21 March 2020

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

This is one of those moments in time that will produce stories in the future about what we were doing when, how we coped and how we adapted.  The library has been closed for one week with a proposed return date of April 6 (we'll see).  The grocery stores are in good shape with a limit of two on any one item, gasoline is .72/litre, non-essential stores are closed and restaurants are operating with take-out only.  My husband pointed out during our walk with Kip this morning that he hadn't heard a plane fly overhead.  We've been back home for a few hours and I have yet to hear that familiar hum.

I'm feeling much better after coming down with a cold last week and believe me, the sight of a tissue in someone's hand has never had such an unnerving effect.  In happy news, we've never seen so many people out walking their dogs in the park.  I'm not sure how far afield they're coming from but as long as they're using best practices it's a cheering sight.  And now on with the project at hand.

The setting is eighteenth-century France....

  'In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women.  The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots.'

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is unceremoniously delivered on a hot July day amidst fish heads and guts.  The woman who gives birth to him was never interested in being his mother, walking away only to be arrested and condemned soon afterward.  A strange baby from the very beginning, Grenouille is raised by a wet-nurse until she notices he doesn't smell like other babies.  In fact, he has no smell at all....surely a sign of the devil, so Grenouille is hastily left at the cloister with a priest.  Fostered once again, Madame Gaillard marvels at the boy's ability to survive on watery broth, that he eludes death from childhood diseases, and that he can smell the tiniest of worms in a cauliflower.  When he starts identifying villagers several blocks away by scent alone, Madame Gaillard becomes spooked and packs him off to a tannery in the rue de la Mortelleri,  Grenouille is only eight years old.

After several years of working with foul-smelling hides, Grenouille grabs his first chance to introduce himself to Baldini, a once famous perfumer, while delivering saddle leather.  Baldini used to be a trailblazer in producing heady aromas but his inspiration and vision have been reduced to almost nothing. Grenouille pesters the doubtful perfumer for one chance to replicate a famous scent from his beakers and bottles of distilled oils and blossoms.  Not only does Grenouille replicate the perfume, he then betters it.  Baldini is back in business.

As Grenouille hones his skill as an apprentice perfumer, his own lack of personal scent frustrates him.  He creates a 'perfume' that allows him to blend in among his fellow villagers made from rancid fish, rotten egg, horn shavings, singed pork rinds and animal droppings.  Grenouille is at his most proud when he shoves himself between other villagers while at a celebration and goes unnoticed.

There are novels written so vividly you are able to imagine landscape and place as if you were holding a book filled with photos.  Perfume is fascinating in that, yes there is imagery but its readers are also delving into bold associations of everything that has ever wrinkled your nose or made you lean in closer for a gloriously deep whiff.  Is it a coincidence that while reading this book I bought a bottle of Jo Malone's English Pear and Freesia as well as Fleur de Vigne by Caudalie?  I digress.

Grenouille's pursuit of the purest, most exhilarating scent will also be his downfall because it emanates from girls on the brink of womanhood.  The book's subtitle provides the spoiler.  I suspect it was reading about this young man's neglectful childhood, the way he was exploited, his life spent devoid of any partner, that made me root for his safe get-away while he was murdering young women.  Grenouille is not supposed to be likable but somehow that's what happened.  Sorry.

Perfume:  The Story of a Murderer is unlike anything I've read for a very long time and were it not for the serendipitous find at a library sale I doubt I would have sought it out.  But I'm so glad we've crossed paths....a strangely wonderful book for these days when things are not so wonderful around the world.

Keep well.

This woodcut engraving from the mid-16th century depicts the process of distilling essential oils from plants with a conical condenser. 

The Wellcome Library, London


  1. Sounds such a good story. Improbable but intriguing.

    1. As succinct and wonderful as ever, Mystica! Hope you're keeping well in your part of the world.

  2. I think this was quite the most erotic book I've ever read - I wonder if a middle-aged re-read would have quite the same effect! It would be rather sad to discover that it didn't! I quite see how you've been tempted into perfume indulgences - never mind, you won't dipping into your travel fund for a while yet!

    1. Whenever jasmine was mentioned I wished it wasn't this cold and blah outside, Mary. There are two houses within walking distance that have it growing along the fence, but right now it's just a dry, brown tangle.
      So true! Oh the blissful ignorance of what was just a few months away when I was in London last September. Fingers crossed for 2021.

  3. Ooh, I just googled Fleur de Vigne as I don't know it - it sounds nice and not too expensive either. I'm tempted - but trying not to develop too much of a virus online shopping habit!

    1. It's nice for a pick-me-up after a session of housework or setting out on a dog walk on a humid day. It lacks staying power but for the price it's just the thing to reach for in certain situations. Kip is lovely but wouldn't appreciate Jo Malone or Miller Harris on a dog walk!