Perfume (novel)

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
PerfumeSuskind.jpg
First edition (German)
AuthorPatrick Süskind
Cover artistAntoine Watteau detail from
"Nymphe et satyre", 1715–16[1]
CountryGermany
LanguageGerman
GenreHorror fiction, mystery, magic realism, absurd
PublisherDiogenes (Germany)
Alfred A. Knopf (US)
Hamish Hamilton (UK)
Publication date
1985
Media typePrint (Hardback & paperback)
Pages263 (UK hardback edition)
ISBN0-241-11919-7 (UK hardback edition)
OCLC14130766

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (German: Das Parfum, pronounced [das paɐ̯ˈfœ̃ː]) is a 1985 literary historical fantasy novel by German writer Patrick Süskind. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meanings that scents may have.

The story follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an unloved orphan in 18th-century France who is born with an exceptional sense of smell, capable of distinguishing a vast range of scents in the world around him. Grenouille becomes a perfumer but later becomes involved in murder when he encounters a young girl with an unsurpassed wondrous scent.

With translations into 49 languages and more than 20 million copies sold worldwide to date, Perfume is one of the best-selling German novels of the 20th century.[2] The title remained in bestseller lists for about nine years, and received almost unanimously positive national and international critical acclaim. It was translated into English by John E. Woods and won both the World Fantasy Award and the PEN Translation Prize in 1987. Some editions of the novel, including the first, have as their cover image Antoine Watteau's painting Jupiter and Antiope, which depicts a sleeping woman.

Plot[edit]

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (French for "frog") is born in Paris, France in the year 1738. His mother is tried almost immediately for previous infanticide and subsequently executed, leaving him an orphan. He is fostered but is a difficult, solitary child and is eventually apprenticed to a local tanner. Unknown to other people, Grenouille has a remarkable sense of smell, giving him an extraordinary ability to discern precisely the subtlest of odors from complex mixtures of scent and across great distances; as a result he can perform apparently magical feats such as identifying bad vegetables by the worms they contain, or visitors as they approach the house, and can navigate in total darkness by the smell of objects around him.

One day, long after having memorized nearly all the smells of the city, he is surprised by a unique smell. Grenouille traces it with his nose and finds that the source of the scent is a young virgin girl just passing puberty. She is not much younger than Grenouille himself. Entranced by her scent and believing that he alone must possess it, he strangles her and stays with her body until the scent has left it. In his quest to learn more about the art of perfume-making, he becomes apprenticed to one of the city's finest perfumers, Giuseppe Baldini, an aging, once-great master of the trade who finds himself increasingly outperformed by rival perfumers. Grenouille proves himself a prodigy by faithfully copying and even improving a rival's perfume in Baldini's laboratory, after which Baldini offers him an apprenticeship. Grenouille learns the basic techniques of perfumery from Baldini, whose flagging reputation is suddenly restored to prominence when he sells Grenouille's masterful new formulas as his own. Baldini eventually reveals to him that there are techniques other than distillation that can be used to preserve a wider range of odours, which can only be learned in the heartland of the perfumer's craft, in the region of Grasse in the French Riviera. Shortly after, Grenouille elects to leave Paris, and Baldini dies when his shop collapses into the river Seine.

On his way to Grasse, Grenouille travels the countryside and is increasingly disgusted by the scent of humanity. Avoiding civilization, he comes instead to live in a cave inside the Plomb du Cantal, surviving off the mountain's sparse vegetation and wildlife. However, his peace is ended when he realizes after seven years that he himself does not possess any scent: he cannot smell himself and neither, he finally understands, can other people. Traveling to Montpellier with a fabricated story about being kidnapped and kept in a cave for seven years to account for his haggard appearance, he creates a body odour for himself from everyday materials and finds that his new "disguise" tricks people into thinking that it is the scent of a human; he is now accepted by society instead of shunned. In Montpellier, he gains the patronage of the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, who uses Grenouille to publicize his pseudoscientific theory about the influence of "fluidal" energies on human vitality. Grenouille manufactures perfumes which successfully distort the public perception of him from a wretched "caveman" into a clean and cultivated patrician, helping to win enormous popularity for the Marquis' theory. Seeing how easily humanity can be fooled by a simple scent, Grenouille's hatred becomes contempt. He realizes that it is within his ability to develop scents described as "superhuman" and "angelic" that will affect in unprecedented ways how other people perceive him.

Reaching Grasse, he offers his assistance to a small shop run by a widowed perfumer, Madame Arnulfi, and her journeyman lover, Druot, and there trains in the arts of scent extraction and preservation by enfleurage. One day, he encounters another irresistible scent that is even more inspiring than the one possessed by his first victim. It is again the scent of a young virgin girl, this one named Laure Richis, who is the daughter of the town's wealthiest nobleman. Grenouille decides that this time he will seek to preserve the scent physically and not just in his memory. He begins a campaign of killing teenage girls to practice extracting and preserving their overpowering scents. All of his victims are found bludgeoned to death and stripped of their clothing with their hair cut off, but are not otherwise molested. He eventually kills 24 girls in preparation for killing Laure, without ever leaving a trace that would link him to the crimes. The police are baffled and the town becomes hysterical with fear. Laure's father realizes his daughter must be the ultimate goal of the murderer's campaign and secretly escorts her to a place of safety, but Grenouille follows them by following her scent. When they stop for the night, he breaks into her bedroom and finally kills her and successfully preserves her scent.

