Song of the Day: ‘La Possibilité d’Une Île’ by Carla Bruni
Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel, Das Parfum, is a literary oddity. Imagine if Marcel Proust wrote a novel about a serial killer, endowed his main characters with the looks of Hugo’s Quasimodo and the emotional range of Camus’ Meursault; and you will have a vague idea of what you are in for.
Imagine if you had no sense of your own smell. How would that affect you? Perhaps not that much, given the Lynx and Givenchy juices we squirt up our pits and dab behind our ears respectively. Imagine, though, that as well as having no odour of your own, you were born with the most sensitive sense of smell in history. Imagine on top of this that you were born to an infanticidal fish-gutter in the fetid air of eighteenth-century Paris. Again, you will probably draw a blank. Do not worry that is not a failing on your part, after all why on earth would you or anyone else have given a minute of time to this unlikely circumstance? (I am asking you to imagine much as it is.)
Well, for some reason or other that is quite beyond me, Patrick Süskind has put himself there and he came up with Grenouille; a nasally gifted yet inconsequential, socially-invisible misfit whose lack of odour smacks to others of evil. Lovely you might think, but where can this story go from here? Well here goes.
Grenouille is born at a Parisian fish market where he is cast amidst the guts and gills to die. His mother is subsequently executed for this act and her previous acts of post-partum neglect. Orphaned, he is passed from one wet nurse to another until he is taken-on by a member of the clergy. He is then raised in an orphan house in which his strange ways nurture murder attempts by other children — attempts he somehow survives. Whilst enduring these attacks he is riddled with disease after disease most of which were invariably life threatening in the day. Each seemingly strike him down and violently smash him onto the step of death’s door …
And, yet, he survives. Even more astonishing to those around him, he thrives. This is made all the more amazing given his diet of homeopathic soups and scraps. He gradually develops into an utterly forgettable individual who is camouflaged by the gargoyles that roamed the Paris crowds of the day. Consequently he is an unattractive proposition to say the least.
Eventually, he has to earn his keep and he is sold to work at a tanner’s, processing pelts and handling chemicals that would have been described risky even in the Chernobyl power station staff juggling society. He works and works and eventually earns a regular half-day off on Sunday. On these he begins to hone and indulge his hobby of smell.
To him smells are more than anything else. Even the smell of horse sweat has, to him, a power and beauty. Everything is manifest only in terms of odour. The world around him becomes an ordinance survey of pongs. Additionally, he is able to recreate any smell in his mind and as he does he relives his life redefining it to the point that all emotions and experiences are olfactory; passion, pain, and pleasure, all of these are lived through his sense of smell.
Needless to say, this gives Süskind the chance to rattle off adjective after adjective and he takes the chance with open arms. His words ooze with sensual comparators. These initially paint a delicious, if grotesque, picture of Paris that reads fantastically but soon descends into list-making prose. The pages become a compilation album of smells that are unfortunately more filler than killer. Then, just as the lists begin to take their toll, Grenouille murders his first little girl.
He is attracted to her by scent wafting its way across Parisian streets embroiled in a festival. Upon seeing and smelling her he becomes transfixed. He loves and need to claim or experience here, so he murders her and drinks her smell. This to him is perfection. Every inch of her body has a brilliant perfume that sends him into oblivion. Then he leaves the scene and over the next few years he relives the scent over and over again.
During this time fate transpires to place him in the company of a Mr Baldini, perfumist to the hoi polloi. Baldini is going through a rough patch. He is not the man he once was, new young bucks have wrenched his king perfumist crown from him and he is hapless to alter his lot. Grenouille transforms his failing career with the development of a brilliant new perfume, created by virtue of his impeccable hooter.
Grenouille then becomes a journeyman trainee in the art of perfumes. Baldini takes the young fellow’s prodigious talent and mixes it with the science he has learned over his long years of practice. Süskind takes this opportunity to delve into the art of scent production and at first this is interesting but then, as before, the prose lapses into listmanship. We are given a great and unnecessary grounding in the art of the 18th-century perfumist, which is all very lovely but simply page-eating rubbish.
