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THE STORY OF MURDER

Written by Patrick SuskindAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Patrick Suskind

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On Sale: May 14, 2014
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-8041-5297-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

An acclaimed bestseller and international sensation, Patrick Suskind's classic novel provokes a terrifying examination of what happens when one man's indulgence in his greatest passion—his sense of smell—leads to murder.In the slums of eighteenth-century France, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift-an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odors of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs. But Grenouille's genius is such that he is not satisfied to stop there, and he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and frest-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the "ultimate perfume"—the scent of a beautiful young virgin. Told with dazzling narrative brillance, Perfume is a hauntingly powerful tale of murder and sensual depravity.Translated from the German by John E. Woods.

Excerpt

1

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 story will be told here. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name-in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade's, for instance, or Saint-Just's, Fouch?'s, Bonaparte's, etc.-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, to 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.

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master's wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench.

And of course the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city of France. And in turn there was a spot in Paris under the sway of a particularly fiendish stench: between the rue aux Fers and the rue de la Ferronnerie, the Cimeti?re des Innocents to be exact. For eight hundred years the dead had been brought here from the H?tel-Dieu and from the surrounding parish churches, for eight hundred years, day in, day out, corpses by the dozens had been carted here and tossed into long ditches, stacked bone upon bone for eight hundred years in the tombs and charnel houses. Only later-on the eve of the Revolution, after several of the grave pits had caved in and the stench had driven the swollen graveyard's neighbors to more than mere protest and to actual insurrection-was it finally closed and abandoned. Millions of bones and skulls were shoveled into the catacombs of Montmartre and in its place a food market was erected.

Here, then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on July 17, 1738. It was one of the hottest days of the year. The heat lay leaden upon the graveyard, squeezing its putrefying vapor, a blend of rotting melon and the fetid odor of burnt animal horn, out into the nearby alleys. When the labor pains began, Grenouille's mother was standing at a fish stall in the rue aux Fers, scaling whiting that she had just gutted. The fish, ostensibly taken that very morning from the Seine, already stank so vilely that the smell masked the odor of corpses. Grenouille's mother, however, perceived the odor neither of the fish nor of the corpses, for her sense of smell had been utterly dulled, besides which her belly hurt, and the pain deadened all susceptibility to sensate impressions. She only wanted the pain to stop, she wanted to put this revolting birth behind her as quickly as possible. It was her fifth. She had effected all the others here at the fish booth, and all had been stillbirths or semi-stillbirths, for the bloody meat that emerged had not differed greatly from the fish guts that lay there already, nor had lived much longer, and by evening the whole mess had been shoveled away and carted off to the graveyard or down to the river. It would be much the same this day, and Grenouille's mother, who was still a young woman, barely in her mid-twenties, and who still was quite pretty and had almost all her teeth in her mouth and some hair on her head and-except for gout and syphilis and a touch of consumption-suffered from no serious disease, who still hoped to live a while yet, perhaps a good five or ten years, and perhaps even to marry one day and as the honorable wife of a widower with a trade or some such to bear real children . . . Grenouille's mother wished that it were already over. And when the final contractions began, she squatted down under the gutting table and there gave birth, as she had done four times before, and cut the newborn thing's umbilical cord with her butcher knife. But then, on account of the heat and the stench, which she did not perceive as such but only as an unbearable, numbing something-like a field of lilies or a small room filled with too many daffodils-she grew faint, toppled to one side, fell out from under the table into the street, and lay there, knife in hand.

Tumult and turmoil. The crowd stands in a circle around her, staring, someone hails the police. The woman with the knife in her hand is still lying in the street. Slowly she comes to.

What has happened to her?

"Nothing."

What is she doing with that knife?

"Nothing."

Where does the blood on her skirt come from?

"From the fish."

She stands up, tosses the knife aside, and walks off to wash.

And then, unexpectedly, the infant under the gutting table begins to squall. They have a look, and beneath a swarm of flies and amid the offal and fish heads they discover the newborn child. They pull it out. As prescribed by law, they give it to a wet nurse and arrest the mother. And since she confesses, openly admitting that she would definitely have let the thing perish, just as she had with those other four by the way, she is tried, found guilty of multiple infanticide, and a few weeks later decapitated at the place de Gr?ve.

By that time the child had already changed wet nurses three times. No one wanted to keep it for more than a couple of days. It was too greedy, they said, sucked as much as two babies, deprived the other sucklings of milk and them, the wet nurses, of their livelihood, for it was impossible to make a living nursing just one babe. The police officer in charge, a man named La Fosse, instantly wearied of the matter and wanted to have the child sent to a halfway house for foundlings and orphans at the far end of the rue Saint-Antoine, from which transports of children were dispatched daily to the great public orphanage in Rouen. But since these convoys were made up of porters who carried bark baskets into which, for reasons of economy, up to four infants were placed at a time; since therefore the mortality rate on the road was extraordinarily high; since for that reason the porters were urged to convey only baptized infants and only those furnished with an official certificate of transport to be stamped upon arrival in Rouen; since the babe Grenouille had neither been baptized nor received even so much as a name to inscribe officially on the certificate of transport; since, moreover, it would not have been good form for the police anonymously to set a child at the gates of the halfway house, which would have been the only way to dodge the other formalities . . . thus, because of a whole series of bureaucratic and administrative difficulties that seemed likely to occur if the child were shunted aside, and because time was short as well, officer La Fosse revoked his original decision and gave instructions for the boy to be handed over on written receipt to some ecclesiastical institution or other, so that there they could baptize him and decide his further fate. He got rid of him at the cloister of Saint-Merri in the rue Saint-Martin. There they baptized him with the name Jean-Baptiste. And because on that day the prior was in a good mood and the eleemosynary fund not yet exhausted, they did not have the child shipped to Rouen, but instead pampered him at the cloister's expense. To this end, he was given to a wet nurse named Jeanne Bussie who lived in the rue Saint-Denis and was to receive, until further notice, three francs per week for her trouble.