Despite his careful attention to detail, the police trace Laure's murder to him, and the hair and clothing of his previous victims are all discovered at his cabin near Grasse. He is caught soon afterwards and sentenced to death. However, on the way to his execution in the town square, Grenouille wears a new perfume he has created from his victims, this one of overwhelming power. The scent immediately causes the crowd of spectators to fawn in awe and adoration of him, and although the evidence of his guilt is absolute, the townspeople become so fond of him, so convinced of the innocence he now exudes, that the magistrate reverses the court's verdict and he is freed; even Laure's father is enthralled by the new scent and asks if he would consider being adopted as his son. Soon the crowd is so overcome with lust and emotion that the entire town participates in a mass orgy of which no one speaks afterwards and which few can clearly remember. The magistrate reopens the investigation into the murders and they are eventually attributed to Druot, who is tortured into making a false confession and later hanged without ceremony.

The effect his scent has had now confirms to Grenouille how much he hates people, especially as he realizes that they worship him now and that even this degree of control does not give him satisfaction. He decides to return to Paris, intending to die there, and after a long journey ends up at the fish market where he was born. He approaches a crowd of criminals gathered in a cemetery and pours the entire bottle of his final perfume on himself. The people are so drawn to him that they are compelled to obtain parts of his body, eventually tearing him to pieces and eating them. The story ends with the crowd, now embarrassed by their actions, agreeing that they did it out of "love".

Characters[edit]

In order of appearance:

  • Grenouille's mother – Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was her fifth baby. She had claimed her first four were stillbirths or "semi-stillbirths". In her mid-twenties, with most of her teeth left, "some hair on her head", and a touch of gout, syphilis, and consumption, she was still quite pretty.
  • Jean-Baptiste Grenouille – The novel's protagonist, born 17 July 1738 with an innate prodigious sense of smell (and also for unexplained reasons no personal scent of his own). His awareness of scent eventually causes him to conceive of capturing human scents, specifically those able to inspire love, which he lacks in his life. When he does succeed in this goal, he discovers it gives him no pleasure, and causes him only to despise others for being so easily fooled. Unable to find happiness, he is killed by a crowd after he pours his final perfume over himself. Grenouille's motivation for killing is described in the novel as purely the result of his desire to possess those rare scents capable of inspiring love towards their possessor:

"Grenouille let it go at that. He refrained from overpowering some whole, live person ... that sort of thing would have ... resulted in no new knowledge. He knew he was master of the techniques needed to rob a human of his or her scent, and knew it was unnecessary to prove this fact anew. Indeed, human odour was of no importance to him whatsoever. He could imitate human odour quite well enough with surrogates. What he coveted was the odour of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love. Those were his victims."[3]

