Posts Tagged ‘twentieth-century fiction’

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…

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

September 22, 2019

81wJPxZyoYL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I only very recently came across a reference to this novel, and had to read it; I think I can honestly say it’s the most depressing and pessimistic novel I’ve ever read. It was worth reading, but be warned: you will be made fully to feel the utter pointlessness, meaninglessness and futility of human existence…

Initially, it struck me as Kafkaesque. Then existential angst shades rapidly into the idea of one’s life inevitably and irretrievably slipping away, devoid of purpose: vanity of vanities, all is vanity, says the preacher. Interestingly, this novel is much better known in France than Britain.

A young, newly trained officer is posted to a fort in the desert, at the edge of nowhere, where nothing ever happens. Pointless routine abounds, and it’s impossible to get away. Is our anti-hero tricked into staying there? Yes, by his superiors as well as his so-called friends, but he also tricks himself into staying, for it’s quiet, easy and he doesn’t have to think about anything… he stays in the rut, imagining that something will happen eventually, something exciting, some action that will bring meaning and significance to his existence. Except it doesn’t. There are false alarms, signs of ‘the enemy’ in the distance. Then the enemy spends fifteen years building a road to the fort, and then disappears.

Finally the prospect of real action arrives, and our hero is too old, too ill, and his brain too addled for him to be of any use: he will be medically evacuated before anything happens… which we don’t hear anything about, of course. The real enemy is death.

We imagine that we are in control of our own destinies (ha, ha). It doesn’t quite feel like Kafka, trapped by a senseless bureaucracy, though perhaps the end result is the same: it’s a twentieth-century, non-religious response to the existential question. The book is frightening, in the sense that, I imagine if one read it as a young person, you’d fear getting stuck like the protagonist; reading it as an older reader you fear that you have been trapped like him. Habit is comforting, things familiar are secure and living adventurously is hard, so let’s go with those easier options.

And you cannot go back: the world has moved on and left you behind; there is only distance and disappointment back there, so why bother? More suicidal than a Leonard Cohen song. There is the inevitability and terror of ageing, imperceptibly, and this awareness is even more chilling for the reader who can see this happening to the anti-hero, while he is only dimly and slightly uncomfortably aware. And eventually we begin to move into absurdist territory when history begins to repeat itself a generation later, like the circularity of an early Ionesco play. Another new officer arrives, to be greeted by our greying protagonist.

He dies, forgotten and unloved, in an inn in the middle of nowhere, unwanted and unmourned. Reader, it is a good novel, but read it at you peril.

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