Smelling with Words

This was initially supposed to be a Facebook post, but it simply got too long. Several years ago, I started reading Perfume by Patrick Süskind. I wasn’t expecting much—maybe a twisted thriller or a simple, mass market murder mystery with “scent forensics” as the unifying thread. The last thing I was expecting was a work of art. Indeed, it was slow going at the front end, but I kept reading simply because of the sheer artistry of the writing. Eventually, however, the story picked up, and I finished the book because of the compelling, albeit perverse, plot. But, again, it was the writing that made this book brilliant. And I’m not speaking simply about vocabulary, which, by the way, I felt was not the least bit pretentious. And while certainly the style is both unique and pristine, I believe it was Süskind’s descriptive prowess that made the book a masterpiece. To be able to capture scent with words in a way that the reader can almost smell it emanating from the book—that’s remarkable.

Grenouille is the main character of the story, and he is odorless. This is partly why he is so obsessed with scent. He also has the incredible ability to discern odors and break them down into their more basic constituent odors. He is obsessed with finding and capturing the perfect scent. This, of course, drives him to murder and so on. That’s the basic plot.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the initial passage I was thinking of, but I hope the following passage gives the reader a sense of what I’m talking about. To really see the author’s skill, you’ve gotta read the book. Frankly, on its own, the passage comes across a little stilted and overly detailed, but in the context of the story and the preceding chapters, it fits perfectly. Enjoy!

He wanted to acquire the human-being odor—if only in the form of an inferior temporary surrogate—that he did not possess himself. True, the odor of human being did not exist, any more than the human countenance. Every human being smelled different, no one knew that better than Grenouille, who recognized thousands upon thousands of individual odors and could sniff out the difference of each human being from birth on. And yet—there was a basic perfumatory theme to the odor of humanity, a rather simple one, by the way: a sweaty-oily, sour-cheesy, quite richly repulsive basic theme that clung to all humans equally and above which each individual’s aura hovered only as a small cloud of more refined particularity.

That aura, however, the highly complex, unmistakable code of a personal odor, was not perceptible for most people in any case. Most people did not know that they even had such a thing, and moreover did everything they could to disguise it under clothes or fashionable artificial odors. Only that basic odor, the primitive human effluvium, was truly familiar to them; they lived exclusively within it and it made them feel secure; and only a person who gave off that standard vile vapor was ever considered one of their own.

It was a strange perfume that Grenouille created that day. There had never before been a stranger one on earth. It did not smell like a scent, but like a human being who gives off a scent. If one had smelled this perfume in a dark room, one would have thought a second person was standing there. And if a human being, who smelled like a human being, had applied it, that person would have seemed to have the smell of two people, or, worse still, to be a monstrous double creature, like some figure that you can no longer clearly pinpoint because it looks blurred and out of focus, like something at the bottom of a lake beneath the shiver of waves.

And to imitate this human odor—quite unsatisfactorily, as he himself knew, but cleverly enough to deceive others—Grenouille gathered up the most striking ingredients in Runel’s workshop.

There was a little pile of cat sh*t behind the threshold or the door leading out to the courtyard, still rather fresh. He took half a teaspoon of it and placed it together with several drops of vinegar and finely ground salt in a mixing bottle. Under the worktable he found a thumbnail-sized piece of cheese, apparently from one of Runel’s lunches. It was already quite old, had begun to decompose, and gave off a biting, pungent odor. From the lid of a sardine tub that stood at the back of the shop, he scratched off a rancid, fishy something-or-other, mixed it with rotten egg and castoreum, ammonia, nutmeg, horn shavings, and singed pork rind, finely ground. To this he added a relatively large amount of civet, and mixed these ghastly ingredients with alcohol, let it digest, and filtered it into a second bottle. The bilge smelled revolting. Its stink was putrid, like a sewer, and if you fanned its vapor just once to mix it with fresh air, it was as if you were standing in Paris on a hot summer day, at the corner of the rue aux Fers and the rue de la Lingerie, where the odors from Les Halles, and the Cimetière des Innocents, and the overcrowded tenements converged.

On top of this disgusting base, which smelled more like a cadaver than a human being, Grenouille spread a layer of fresh, oily scents: peppermint, lavender, turpentine, lime, eucalyptus, which he then simultaneously disguised and tamed with the pleasant bouquet of fine floral oils – geranium, rose, orange blossom, and jasmine. After a second dilution with alcohol and a splash of vinegar there was nothing left of the disgusting basic odor on which the mixture was built. The latent stench lay lost and unnoticeable under the fresh ingredients; the nauseous part, pampered by the scent of flowers, had become almost interesting; and, strangely, there was no putrefaction left to smell, not the least. On the contrary, the perfume seemed to exhale the robust, vivacious scent of life.

Grenouille filled two flacons with it, stoppered them, and stuck them in his pocket. Then he washed the bottles, mortars, funnels, and spoons carefully with water, rubbed them down with bitter-almond oil to remove all traces of odor, and picked up a second mixing bottle. In it he quickly composed another perfume, a sort of copy of the first, likewise consisting of fresh and floral elements, but containing nothing of the witches’ brew as a base, but rather a totally conventional one of musk, ambergris, a tiny bit of civet, and cedarwood oil. By itself it smelled totally different from the first—flatter, more innocent, detoxified—for it lacked the components of the imitation human odor. But once a normal human being applied it and married it to his own odor, it could no longer be distinguished from the one that Grenouille had created exclusively for himself.

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