Yesterday evening I took my darling dog Poppy for a walk in the fields close to my house. Even with the awful weather of late, the fields have come alive with buttercups and clover, the rabbits are out and about and there are horses loitering around. In short, I was stood there in a picture-perfect snapshot of the countryside. Which is why it was such a shock that instead of manure, wild flowers or wet grass, I could smell the Hard Rock Cafe. Let me clarify something. I live in a place where there isn’t even a coffee shop; you have to get on a train for that luxury. Who knows where it was coming from – all I knew was that it was evoking the strongest, most vivid memories of being 6 years old at Disneyworld; feeling as though my heart would burst from the anticipation of waiting for the illuminated parade to begin, and tangoing with Tigger, who had a plastic rose in his mouth. This immediately got me thinking about the olfactory sense when it comes to triggering memories. A smell is undoubtedly a more powerful cue than anything visual – and, for me at least, I think it is the most potent of all the senses in this respect. Which brings us to today’s book: ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind.
It follows one of the best-named protagonists in literature, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, from the scene of his birth at the fish stall on which his mother works – where she cuts his umbilical cord and leaves him to die in a heap of fish heads and guts – to his demise in a Bacchic, cannibalistic orgy-murder (which is definitely the craziest hyphenated word I have written in recent memory). Having no scent himself, but an extremely heightened sense of smell, Grenouille shuns the use of his sight and allows himself to be guided by his nose. He is repulsed by human smells, until one day he comes across The Plum Girl – a beautiful, red-headed virgin who is stoning plums, and to him she smells exquisite – presenting a completely unprecedented sensory experience in Grenouille’s life. In an act of lust and greed, he suffocates her and goes into raptures over her scent. From this point, he becomes obsessive, mentally categorizing the smells he has amassed over the years and fervently collecting new ones in order to be able to re-combine them with the utmost precision. He takes an apprenticeship with a master perfumer, and creates a body odour for himself, comprising “cat shit”, “cheese” and “vinegar” to replicate the stench he is repulsed by. He literally goes and lives in a hole and eats moss for a while. He remains compelled by the scent of beautiful virgins, and kills almost 30 of them as they reach sexual maturity. I mean… this is some fucked up shit, y’all. This is a Gothic story that is just about as dark as they come, but is so richly sensual and evocative at the same time – successfully combining beauty and vileness in way I am yet to find any other writer come close to matching.
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
If it was Grenouille’s character which tickled your pickle, I would suggest seeking out one of Thomas Harris’ novels about Hannibal Lecter. Like Grenouille, Hannibal is philosophical, evidently sociopathic, and a connoisseur of the art of killing.
For writing of a similar “lushness”, I’d always recommend Nabokov – an old Brewandbook favourite. ‘Lolita’ would be a good choice as a follow-on to ‘Perfume’.
What do you think?
What smells are particularly evocative for you? I feel like there’s always at least one smell that will take people back to a really great holiday they’ve had, so let me know if my hunch is correct in the comments below! And, you know, feel free to talk about the book or whatever.
Artwork credit: Vintage 1927 advertisement for ‘Le Dandy D’Orsay’ perfume. I love “LE DANDY” on this poster; you know you’re one hell of a suave gentleman when you present a lady with a bottle of perfume as big as your head.
Until next time! x