Whenever you tell a non-perfume person that you love perfume, the first question they usually ask is : “Have you read Perfume?”
The answer is, naturally: “Of course“.
How could I not have? Patrick Süskind’s novel, ingeniously centered around an acutely sensitized triptych of the olfactory : an odourless anti-hero with by far the most advanced olfactive apparatus in the world; the utterly foul stench of humanity (hilariously disgusting from the off), and the contrasting beauty of perfume, is a work of utter brilliance, translated into 49 languages and a seller of over 20 million copies. Darkly, almost savagely comic, it is an involving and fast paced sensorial thriller that enters unchartered and unrivaled territory in being exclusively written from the vantage point of smell ; a sense-drenching immersion into the world of the olfactory, so richly and sensually written that it is almost deranging.
This must be why my re-reading of the book over the last few days is only the second in my life: it is almost just too much. Having spent an entire day marinating in the obsessional mania of the protagonist, Jean Baptiste Grenouille, the greatest nose in history, a total psychopath who lives entirely through his nose and is oblivious to all else, I almost felt insidiously infected with the pungent madness of not only the character, but also the author.
In fact, taking the book down from the shelf, I had not quite remembered just how quixotically intense and horrific the story really is: exhilarating in the extreme, but also quite horrible; disturbing. It is strange how you forget key details with books and films, just as we do with events in real life: I remembered it more romantically – red-haired maidens and rose petals in Grasse, possibly because I was just casually sweeping through it as a floppy haired university student in Rome; probably also because of all the exquisite detail the writer goes into of perfume making in the south of France and Paris; the techniques of distillation and enfleurage, the flood of ingredients, all the flowers; the pomades, the powders, the concretes, the absolutes; it is gorgeous to read – forgetting the deep levels of insanity that the killer – born with no smell, and therefore compelled to create the most magnificent scent for himself – descends into. Süskind captures this derangement so well, delivering us Grenouille’s corrupt and splintered, monomanic mind and logic so lucidly that with the incessant, breathlessness of the prose, which carries us along like a tidal wave of madness, we are almost in danger of surrendering to insanity ourselves.
The entire novel is actually rather nasty. Despite the florid sensuality, a rather hollow nihilism. And it leaves something of a bitter aftertaste. No human is rendered pleasantly. All are grasping, greedy; there is no goodness. The ending, the last paragraph, is disappointing, something of a squib compared to the torrent that comes before it (I often find this with literature: the perfect ending is a very rare thing indeed). Cruelly sardonic, full of hatred for humanity, it is difficult to tell sometimes whether the triple-distilled misanthropy in this fable comes from the alienated protagonist and his contempt of the stench of other people, all people (except virginal maidens of a particular physical type) or from the author himself – Suskind has long lived as a recluse, either in Munich, or somewhere near a French lake, never allowing interviews nor photographs, holing himself away from the world, which surely speaks volumes). Cascading, undulating, fragrant (or reeking) in every paragraph, gripping throughout, Perfume is an inimitable meisterwerk that fully deserves its reputation, while also being so odiferously potent and sadistically overwhelming that I am sure it might be another few decades before I take it down from the shelf again for another reading.
18 responses to ““Perfume, The Story Of A Murderer” by Patrick Suskind”
The German streaming series was both fascinating and repugnant; it was very hard to get it out of my head.
Yes I watched that and liked it in a way – though it bore zero relation to the book
It was so long ago that I read Perfume. I think the early 80s. I was still a one-perfume gal, wearing Crabtree and Evelyn’s Mysore Sandalwood cologne every day, in copious amounts, for years and years. I knew how important smell was even though I hadn’t yet dived into the world of niche or any other perfumes. I have a nose like a dog and could sniff out things long before they became apparent to others. All my memories were attached to smell. I remember loving the book Perfume, and realizing that smell was such an important sense to someone else. I have only read it once though, and it is still on a shelf, somewhere. I do remember how much he hated people and that to me was the most terrifying thing. Neil, you have put a little thought into my head that I may want to re-read this book again.
Honestly – devote yourself to this treasure. It is even more amazing than we realized.
And HOW I wish I had an entire storecupboard of that Crabtree and Evelyn Mysore Sandalwood, the soaps as well. OH MY GOD.
Perfume obsession + serial killer = fascinating & original premise to me.
I was rather disappointed with the final paragraph also.
The cover I saw the other day had white roses, a black background, and an open scissors with a strand of red hair, I don’t see it up there.
The one I read also had a different cover that I didn’t think went with it – too 1940’s.
It IS completely brilliant. An incredible achievement. Insane!
I love perfume and have never read this book nor watched the movie and don’t intend to. I have heard enough from various sources to know the premise and the plot without the need for intimate descriptions.
NO YOU NEED TO READ IT!
It’s not graphic – I think I exaggerate here. The stuff on perfume is too amazing to not read it – just so intense and mindstuffing; also there is always a certain distance created because the author is quite cold, and makes it clear that the whole thing is merely a ‘tale’. It’s not like some sick serial killer book where violence is extolled. Perfume is everything; the killer ONLY sees in smell, and that is something that has never anywhere else been replicated.
I have read and lots of perfume books but I never read this one, and now I am kind of glad that I didn’t.
No! I have put you off it, which wasn’t my intention at all. It is 100% essential for any perfume maniac!
Okay, I will have to check it out!
You will be possessed.
I read it over 20 years ago and still keep the book on the bookshelf. In fact, I am not a perfume person and just curious. May I ask a question, do you or can you smell in your dream?
Yes. A lot. I often dream of vintage cabinets full of unbelievable treasure, and I open and smell them.
Wow, I’m so jealous now.
I am not especially gifted in that regard: I just dream about finding things, and then my brain can’t help but make something up. I don’t think they are spectacularly amazing new perfumes or anything; just something I am excited to unearth.
it makes sense and reflects your personaily and your passion. Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s always delightful to read your article.
Thank you very much for reading what I write and your own always thoughtful comments!