perfumeIn 18th-century France, a place and time known both for its terrible stenches (disease, corpses, manure, human bodies, excrement, rotting food) and its delightful aromas (cinnamon, jasmine, ambergris, storax, coffee), a baby is born. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has no parents, no lineage, no connections — and no odor, none of the delightful smell that babies’ heads always give off. He has no smell of his own at all, something that makes the people around him profoundly uneasy. What he does have is the greatest nose humankind has ever known: the ability to distinguish, in the smell of smoke, not just the kind of wood being burned, but what precise blend of oxygen and ash and leaf and wood make up the residue at any given moment; the ability to distinguish hundreds of thousands of individual human scents, forever archived in his memory. His language of scent far exceeds any words he has to describe it.

Although Grenouille is lower than the lowest rung on French society’s ladder — an unknown bastard with no money and no connections, and with that deeply unsettling lack of scent — his ambitions are as huge as the world itself. He plans to apprentice himself to a master perfumer, to find the greatest scents in the world, to create the most enchanting aromas, to capture human scents and use them for his own devices (even if it means murder) — for nothing less than to make himself beloved. And he will do all of this through the realm of scent:

For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.

Patrick Süskind’s Perfume is an amazing book. I began reading it, not having heard much about it, and found that it’s an absolute masterpiece. One of the first things that struck me, of course, is that the prose is gorgeous. It’s translated from the German, and the translation is simply stunning; if I hadn’t known it was a translation I would never have guessed. The second thing is that the plot is fascinating. The central conceit, of a man with no scent but with a superlative sense of smell, is interesting in itself; to be able to trace his career is simply riveting, from beginning to end. And of course, the delicacy of writing a book about such an ephemeral realm as that of scent must be maddening. How do you describe a scent so your readers can smell it? Especially something literally indescribable, something normal human beings can’t smell: the scent of an almost-ripening, virginal young girl, for instance, apparently one of the most delightful scents on earth.

The third thing that fascinated me about Perfume is that Süskind makes Grenouille a truly repulsive character. It’s a bold move, one that few novelists dare make. He doesn’t hold back: you never like Grenouille or even pity him, and yet you can’t look away. (And the ending holds a genuine surprise.) The implications of the book are haunting. Do we find certain people charming, charismatic, or endearing chiefly because of the way they smell, without even knowing it? Süskind makes it all too plausible. This book was a marvelous, strange, dark, mysterious pleasure, eerie in places, resplendent with beautiful prose. Its flavor of 18th-century France was perfect. This was an unexpected discovery for me.

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6 Responses to Perfume

  1. Lightheaded says:

    This is one of my favorite reads from years past and something I never lend because I know I won’t get it back if I do. Selfish me :)

  2. Tara says:

    My bookclub read this and everyone hated it but me! I thought is was fascinating and as you said, I couldn’t look away! I watched the film just to see how they would handle the ending scenes. Very creepy movie.

  3. JaneGS says:

    Wow–I love books like this, and will have to put it on my list. Great review, especially the part about Süskind making Grenouille a repulsive character–it is a bold move.

    I know that I have defended books in which the protagonist is unlikeable, and it’s an uphill battle. I wonder if we (the readers) at some level feel programmed to still treat stories as if they are morality plays and we (again in the aggregate) feel we can only like (and be interested) in good people. Obviously the best literature is about flaws (tragic or otherwise) and how they are dealt with, but there must be some reason that books with unlikeable “heroes” sometimes don’t find an audience.

    I loved this line from the excerpt: “…scent was a brother of breath…”

  4. lena says:

    Great review! A friend of mine is shipping this over to me and now I’m even more excited to read it! :)

  5. BevE says:

    Hello-I have an award for you at Merry Weather-when you have a chance stop on by to pick it up-enjoy :D

    Merry Weather

  6. Jenny says:

    Lightheaded — yes, there are certain books I would rather buy someone a copy of than lend mine. I think it’s more wise than selfish!

    Tara — I think you were the only perceptive one in your book club! I can see how you wouldn’t sympathize with Grenouille, but how could you not love the prose?

    JaneGS — great insight about books as morality plays. This is definitely not going to get any awards for “feel-good book of the year,” so maybe that explains it — a lot of people don’t like to read things they find depressing.

    lena — Let me know what you think when you read it!

    BevE — thanks for the award!

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