This is a shame because everything else about the story is dealt with a succinct yet evocative brevity, the pace is great and yet the texture is still there. Unfortunately for a few periods Süskind tries to give too much detail and you sense that he is trying to let you know how much research he has done on the topic. You get the impression that he thinks that if he’s done the work he’ll bloody well let us know, unfortunately this occasionally stalls the tale.
Eventually Grenouille leaves Paris in search of a town that has a perfect extraction method for perfume. It is in this second part of the book that things pick up for our hero. But first he goes into years of hibernation in a cave right up a hill.
‘Hmm, hibernation and picking up of plot don’t exactly go together, do they?’ you mutter quietly as you yawn. And ‘Is this nearly finished?’ Yes … sort of.
Whilst hibernating he intoxicates himself with the smell of the murdered girl. And he once again falls in love with her. Though, this is not a true love, naturally, given that she is dead. This is a love of perfection. Day after day he revels in the memory of her smell, dining as he does so on frozen bats. Then he is shocked into reality by a sudden overpowering smell, this smell being the absence of his own body odour. He tries as hard as he can and there is nothing there. Consequently without a smell he makes no impact in his own world. So what does he do? Well he returns to the real world and sets about making his own scent using murdered young women as his source of smell.
He does what?
From here the plot hits you one of two ways; you either herald it as a masterstroke. In which case you see the ending as a commentary on the impact of our senses and the nature of society, in particular it may be seen as a brilliant commentary of near-revolution mob rule France. Alternatively you may think the story lacks a true sense of ending as if a poor, best-of-both-worlds compromise is reached.
Perhaps this split is inevitable. The main character is difficult to place, you think, ‘Do I love him or hate him?’ He is wicked, self-obsessed and utterly distinct from society. He is also dangerous, murderous and, worse than this, unrepentant. Of course, we should dislike him. But then, what has society ever really done for him?
Contrasting his life and actions with his skills and upbringing, Grenouille cuts a sorry, likeable figure that enacts outrages that society cannot tolerate but, which, for him, are essential for a sense of himself. In the story he should either get away with or pay for his sins. You get the sense that Süskind is reluctant to put his chips on either result and the end is a mishmash of both options.
Ultimately his end is neither punishment nor amnesty he becomes incorporated into society but in a way that is quite sinister. Whilst unpleasant for Grenouille, it is society that comes off worst. Society appears to be no better than this murderous little oik. Society appears as stupid, easily led and equally murderous. We are stripped down as base individuals acting in herds responding to the panic of word of mouth and the allure of the chemicals hitting our senses.
In summary, for the most part this book makes for a good read, particularly when Süskind shows restraint and a sense of direction. He captures a moment in time and tells us about it in a way that wafts images out of the page. The story ebbs and flows building up some great characters that are on the whole loathsome and who get their just deserts. In contrast, in the final analysis he does not know what to do with the main character. It’s an ending that I can’t decide upon, some days I love it and on others all I can see is indecision in the writer. Which is worse? I don’t know. I like to feel that an author likes or loathes their characters and has a firm idea what is happening to them: compromise is unacceptable. On the other hand, indecision has a natural charm and holding a good character in your pen can make decisions on life or death, crime and punishment, difficult. Yes that’s definitely what I think, indecision in this case is good but, there again, having said that…
Till next post!
PS: Regardless of what anyone says, the movie was terrible! When reading the book, you do feel a connection with Grenouille regardless of his faults (for lack of a better term) and feel a certain sympathy for him, whilst in the movie they portray him in such a manner that the only reactions possible are disgust and revulsion. So unlike how Süskind wrote it. But when was A.!’s Law of Life #5385702 proven wrong? View trailer here
PPS: The BBC’s A Good Read is a nice place to look if in need of a good recommendation. They’ve covered some really interesting books.