The Edge Reviews the Classics: Perfume by Patrick Süskind

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A true modern classic. Perfume evokes a kind of satire that is humorous to all, wrapped in decadent and at times repulsive imagery.

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a 1985 cross-genre novel, originally published in German as Das Parfum, by writer Patrick Süskind. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. Above all it is a story of identity, communication and the morality of the human spirit.

The story focuses on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a perfume apprentice in 18th-century France who, born with no body scent himself, begins a lifelong obsession with smell due to his amazing nose. Born into squalor, Grenouille only survives infancy by sheer determination. He compares himself to the cockroach within society who without much food, comfort or love, still manages to thrive. Indeed he seems to live because society wishes him not to. The setting allows Süskind to play with decadent description but uses this mostly for scents contrasting the often vulgar surroundings.

Grenouille’s goal is to survive and learn and to absorb as many scents as possible, eventually moving up through Parisian society to become an apprentice perfumer to the once great perfumer Baldini. The narrator is exploited perfectly within this section of the novel, providing humorous commentary and historic context. The often satirical tone matches Grenouille’s abhorrence of society perfectly and builds a kind of apathy to the novel that serves to create originality.

Our protagonist moves on to stalking and murdering virgins in search for the “perfect scent”, which he finds in a young woman named Laure, whom his acute sense of smell leads him to in a secluded private garden in Grasse. Previous to this we get a great incite into the mind of Grenouille, when he grows tired of humans and holes himself up within a mountain. The reality of his own lack of scent eventually drives him into a sick madness that forces him from his personal paradise.

Süskind shows his true skill as an author as he builds towards a climactic finale, with Grenouille killing young female virgins in order to build an ultimate scent to cause people to love him, rather than the fear that his odourless body incites. The climax is brilliant, building steadily along with the frank narrator eventually reaching an almost ridiculous point.

This however remains believable as Grenouille eventually disgusts himself with his own genius. The ending at first seems peculiar but because of its style it fits with the rest of the novel with ease. Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a true modern classic that allows you to explore a different 18th-century France and a whole other type of humanity. Perfect for anyone who loves satire or an anti-hero. It’s dark, it’s sadistic, it’s delicious.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind was published in 1985. 

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BA English student at University of Southampton and Editor for The Edge (2015-16). A deep love of reading, theatre and all things entertainment.

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