Monday, July 11, 2016

*Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind

Vintage International, 2001
originally published as Das Parfum, 1986
translated by John E. Woods
255 pp


"What he coveted was the odor of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love."

There are just some books you want to sit down and discuss with a group of people, and Perfume is definitely one of those.  A couple of days after I'd finished it, I went to look at reader reviews and found a number of different takes on it.  For example, on Amazon, one reader referred to it as "one of the best, strangest thriller novels..." , another praised its "dark, gothic, serial killer plot of a genre pageturner," still another says it's a "commentary on perversion, unfettered arrogance, and ironically misplaced idealism."  So I went to goodreads to see what readers there said, and found "one of the greatest horror novels ever written," and "a cross between Silence of the Lambs and a period drama."  Sheesh -- the interpretations seem endless!!

  So then I went to contemporary reviews of this book and even here I got very different impressions.  For example (and with apologies to anyone without an NYRB archives subscription) Robert M. Adams' NYRB review saw it as a story of
"an alleged sniffer of genius, born to squalor in eighteenth-century France, who by sheer concentrated nose-power rises to be the supreme perfumer of his age, and simultaneously an atrocious criminal."
He also said it was "a ridiculously improbably piece of verbose claptrap..." as well as an allegory of the Third Reich.  Peter Ackroyd, writing in the New York Times, says it's a "meditation on the nature of death, desire and decay."

However anyone may understand or interpret this novel, it just screams let's sit down and talk about it.

[just an fyi: there are a couple of spoilers ahead so beware]:

 I'm tempted to throw it onto this year's real-world book group list, but for some reason my friends don't really do deep dark, and this book is deep dark.  I think that one way to make sense of it is to read it as a story (in part) of personal and artistic identity; it can also be read as one man's quest for purpose, meaning, love, and perfection by a person whose life up to a certain point was destined to remain alone in the stink and squalor of the life he was born into. It's only after his first murder that our main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille,  begins to understand that  "Never before in his life had he known what happiness was... for until now he had merely existed like an animal."  His purpose begins taking form at this moment, as he realizes that he
"must become a creator of scents. And not just an average one. But rather, the greatest perfumer of all time." (43)
And why? He viewed the scent of his first victim as the  "higher principle, the pattern by which the others must be ordered. It was pure beauty."  He believed that unless he "possessed this scent, his life would have no meaning," so he goes on to try to capture it, hence the series of murders that follows. But there is method to Grenouille's madness. This story isn't about someone who kills just anyone -- as we're told,  "What he coveted was the odor of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love."

Ironically, this "higher principle"  is really only understood by one other person, the father (Richis) of Laure, Grenouille's last victim:
"For if one imagined -- and so Richis imagined -- all the victims not as single individuals, but as parts of some higher principle and thought of each one's characteristics as merged in some idealistic fashion into a unifying whole, then the picture assembled out of such mosaic pieces would be the picture of absolute beauty, and the magic that radiated from it would no longer be of human, but of divine origin."  (203)  
 Obviously there's so much more to this novel that I can't really go into here although I wish I could -- the very important connection between being scentless and the resulting perception of being soulless (and in my opinion I can read "self" less here), Grenouille's time in seclusion, the bizarre ending ... there's just too, too much.  But I will say that I absolutely loved this book on many levels and was hooked from page one.  God, this is a great novel!!

Laure Richis (as played by Rachel Hurd-Wood) from the movie 
Sadly, to me anyway, while the film was okay and while I couldn't stop watching,  it sort of missed some of the (if you'll pardon the pun) essence of the novel. There are a number of differences between book and movie, but the book offers so much more in terms of sensory details that to me are highly important -- as just one example from the beginning, why it is that Jean-Baptiste is shunned as an infant by his first caretakers, the wet nurse and then a Catholic priest.  Plus, I really, really hate voice-overs on films, but that's just me.  Read the book, then see the movie in that order, and chances are you won't need the voice-overs.

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