  • Jeanne Bussie – One of Grenouille's many wet-nurses. She is the first person to realise he does not have a scent and claims he is sucking all the life out of her.
  • Father Terrier – A clergyman in charge of the church's charities and the distribution of its money to the poor and needy. He first thinks Grenouille is a cute baby, but once Grenouille begins to sniff Terrier, the priest becomes worried and sends the baby to a boarding house.
  • Madame Gaillard – She does not have a sense of smell, due to being hit across the face with a poker during her younger years, so she does not know that Grenouille is scentless. In charge of a boarding house, her goal in life is to save enough money to have a proper death and funeral. Madame's poor sense of smell and ignorance about Grenouille's gifts, coupled with his assistance in finding her hidden money through his olfactory ability, cause Madame to believe he is psychic. Believing that psychic people bring bad luck and death, Madame sells Grenouille to the tanner Grimal. She loses all her money in old age, dies a miserable death in the Hôtel Dieu, and is not even buried individually after her death, but rather thrown into a mass grave.
  • Children at the Boarding House – They are repulsed by Grenouille and even try, in vain, to suffocate him with rags and blankets while Grenouille is asleep.
  • Grimal – A tanner who lives near the river in the rue de la Mortellerie. Grenouille works for him from age eight into his early youth until Baldini pays for him to be released. Grimal wastes this immense new income on an alcoholic binge; his drunkenness causes him to fall into a river and drown.
  • The Plum Girl – Her natural scent is that of sea breeze, water lilies, and apricot blossoms; it is a rich, perfectly balanced, and magical scent. She has red hair and wears a gray, sleeveless dress. She is halving plums when Grenouille kills her as his first victim. Unable to retain her scent, her death motivates his quest to learn how human scent may be preserved.
  • Giuseppe Baldini – An old traditional perfumer who sees his once-great reputation now fading away. He yearns for the old days when tastes in perfume did not change so quickly, and is angry at what he feels are upstarts in the now fast-moving perfume trade. He knows secretly that he never had a particular gift for creating and analyzing new scents; rather he had obtained the recipes which made his reputation from other sources. Lacking natural talent, he merely knows the art and business of perfumery and maintains a strict mystique to conceal the truth. His shop, located in the middle of the bridge Pont-au-Change, is filled with a mixture of scents so intoxicating that it scares away most potential customers. Baldini reluctantly permits Grenouille to demonstrate the copying of a competitor's perfume and is about to send Grenouille away when he realizes the copy is a faithful one; Grenouille then creates on the spot an exceptionally improved version of the original. Recognizing Grenouille's genius, Baldini buys him from Grimal as his apprentice and starts to rebuild his declining business. He becomes rich and famous once again from the new perfumes that Grenouille creates for him, though does not credit Grenouille for his contributions. He eventually gives Grenouille his journeyman papers. The very same night that Grenouille leaves Paris, Baldini's house and shop plunge into the river Seine when the bridge collapses, and the recipes for hundreds of Grenouille's perfumes are lost.
  • Chénier – Baldini's assistant and apprentice for more than 30 years. He is somewhat younger than Baldini. He knows Baldini is talentless, but still boasts Baldini's skills in the hope that one day he will inherit Baldini's perfume shop.
  • Pélissier – Baldini's chief rival, considered the most innovative perfumer in Paris despite not having any formal training. He is only mentioned and never appears in the novel.
  • Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse – Liege lord of the town of Pierrefort and a member of parliament. He is an amateur scientist who develops indulgent and ridiculous theses (his "fluidal theory"), which he attempts to demonstrate on Grenouille — also feeding him, providing him with new clothes, and giving him the opportunity to create a perfume. The Marquis dies soon after Grenouille's "disappearance", while pursuing his fluidal theory by attempting to live alone on the Pic du Canigou, a secluded mountain.
  • Madame Arnulfi – A lively, black-haired woman of about thirty years of age. She has been widowed for almost a year. She owns the perfume business of her dead husband and has a journeyman named Druot, who is also her paramour. She hires Grenouille as her second journeyman.
  • Dominique Druot – Madame Arnulfi's journeyman and paramour. He is the size of a Hun and is of average intelligence. Grenouille works for him as second journeyman. Druot is later hanged for Grenouille's crimes.
  • Antoine Richis – Second consul and the richest man in Grasse, and Laure's father.
  • Laure Richis – A beautiful red-headed girl, daughter of Antoine Richis, and the second girl whose scent is perceived as demanding capture by Grenouille. She is the inspiration for his lengthy killing spree as well as his final victim.

Possible inspiration[edit]

The real-life story of Spanish serial killer Manuel Blanco Romasanta (1809–1863), also known as the "Tallow Man", who killed several women and children, sold their clothes, and extracted their body fat to make soap, resembles Grenouille's methods in some ways.

The name of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille might be inspired by the French perfumer Paul Grenouille, who changed his name into Grenoville when he opened his luxury perfume house in 1879.

Adaptations[edit]

Film[edit]

Television[edit]

  • The episode "Sense Memory" (2011) of the American television show Criminal Minds bears many similarities to the novel.
  • A six-part 2018 German television series, Perfume (Parfum), inspired by the novel and the film but set in the present day, stars Juergen Maurer, Wotan Wilke Möhring, and Christian Friedel.

Music[edit]

  • A Russian musical adaptation of the novel, Perfumer, premiered on 5 December 2010 in Moscow. Composer and singer Igor Demarin received Süskind's approval after communicating with a representative of his for two years.[4]
  • The song "Scentless Apprentice" by the American grunge band Nirvana, from their 1993 album In Utero, was inspired by Perfume. Lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain described the novel as one of his favourite books, which he re-read ten times and kept near him, in an interview on August 10, 1993 in Seattle, Washington.[5]
  • The song "Herr Spiegelmann" from the Portuguese gothic-doom metal band Moonspell contains an excerpt from the book.
  • The song "Red Head Girl" by French downtempo duo Air is inspired by Perfume.
  • The song "Du riechst so gut" (German for "You smell so good") by Rammstein was inspired by the book, which is one of lead singer Till Lindemann's favourite books.
  • Marilyn Manson credits the novel as one of the inspirations behind the title of his second album, Smells Like Children.
  • The song "Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met)" by Panic! at the Disco is inspired by Perfume.
  • A song by YouTube user Steampianist called "The Perfumer's Perfect Fumes", created using the voice synthesizer Vocaloid, is based on the novel.
  • The song "향 (Scentist)" by K-pop boy group VIXX and its music video are based on the novel.

References[edit]

  • Süskind, Patrick. Perfume. Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Vintage International, 1986.
  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-03-15. Retrieved 2014-02-24.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) Retrieved 2014-02-24
  2. ^ Pressedossier Patrick Süskind. Diogenes Verlag Zürich, Stand November 2012
  3. ^ Novel, chapter 38 (p. 195 in Woods translation, paperback edition)
  4. ^ Yelena, Andrusenko (December 7, 2010). ""Perfumer": Russian Version". Voice of Russia. Archived from the original on April 1, 2012. Retrieved December 29, 2010.
  5. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CTsGievjMU