Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2009

Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, translated by John E Woods

perfumeI did not like this grotesque little book.  It seems to me to be drenched in gratuitous unpleasantness, punctuated by nasty deaths.  It was the last book on my TBR for the 1% Challenge, so I persisted with it, but I remain unconvinced that it’s worthy of its place in the 1001 Books You Must read Before You Die.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

It’s the unedifying story of a Paris-born street urchin called Grenouille.  His mother is a slut who disposes of her newborns in the fish-market where she works, but her perfidy is discovered when Grenouille is born & she is executed for her crimes.  He is taken in and wet-nursed in a perfunctory way, and then sold off to work in a tannery.  Like everyone else associated with Grenouille, the tanner meets an unpleasant death as the boy wangles his way into working for a master-perfumer, Baldini.  There he uses his extraordinary powers of scent detection to create glorious perfumes, making Baldini rich and finally earning his journeyman’s papers.  Baldini dies a grotesque death when his house, built on the bridge, falls into the Seine.

There follows seven years living as a deranged hermit and then Grenouille moves onto Grasse in the south of France, where he kills 25 virgins because he is besotted by their scent.  He himself has no odour and he believes he must generate one to have a sense of self.  He is caught, tried and sentenced to execution, but he escapes by drenching himself in the virgins’ scent and in an absurd farce, everyone falls in love with him, even the father of his last victim, Laure.  Incredibly he offers to adopt Grenouille as his son, but the murderer leaves for Paris where the mob, maddened by the irresistible scent of the virgins, falls upon him and tears him to pieces.

Now, what is a book like this for?  Süskind goes out of his way to make his tale as distasteful as possible.  His hero is vile, and there are no characters with redeeming features.  There are revolting descriptions of the stink of Paris, of Grenouille’s foul but inexplicable illness, of his disgusting sojourn in the mountains and of his ‘treatment’ of his victims. Why is this unpleasant book included in the 1001?  What is the point of its unremitting unpleasantness?

Author: Patrick Süskind,
Title: Perfume
Translator: John E Woods
Publisher: Penguin 2006
ISBN: 0141023597, 9780141023595
Source: Personal Library


Responses

  1. Wow, that is a pretty strong response to this book. I loved the book for all the reasons you hated it. I loved his creativity, and especially the descriptions. I think the book is successful in taken the reader to the site. The stink and grotesqueness was essential as a contrast of the virginal references.

    I will say, that I was intrigued by PS’s writing and read other books written by him. Not so much to my liking as Perfume, but he is a good writer. I like that there is a wide range of writers who delve into “undesireable” territories and descriptions. Makes up appreciate the opposite all the more, don’t you think.

    • Hi Linda, thanks for taking the time to comment – I love to get feedback on my posts:)
      A lot of people in ANZLL really liked Perfume, and it is on list from 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die – and indeed I agree that it’s very successful in depicting its characters and setting, but it was just not for me! Still, I wouldn’t write off Suskund on the basis of this one book – he’s obviously a clever writer, and I might enjoy his other books. Are there any in particular that you’d recommend? (Not that there is any room on my TBR, but that’s beside the point LOL.)
      Lisa

  2. I loved it! Perhaps the best descriptions of smells in literature – and so much information about perfume. Its surreal, and profound. The film is good too. Never mind – that’s why we have so much variety in our book stores I suppose

  3. Just discovered this post Lisa. I’ll join those who loved it. I thought it was one of the most astonishing pieces of characterisation I had read in a long time when I read it, back in the mid 1990s I think. It’s one of those books that I haven’t forgot its impact. Creepy, yes, but so well sustained. Like Tom, I thought the film was pretty good but of course it did lack the subtlety of the book. It’s one of those books I’d “happily” read again.

    • There’s a film? *gasp*!

  4. There certainly is – came out only a couple of years ago. (Just checked imdb – 2006 and it starred Ben Whishaw). Over 40,000 IMDB raters averaged it at 7.5 which is pretty good I think.). Get the DVD – LOL!

    • I’ll see if they have it on Big Pond movies…

  5. Do!


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