This book is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of the late twentieth century. It was first published in the original German in 1985, and published in English the following year. It has sold over twenty million copies worldwide and been translated into 49 different languages. It won numerous prizes, remained on the bestseller lists in Germany for many years and was universally acclaimed. Despite this, its author published only a handful of other works (Perfume was his second book) and virtually retired from literary life in the mid-1990s and now, in his seventies, lives as a recluse between Germany and France, shunning all publicity. None of this surprises me; this book has surely to be the product of a very unusual mind.
The book begins in mid-eighteenth century Paris when the central character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born beneath a fish stall, to an indigent mother. She pauses her work briefly in order to give birth to him but then, believing or perhaps wishing him to be yet another of the many stillbirths she is said to have had, she leaves him for dead amongst the discarded fish guts. When he is discovered alive, his mother is tried for infanticide and executed. He is left to the mercy of the church, but proves a demanding and difficult baby, who, despite his unpromising start, appears to enjoy rude health. So much so that the wet-nurse hired to take care of him, returns him as he is drinking too much of her milk, making it impossible for her to take on any other infants and therefore make a living. The sense of his insatiable appetite and how he sucks the life out of those around him is established. As he goes through life, we learn that those who come into contact with him invariably meet a tragic end.
Once old enough he is apprenticed to a tanner and lives a brutal existence. He also begins to learn that he has an exceptional sense of smell – it’s almost painterly in its precision. An unscrupulous perfumer in the city, whose best days are behind him, discovers the boy’s skills and buys him from the tanner, obviously without revealing Grenouille’s gifts. The vain Baldini uses him to copy the successful scents produced by others and to create remarkable new fragrances which restore Baldini’s fame and fortune.
It is whilst working for Baldini that Grenouille commits his first murder, spontaneously and without any particular malice. He follows an enchanting smell only to find that it belongs to a young nubile girl. In its purity and its goodness, the smell is like nothing Grenouille has ever come across and he wishes to possess it. He kills the girl and remains with her body until he has absorbed every atom of her odour into himself. The curious thing about Grenouille is that despite his acute sense of smell her has no odour of his own and can pass through society virtually unnoticed. With this first murder he realises that he will never be found out.
Years pass and Grenouille moves out of Paris, including spending a number of years as a hermit, living in a mountain. He is constantly searching, for some essence of life that he lacks in himself and covets in others, for some sort of olfactory peace. He has the capacity to deceive others and, although he is cruel and unfeeling, by doing so he exposes the foolishness, vanity and greed of others. It is inevitable that Grenouille will become a prolific serial killer. His final act is a kind of aromatic climax, following which he is both spent (there is nothing left for him to do) and satisfied.
The opening chapters of the novel are an assault on the senses – eighteenth century Paris, with all its filth, poverty and physical and moral dereliction, is right there beneath your nostrils. Grenouille’s journey is narrated in the most extraordinary prose that you will ever read. The final scenes, with the baying crowd of thousands that gathers to witness his execution but which then, utterly transfixed by the hypnotic odour he has doused on himself, stolen from the bodies of his young female victims, descends into a wild orgy. It’s like the author presents a Hogarth painting on the page! (Hogarth was working at around the same time and I wonder if the author had him in mind?) It is quite extraordinary.
Perfume was one of the first books I read after graduating. I had a reading holiday after I’d finished my degree in English and this novel reminded me of my love for literature (at the time I was feeling pretty spent myself!). The other memorable book I read around this time was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and I count both among my favourite books of all time. I was nervous coming back to Perfume, concerned that I might not find it as good and therefore its memory may somehow be spoiled. I needn’t have worried – it was an even greater pleasure second time around. Parts of the book left me breathless they were so powerful.
Highly, highly recommended, whether as a first or subsequent read. Astonishing.
Have you read Perfume? If so, how do you rate it?
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