouille respond? He wastes no time, and comes straight down from the mountain determined to scent-cloak his own alienness so he can go amongst humans undetected, an impostor of an odored human. He meets the marquis, procures new scents with which to make his fake-human scent, then goes about his remaining mission: to finish learning all he can about scent extraction so he can then create the ultimate perfume, one taken from 25 freshly-slain virgins, an irresistible essence he’ll use to bewitch, seduce & lord over humankind. And not for sex. And not for money. But just so he can be loved as a god. It sounds like something out of a comic book, but the way it’s told in the novel, it works, it just fucking works, it’s over the top and crazy, but Süskind pulls it off.
At the end of Grenouille’s perverse & astonishing career, he succeeds in creating his murderous, master perfume. And he realizes it works: it leaves all who inhale it absolutely powerless to do anything but adore him as not the lumpy bulbous-nosed dwarf he is, but as a god to be worshiped in orgiastic fervor. But by this point, with throngs before him under the fragrance’s influence, it doesn’t matter. His success leaves Grenouille cold, because he is still, just as he was in the mountain, totally unknowable. He still has no core odor deep down, he is still a zero, soulless. He can only be known through whatever scent masks he has constructed to emulate a normal odored human. All that he harbors within him for humans, because of some mixture of horrific upbringing and congenital mental defect, is cold hatred, and he can’t even get that recognized by everyone he’s bewitched, so effective is his master perfume in forcing their adoration. He can’t even be known for the stunted thing he is, a wicked little quasi-human.
Which is why the novel ends the way it does, with the all-powerful Grenouille, the scent-master with the ultimate weapon in his possession to do whatever he wants to the human race, effectively committing suicide to escape the tiny windowless crouching-size only prison of his own unknowable self.
For more about Süskind, here’s his wiki page.