07 September 2009

Perfume (Patrick Süskind)

(SPOILER ALERT) Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the man who can smell his way into the world, was born in the most auspicious of places – in a wet market among the guts and scales of fishes. From then on, his life has been determined by the persistent call of his nose and he finds himself in situations that bring him closer to his goal: the extracting and packaging of the most fragrant perfume of all.

Grenouille is like an autistic savant. He has a gift: a hypersensitive sense of smell, more powerful than Wolverine's, so much so that he can break down a perfume into its basic components, and even recreate it given all the scent-ingredients. The sniffing genius in him can identify not only the components of a smell but also the exact proportions of each component, the exact formula to a perfume. Yet like an autist, Grenouille has the problem of connecting emotionally with people. He is an introvert, emotionally detached from the world, and his singular purpose keeps him from plunging ahead in life.

In Perfume, Patrick Süskind gives us a portrait of the perfumer as an artist. He does so in the style of an inverted German fairy tale, a twisted tale of the Brothers Grimm. And as a Bildungsroman, the epiphanies arrive and they come in the form of scents, of odors, and of concentrated essences.

Grenouille’s life can be outlined by his settlement from place to place: childhood in an orphanage, early labor in a tannery, apprenticeship with the perfumer Baldini, a seven-year sojourn in the desert, a brief stint as a 'New Age' curiosity among the bourgeoisie following his 'cure' by the Marquis Taillade-Espinasse (conspicuously absent in the movie), a perfume-extraction trainee in Grasse, and a murderer of beautiful young virgins. In between these discrete acts, the author dismisses (discard) his other characters in the most cursory manner (e.g., Madame Gaillard succumbing to the fate she most dread, Baldini toppling down the abyss after securing the formulas for perfume that will secure his place as the most renowned perfumer in all of Paris).

It is as if after their encounter with Grenouille, the other characters’ lease on life has been definitively cut; they now have served the purpose of their existence in Grenouille's life. They now must cease in order to give wings to Grenouille’s dream. In this respect, the author mirrors his protagonist’s single-mindedness: everything else outside the purview of his interest is extraneous, so it must be discarded after it has been extracted or exploited. It is not enough that the old characters exit peacefully, they must be terminated.

A fairy tale tone is maintained throughout by the book’s magical prose. Perhaps no other novel has exhausted words signifying different kinds of smells, fragrances, and odors. Notwithstanding the cold violence and the madness portrayed in the novel, Grenouille’s adventures and misadventures are lightly skimmed in a magical manner.

If Grenouille's extreme nature and behavior are to be rationalized (or an equivalence to be found for the allegory), Grenouille’s acts and decisions reflect the temperaments of a struggling artist.

The perfumer’s goal is the encapsulation and preservation of virgin scent for consumption and for posterity. The achievement is not self-centered and egotistical, it is self-justified. His whole existence is geared toward the actualization and realization of his art (perfume). This, usually, is how society perceives how an artist works.

Grenouille does not consciously seek fame, though in a way he is forced to show off his abilities in order to attain his objective (e.g., recreating the scent Amor and Psyche for Baldini, one of the best parts in the book). He doesn’t want fame, he just wants to fulfill his aim.

The perfect and most fragrant of smells that Grenouille created transports its wearer to another place and time. If one of the goals of art is to transport its readers to another milieu or to transform their perception of meanings and forms, then Grenouille succeeded in becoming a master perfumer by clouding the perspectives of those who smell his scent. Süskind himself strives to develop a milieu for 18th century France and succeeded in creating a stink-rich canvas for his protagonist.

The most perfect of smells inspires lust among those who caught scent of it. This is a by-product of success. It commands cult following and promotes adherents to its cause. Every connoisseur then becomes a champion of the smell and its creator.

The perfumer-artist improvises methods where there are none previously. He is a student of experimentation. Grenouillle has to go to Grasse to capture all the available methods of extracting scents and to distill from them the ways he can bring into life his vision. Because he does not know all the methods, he continually seeks the house of the masters to learn from them. He grabs all available opportunity to improve his craft. He is after his masterpiece.

