THERE ARE SO many things I love about the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. German author Patrick Suskind‘s readers shudder and gasp and sometimes even dry-heave at his words. More than almost any other work, I think, Perfume delivers an experience.
Largely, that’s because Suskind’s descriptions are evocative with the most stirring sense: smell.
Even before his main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born or becomes a perfume apprentice in Paris, the story is told through a trail of scents.
This narrow aspect of setting begins generally in France, where the “…streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings….the bedrooms of greasy sheets…(p. 3).
Suskind continues. “People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies…came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease.”
Is your stomach curdling yet? Mine too.
I use the first chapter of Perfume in one of my writing classes that focuses on the importance of using the senses, particularly smell. You can see why it’s so effective.
Suskind does smell brilliantly. His story, especially the first chapter, is successful for some other reasons, too.
Here are some notable ones:
1. It is gory, and it is honest.
Suskind does not spare us, not even when the main character’s mother gives birth to and then discards her newborn as she had four others “…amid the offal and fish heads…” at the fish stall where she was employed.
“She had effected all the others here at the fish booth, and all had been stillbirths or semi-stillbirths, for the bloody meat that had emerged had not differed greatly from the fish guts that lay there already…”
If it were a movie (and it is, actually), here is where I would be peeking through the fingers covering my eyes. The description is gruesome and the truth of it awful, which is why it appeals so strongly to the reader. We don’t pick up books to learn about fairies waltzing through meadows.
2. Suskind isn’t afraid of long, lovely sentences.
Of course, the narrator’s voice is also of the 18th Century, and so a more formal, weighty tone is appropriate.
Take a look at this sentence from Chapter 1, p. 3:
“His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name–in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade’s, for instance, or Saint-Just’s, Fouche’s, Bonaparte’s, etc.–has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of this arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, to wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent.”
Did that feel long? Not at all.
Why? Each word has a purpose, each word is the perfect word, and in combination, they offer a rhythm we can imagine rolling off the tongue of some scholar. Some of the adjectives are three and four syllables long–much in contrast to today’s trend of using simple words instead.
3. It never feels like he raided a Thesaurus.
With so much focus on smell, Suskind had to find a few synonyms. And he did:
stench, aroma, fragrance, scent, perfume, odor
And he found a heap of adjectives, too:
putrid, putrifying, vilely, fetid, spoiled, unaired, stale, moldering, pungent, rank
All of them are used carefully, not as an ESL student writing an essay about Canadian food would flip through a thesaurus and jot down fare, feast, din-din and chow, when these are words we never use.
Suskind’s descriptions are graphic, immediate and exact.
Is there a passage from Perfume that sticks out in your mind?
Is there another author or book that captures the senses well?