Patrick Süskind: Perfume

December 5, 2021

     Spoilers ahead!

I’ll have to admit to being vaguely disappointed with my return to this novel, and I’m not sure yet that I’ve completely worked out why. I read it nearly twenty years ago, liked it, watched the film and really enjoyed that, and remember it as a really good version of the story, which clearly lends itself to the visual medium. I can see I will have to watch the film again.

The novel focuses on the sense of smell, and this marks it out as very different from any other: this was why it was such an international bestseller. A baby is born, who has no personal odour, and this marks him out as different: both imperceptible to others, and also a source of discomfort or alarm to them when they perceive that there is something unusual about him. And anyone who has any close relationship with him at any point in his life, meets a disastrous end. Monstrous by nature, repelling others, he has a strong sense of self-preservation, and the world’s most powerful and sensitive nose, in that he can identify and remember any odour he encounters, filing it away in his memory.

There’s a lot of straining with the language, at first as the writer strives to describe the indescribable, both in terms of the appalling odours of seventeenth-century Paris where the story begins, and the olfactory experiences of Grenouille, the hero. We have to be convinced just how special he is, and at times the language is just over the top, I’m afraid. Conceptually, Süskind’s single idea is astonishing, and he does marvellous things with it at times, but in the end it’s also a limitation.

At an early age the boy is apprenticed to a tanner, then insinuates himself into a post as a perfumier’s journeyman. Having mastered the craft, he sets off and isolates himself from all human contact and odour and lives in a cave for seven years, before making his way to Grasse, the centre of French perfumery. Here he creates a series of personal smells for himself, and gradually realises the power he has over people in terms of manipulating their responses to him through the scents he chooses to use.

He then, via the secrets of the craft and a series of murders, creates powerful human scents capable of overwhelming the rational behaviours of crowds, ultimately succeeding in preventing his own execution for murder, and eventually driving a demented crowd to tear him to pieces.

That bald summary in a way fails to do justice to Süskind’s achievement, but also shows its limitations. It’s both a tour de force, woven from a single original idea, and a story that doesn’t hold that convincingly together when looked at too closely. Just suspend disbelief for a while and enjoy, then move on…

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