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Thoughts on Perfume

As you may recall, dear readers, I read Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel, Perfume, as part of my prep work for this year’s upcoming NaNoWriMo. I decided to start off my reading prep with Perfume for a few reasons, namely that I was somewhat familiar with the story from watching the movie version as a freshman in college, and that my father, who is a big fan of the book, had been telling me to read it for years (i.e., since I first watched the movie version as a freshman in college). More importantly, however, I thought that it would be the ideal story to kickstart my efforts to get into the mind of a genuinely evil character. Well, let me just say right off the bat, mission accomplished on that front.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the novel, Perfume is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man in 18th century France who, ironically born without any scent of his own, is an olfactory wunderkind; basically, he can smell a thousand times better than any man, woman, child, or animal alive, ever. Long story short, this extraordinary ability leads him to eventually become a perfume apprentice who starts murdering virgins and extracting their scent in order to create the ultimate perfume, which will allow Grenouille to rule over mankind. I won’t spoil any more of the story because I think you should read it for yourselves, dear readers, but I will say that his plan to bring humanity to its knees with a perfume does work with *very* interesting results…and by interesting, I mean that the ten thousand French people who show up to see him executed for the virgin murders have a massive orgy after smelling just one drop of his perfume. Like I said, interesting results.

Who would’ve thought that a little drop of perfume could have that kind of reaction?

This novel ended up being a perfect place for me to start in my character research because while not Grenouille isn’t labeled outright a psychopath, he does display a classic psychopath characteristic in that he regards humans as objects rather than as, well, humans. He is utterly without any sort of empathy for his fellow man, and thinks of people as things to be used to achieve his own goals, which, in this case, is to create the perfect perfume. Seeing as my characters in my own novel view people in this way, getting to read sections from his perspective was very helpful for me as a writer.

Personal research reasons aside, I found this book thoroughly enjoyable because the premise is just so fantastic. I mean, it’s so original: a baby born without a scent of its own, which means that “normal” characters instinctively don’t trust him and think he’s evil without knowing why (because everyone has a scent, and not having one is a sign that he’s fundamentally wrong), turns out to be actually evil and grows up to use his olfactory talents to commit heinous, evil acts. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of it. On top of that, the writing throughout is lovely, and I thought the plot was compelling and reasonably well paced, though I’ll admit there were times when it dragged a bit.

I did have one fundamental problem with the book, however, which is that when Grenouille is watching his scent-induced orgy he mentions almost in passing that the one thing that he’d always longed for was “that other people should love him.” This rang false to me, because the way this bit is worded implied to me at least as a reader that he wanted people to love him in general. This to me suggested he was looking for a sense of belonging and acceptance that he’d been deprived of, as his lack of scent leads him to be continually alienated and mistrusted throughout the story, and up until this point there had been absolutely no mention of a desire for people to love him in that way. Instead, Grenouille is described as wanting people to worship and idolize him, to love him in a way that is comparable to the way they love angels and even God, which is *very* different from a love of acceptance.

This sentiment is even stated outright in a passage about halfway through the book:

Yes, that was what he wanted–they would love him as they stood under the spell of his scent, not just accept him as one of them, but love him to the point of insanity, of self-abandonment, they would quiver with delight, scream, weep for bliss, they would sink to their knees just as if under God’s cold incense, merely to be able to smell him, Grenouille! He would be the omnipotent god of scent, just as he had been in his fantasies, but this time in the real world and over real people.

See what I mean about the just wanting people to love him bit at the end ringing false?

Now, it should be noted that this book was written originally in German, and I did read the English translation, as my German is bad enough that a six year old mocked me for it over the summer (though good enough that I was able to understand him when he mocked me in German!). There is a possibility that this desire for idolization love is conveyed more clearly at the end of the original text. If any of you, dear readers, has read the original text and knows if this is a simple translation problem, please let me know!

That said, all in all I would recommend this book for anyone interested in psychological character studies and/or historical thrillers. Plus, if you read the book then you can compare it to the movie, which, though I didn’t go into it here, is a very interesting movie starring Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Dustin Hoffman. Any excuse to watch Ben Whishaw and Alan Rickman is a good one in my book!

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