I chipped away at this novel in small bites for almost two weeks, which isn’t a very satisfying way of reading anything. It’s not even a particularly long book – just 263 pages in my edition – but various lifey things once again got in the way and stole my reading time away from under me. As a result I don’t really feel like I ever got to sink my teeth into this one fully and I suspect that I’ve unwittingly allowed this to cloud my feelings about the book.
“In eighteenth century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages…”
The book opens in 1738 with the birth of Jean Baptiste Grenouille into grimy Parisian poverty. Grenouille is gifted with an infallible sense of smell, a sense so astute it can break an odour down into its component parts, follow it for miles to its source and even bottle it up in his memory for later enjoyment. As a young man he wheedles himself an apprenticeship to a struggling perfumer from whom he learns to preserve and mix natural essences for sale to the wealthy aristocracy. However, Grenouille has a higher purpose in mind and his growing passion for capturing more everyday aromas, and the scent of beautiful young virgins in particular, leads him on a path to creating the ultimate perfume. The book is subtitled “The Story of a Murderer” so I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Grenouille’s obsession takes some grim turns.
On the face of it Perfume is a wordy book: there’s almost no dialogue but there are some pretty lengthy descriptions of smells and perfume making processes to get through. In someone else’s hands that could get pretty boring pretty fast but Suskind’s direct, dry humour make this a surprisingly easy and compelling read. I love the fact that Grenouille understands his world not using sights and sounds but through the smells he encounters around him and that this this is really cleverly reflected in Suskind’s descriptions. The Paris of Perfume has a stench that wafts up through the pages and reminds you how haunting smells can be (or even just descriptions of smells). It gives the book a very visceral feel which goes hand in hand with the macabre, occasionally gruesome plot to make a really vividly imagined story.
Given how much I love the language of this novel it’s hard to explain why I still feel a bit undecided about it. The fact that I was reading piecemeal didn’t help at all of course but in part I think I was sometimes uncomfortable with Suskind’s portrayal of Grenouille. On the one hand I like the image of Grenouille as an enigmatic parasite, a tick waiting for an opportunity to attach itself to an unsuspecting host. It’s a menacing image and I think it makes Grenouille a really sinister, creepy sort of villain. On the other, I think I found him so repellent and depraved that I could never really appreciate his unique sort of genius without being slightly horrified. Maybe he was simply too dastardly to be believable. When I combined the simplicity of the character with the slightly ridiculous climax of the novel I ended up feeling a little let down. A bit like the language and imagery and cleverness of the first two thirds of the book hadn’t really delivered in the end.
This book has lots of ardent fans, one of whom is a colleague who was genuinely horrified when I told her I had mixed feelings. I’m clearly in a small minority of readers here so I’m beginning to wonder whether I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d been able to throw myself into it more wholeheartedly from the beginning. I often find that my enjoyment of a book suffers if I’m struggling to squeeze in time to read. So maybe this is a really unfair review. Or maybe I should stick to my guns and be honest about the fact that I was disappointed. I don’t know.
I’m sticking with a murdery theme and going for what I hope will be a short, satisfying read next: some more Dorothy L. Sayers.