The perfumer-artist pursues his subject with care. Grenouille is a conscientious stalker. He does not just grab the object of his affection out of the blue. He allows it space before he carefully plucks its fragrance. Süskind allows us to participate in this voyeurism. The reader is in thrall to the deviant workings of the perfumer. This is akin to Gustav von Aschenbach's pursuit of his muse in Death in Venice, a pursuit that feeds and drives the destruction of the artist. Grenouille is a slightly more refined dog.

The perfumer-artist feels apart from the rest. He has the distinct quality of being separate from his subjects. In Grenouille’s case, being a man without any trace of smell is to be taken not only as an irony of his situation as a superior delineator of smell. He has to lack smell not only because he needs to be set apart from the rest of humankind.

A perfumer-artist needs time to know himself. This is usually what prods an artist to gain experiences in life and what brings him inspiration. Grenouille’s retreat in the desert took the whole of seven years in which he survived and subsisted with the natural offerings of food (locusts), rainwater, and the shelter of a cave. He led a hermit’s life, surpassing the length of time of young Jesus’ 40-day retreat in the desert. The span of the “hidden years” of a soon-to-be perfumer-artist is long but may be necessary in the development of the artist’s resolve to "take on" the world and bring it to its feet.

These factors point to the novel as a parable of the creative genius, of the dogged pursuit of the creative endeavor, and of the creative process. Every step of Grenouille's life is directed toward the building of his magnum opus. And his masterpiece? The scent of virgins. The scent of innocence. Bottled and stoppered in a flacon, ready to be sprinkled to unsuspecting consumers.

The novel's climax (the presentation of his art) and its ending (the ultimate reception of the artist) provide a measurement of the perfumer’s achievement. They show how two classes of society, in differing ways, positively accept the role of the artist.

The frenzy of the climax deals with the reception of Grenouille’s art and his elevation into a saint, an angel, a deity. In the orgy scene, Süskind pulls the rug from under the feet of his readers. It depicts the gullibility of the masses, including the aristocracy, to lap up the works of art without seeing through the artificiality of realism. The outrageousness of the scene seems like a play on the popularization of the works of art into a consumer product. The masses are not even aware that they are under the spell of a perfume. They are easily deceived by appearances; surfaces are all they perceive; the sense (of smell, not its substance) is all they crave for. They cannot distinguish art from abomination.

The ending of the novel is the height of irony. The novelist's chosen act for his perfumer’s disappearance is via cannibalism no less. The lowest of the lows of society (criminals, prostitutes, vagrants) elected to consume Grenouille, not content with idealizing him as a deity/messiah/angel like the crowd at Grasse. Grenouille has to be consumed and used in a practical manner – to satisfy hunger. What society has deprived them of – attention, food, essence, love – they get from the artist and all the art contained in him. There's no more differentiation between art and artist, the former is incorporated in the latter.

The orgy and the cannibalism hint at a commentary on the crassness of the times. And of the way certain classes of society use “art” for their own ends. The masses dance and fornicate around it, the dregs of society have to have some choice portion of it. The reader, meanwhile, detects a snapshot of stink.

(Flippers will be sniffing the pages of Perfume this month. The image above taken from portrait-artist.org)


  1. Hi, Rise! This is an excellent review. Will you be joining the Flippers anytime soon?

  2. Thanks, Peter! I do hope to attend an FFP session soon, but I can't in the coming months. It's hard to find the time when one is in the province.

  3. i am blown away! i think you, too, are a creative genius, like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is. i have never encountered a review that saw, and smelled, so much from a reading, presented in a very articulate manner.

  4. Oh my. Thanks, mayd. I’m overwhelmed by your praise. I kind of dream of having Jean-Baptiste’s nose-diving skills, minus his creepiness. :)