Patrick Süskind’s Nihilistic Novel
Life is cheap in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. From the very first page, a newborn baby is dumped among the heaps of rotten fish at a town market while the mother who birthed it is unrepentant as she faces execution in front of an angry mob. And why shouldn’t she be? All she’s ever known is a squalid, miserable world that would sooner walk over her than lend a helping hand. However, it would be wrong to say that the meanness Süskind draws in his characters is rooted in poverty.
The book is set in 18th Century France. The main character is a man named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who is obsessed with the art of making scents. Little else matters to him in his mission to create the perfect perfume, an odyssey that sees him rise up through the ranks of society and murder, sabotage and ruin the lives of countless people who he passes by. These days, I think that armchair psychologists would probably diagnose Grenouille as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum and more obviously as a dangerous psychopath. All the same, while these statements wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, it would be to overlook what a hero the character of Grenouille can be in a certain kind of outsider way. In fact, I think it’s fair to compare some aspects of Perfume to the likes of Catcher in the Rye, for example, in its utter condemnation of humanity as a whole. And, as it happens, I first became aware of the book when I heard it was a favourite of Kurt Cobain’s, who supposedly kept a copy of it in his pocket at all times.
All of that is to say, regardless of social class, nearly everybody we meet in Perfume is only interested in their own self-interests: whether their vice be money, sex, social status or power, they pursue their petty goals under the same misguided belief that it is they who are the smart ones, that they are the protagonists of a tale that by the mere fact of their existence deserves a happy end. How wrong they are. Rarely does Süskind let a member of his despicable cast depart the novel without facing an absurd, ironic or just downright wretched death. One woman featured among the bunch has the humble life goal of simply being able to pay for her own funeral, only to die in poverty and be thrown into a mass grave. Another man spends his final years clawing his way back into upper-class society only for his house to just collapse on him one day. It’s almost sentimental in how much attention is paid to their Willy Wonka style exits and, taken together, the larger picture is that of a universe that if not entirely meaningless, is certainly very cruel. Throughout it all though, there is one man who seems to be on the trail of something special – Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the murderer who knows he could potentially create something so overwhelmingly beautiful it could only be described as divine.
Much has been said of the aromatic prose that Süskind leverages to portray the hero’s sense of smell: Scents are everything to Grenouille. As his singular passion, their descriptions are given all the care and flourish required to convince you that he’s in touch with something truly incredible. It all amounts to shit of course. I suggest you pick up a copy yourself to find out exactly why, but to give you a better idea of what to expect, you should be aware that the book leaves no pillar of society undemolished. Religion, government, science, and even brotherly love are all perverted by the story’s end. As to why you’d want to read something like that, well, I think I’ll have to make a longer video on the topic sometime. Why are books like this and something like Nabokov’s Lolita so fascinating to read? There’s just something compelling about acts of evil described in a well accomplished literary form. That’s a pretentiously vague statement on my part though and as a personal rule I try to avoid that sort of thing as much as possible. Really, I try to make these video essays with the assumption that art is not a mystery – it’s something that can be defined. So for now I’ll just say that Perfume would be a tough read if only for how damn well Süskind can describe the smell of a rotting corpse, an easterly wind, or the wisp of a woman’s hair. If you’d like to learn about another disturbing novel, then I suggest you check out my in-depth analysis of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Or if all this blood and guys has gotten a bit much for you, maybe you should step outside for some fresh air.