Perfume, as the subtitle of the book proclaims, is the story of a murderer. Specifically, the story of a murderer, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who is obsessed with scent. I decided to read Perfume because it’s my cousin’s favourite book, and she recommended it. I found it to be a wonderful, disturbing, and beautiful novel. It feels odd to say that about a novel which has such an abominable protagonist, but this is the kind of novel that pulls you in, and isn’t easily forgotten.
I have a passion for wonderful scents and tastes, so Perfume, for me, was an incredible feat of sensory description, with the trials and tribulations of someone who has an extreme, almost supernatural, aversion to particular fragrances, and a completely obsessive relationship to the smells he is attracted to. He desires to ‘own’ the scents that he falls in love with – unfortunately, some of those scents belong to young women.
‘Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.’
Grenouille himself, as a particular quirk that becomes his raison d’etre for murder, has no scent of his own. He only becomes aware of this in the middle of the novel, and his horror is absolute. His skin doesn’t smell of anything, and he lacks any of the odours – good or bad – that human beings have. This becomes both a hindrance and a useful tool, because Grenouille, as a misanthropic, sociopathic murderer, enjoys the anonymity that his lack of scent brings.
I was both moved and disturbed by the descriptions of scent in the novel. Since it was set in eighteenth century France, of course they didn’t yet have modern plumbing, and people didn’t, as a rule, wash themselves very often (and weren’t stringent about basic personal hygiene), so some of the descriptions were a little difficult to read. Suskind is a subtly sharp and clever writer, so even when things become graphic and overloaded with sensory detail, I never felt as if it was too much – his commentary on Grenouille’s actions, and the other characters in the novel added a layer of witty observation.
‘This scent had a freshness, but not the freshness of limes or pomegranates, not the freshness of myrrh or cinnamon bark or curly mint or birch or camphor or pine needles, not that of a May rain or a frosty wind or of well water… and at the same time it had warmth, but not as bergamot, cypress, or musk has, or jasmine or daffodils, not as rosewood has or iris… This scent was a blend of both, of evanescence and substance, not a blend, but a unity, although slight and frail as well, and yet solid and sustaining, like a piece of thin, shimmering silk… and yet again not like silk, but like pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk – and try as he would he couldn’t fit those two together: milk and silk! This scent was inconceivable, indescribable, could not be categorized in any way – it really ought not to exist at all. And yet there it was as plain and splendid as day.’
I also learnt a lot about perfumery, something I’ve always wanted to know more about. There were a number of processes mentioned and described in the novel, along with the different kinds of potency. From pressing and distilling, to working with hot and cold oils, this is one of the best novels to read if you love perfume, and want to know more about how it was (and is) made. Of course Grenouille becomes a master with all these processes, and nobody could surpass him in his expertise, considering how bizarrely supernatural his sense of smell is.
The novel moves from Paris in a heatwave in the height of summer (!) to a mountain that becomes a secluded home for Grenouille before he discovers his lack of scent, to Montpellier, and finally Grasse, a place renowned for its perfumers and perfumeries. Here he commits his final piece de resistance, the culmination of all his knowledge and experience – both as a master perfumer and a murderer. The ending of the novel is shocking, even in a novel full of shocks.
‘He had used only a drop of his perfume for his performance in Grasse. There was enough left to enslave the whole world. If he wanted, he could be feted in Paris, not by tens of thousands, but by hundreds of thousands of people; or could walk out to Versailles and have the King kiss his feet; write the Pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new Messiah; be anointed in Notre-Dame as Supreme Emperor before kings, or even as God come to earth.’
As a writer, I admire this novel – the masterful descriptions of perfume and scents of all kinds, and the portrait of a murderer without empathy or human feeling. It could have become one dimensional and clichéd, but Suskind avoided this by giving Grenouille the chance to grow and change – not for the better, but still, it has the mark of interesting character development. The decisions and discoveries that Grenouille makes drive the novel forward. The treatment of the theme and central subject – perfume – is unexpected and still fresh. It inspired me, and I would recommend this to writers who want inspiration on how to write an interesting and unique antagonist.