Book Review

Perfume by Patrick Süskind translated by John E. Woods

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. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent…


Perfume is one of those novels that I’ve been aware of for quite some time but have only just got around to reading.  It tells the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born in the mid-eighteenth century France – an unusual child who many seem to find off-putting, even though he’s not offensive in the usual sense of the word.  His most notable ability is his fantastic sense of smell and while most people navigate the world by visual clues, for Grenouille it is his nose that guides him, and he is more likely to recognise a person by their personal scent than by their face. 

Given that it focusses on scent, this is quite an unusual novel.  Our olfactory capabilities are poor compared to many creatures, and yet it soon becomes apparent that Grenouille’s complete lack of a personal scent (he doesn’t smell good or bad – he just doesn’t smell of anything at all) puts people off – as though they know that something is not right about him even if they can’t articulate exactly what it is.  Does our sense of smell work to alert us to danger, even if it’s only subconsciously?  I can see that it might, although perhaps not quite in the way that it’s used in this novel, but that is how people react to him throughout the novel. 

Working as a perfumer, he quickly proves himself a master of his craft, even if those he works for seek only to take advantage of his capabilities.  In most novels, this would create a sense of sympathy for Grenouille, and yet it’s difficult to muster any such emotion for this individual.  In this role, Grenouille does eventually learn that people are – consciously or otherwise – put off by his lack of personal odour, and that people are more receptive of him when he creates a “human scent” with which to disguise himself.  The ingredients of this literal eau de homme are, frankly, disgusting, and yet his experiments are immediately successful.  It is quite the superpower as he discovers that he can use various scents to blend in or stand out as the situation requires, and can also use scent to influence the actions and behaviour of those around him, to extremes when needed. 

Grenouille’s goal in life is to obtain the perfect scent – something he fails to achieve while working in the perfume industry.  He finds this for the first time in – where else? – a young woman (and barely that) and his desire to own that scent leads him to murder.  While the bodies of his victims do not arouse him in the usual sense, there is nevertheless a sexual element to his killings, even though his only objective is to distil and bottle their scents.  I guess that it’s a trophy of sorts, albeit of a different kind to most.  He finds various instances of this perfect scent in similar circumstances – all innocent and beautiful (in the usual sense as well as to Grenouille) young women and one wonders if this will eventually lead to his downfall. 

Perfume is a successful blend (ha!) of fantasy and historical fiction.  Süskind brings eighteenth century Paris to life brilliantly, highlighting the particularly pungent times in which Grenouille lived while providing a commentary on the lives of Parisians at the time and the disparity between rich and poor.  It has a macabre edge, and it’s one that I enjoyed although the ending is a little odd, but I won’t go into that for obvious reasons.

4 comments

  1. it’s decades since I read this book but I do remember how vividly he portrayed the period. The stench would have been unbearable to us because in the developed world we are accustomed to regular bathing and clothes washing,

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