2

A few weeks later, the wet nurse Jeanne Bussie stood, market basket in hand, at the gates of the cloister of Saint-Merri, and the minute they were opened by a bald monk of about fifty with a light odor of vinegar about him-Father Terrier-she said "There!" and set her market basket down on the threshold.

"What's that?" asked Terrier, bending down over the basket and sniffing at it, in the hope that it was something edible.

"The bastard of that woman from the rue aux Fers who killed her babies!"

The monk poked about in the basket with his finger till he had exposed the face of the sleeping infant.

"He looks good. Rosy pink and well nourished."

"Because he's stuffed himself on me. Because he's pumped me dry down to the bones. But I've put a stop to that. Now you can feed him yourselves with goat's milk, with pap, with beet juice. He'll gobble up anything, that bastard will."

Father Terrier was an easygoing man. Among his duties was the administration of the cloister's charities, the distribution of its moneys to the poor and needy. And for that he expected a thank-you and that he not be bothered further. He despised technical details, because details meant difficulties and difficulties meant ruffling his composure, and he simply would not put up with that. He was upset that he had even opened the gate. He wished that this female would take her market basket and go home and let him alone with her suckling problems. Slowly he straightened up, and as he did he breathed the scent of milk and cheesy wool exuded by the wet nurse. It was a pleasant aroma.

"I don't understand what it is you want. I really don't understand what you're driving at. I can only presume that it would certainly do no harm to this infant if he were to spend a good while yet lying at your breast."

"None to him," the wet nurse snarled back, "but plenty to me. I've lost ten pounds and been eating like I was three women. And for what? For three francs a week!"

"Ah, I understand," said Terrier, almost relieved. "I catch your drift. Once again, it's a matter of money."

"No!" said the wet nurse.

"Of course it is! It's always a matter of money. When there's a knock at this gate, it's a matter of money. Just once I'd like to open it and find someone standing there for whom it was a matter of something else. Someone, for instance, with some little show of thoughtfulness. Fruit, perhaps, or a few nuts. After all, in autumn there are lots of things someone could come by with. Flowers maybe. Or if only someone would simply come and say a friendly word. 'God bless you, Father Terrier, I wish you a good day!' But I'll probably never live to see it happen. If it isn't a beggar, it's a merchant, and if it isn't a merchant, it's a tradesman, and if it isn't alms he wants, then he presents me with a bill. I can't even go out into the street anymore. When I go out on the street, I can't take three steps before I'm hedged in by folks wanting money!"

"Not me," said the wet nurse.

"But I'll tell you this: you aren't the only wet nurse in the parish. There are hundreds of excellent foster mothers who would scramble for the chance of putting this charming babe to their breast for three francs a week, or to supply him with pap or juices or whatever nourishment . . ."

"Then give him to one of them!"

". . . On the other hand, it's not good to pass a child around like that. Who knows if he would flourish as well on someone else's milk as on yours. He's used to the smell of your breast, as you surely know, and to the beat of your heart."

And once again he inhaled deeply of the warm vapors streaming from the wet nurse.

But then, noticing that his words had made no impression on her, he said, "Now take the child home with you! I'll speak to the prior about all this. I shall suggest to him that in the future you be given four francs a week."

"No," said the wet nurse.

"All right-five!"

"No."

"How much more do you want, then?" Terrier shouted at her. "Five francs is a pile of money for the menial task of feeding a baby."

I don't want any money, period," said the wet nurse. "I want this bastard out of my house."

"But why, my good woman?" said Terrier, poking his finger in the basket again. "He really is an adorable child. He's rosy pink, he doesn't cry, and he's been baptized."

"He's possessed by the devil."

Terrier quickly withdrew his finger from the basket.

"Impossible! It is absolutely impossible for an infant to be possessed by the devil. An infant is not yet a human being; it is a prehuman being and does not yet possess a fully developed soul. Which is why it is of no interest to the devil. Can he talk already, perhaps? Does he twitch and jerk? Does he move things about in the room? Does some evil stench come from him?"

"He doesn't smell at all," said the wet nurse.

"And there you have it! That is a clear sign. If he were possessed by the devil, then he would have to stink."

And to soothe the wet nurse and to put his own courage to the test, Terrier lifted the basket and held it up to his nose.

"I smell absolutely nothing out of the ordinary," he said after he had sniffed for a while, "really nothing out of the ordinary. Though it does appear as if there's an odor coming from his diapers." And he held out the basket to her so that she could confirm his opinion.
Patrick Suskind

About Patrick Suskind

Patrick Suskind - PERFUME
Patrick Süskind was born in Ambach, near Munich, in 1949. He studied medieval and modern history at the University of Munich. His first play, The Double Bass, was written in 1980 and became an international success. It was performed in Germany, in Switzerland, at the Edinburgh Festival, in London, and at the New Theatre in Brooklyn. His first novel, Perfume became an internationally acclaimed bestseller. He is also the author of The Pigeon and Mr. Summer's Story, and a coauthor of the enormously successful German television series Kir Royal. Mr. Süskind lives and writes in Munich.
Praise

Praise

?A fable of criminal genius?. Remarkable."?The New York Times
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Patrick Süskind's Perfume. We hope they will provide you with a variety of approaches to this vividly imagined historical novel. Set in eighteenth-century France, Perfume explores the evolution of a remorseless killer during an era of intense contradictions, an age in which poverty, filth, and superstition coexisted uneasily with the Enlightenment's ideals of progress, liberty, and reason.

About the Guide

The novel's protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, begins and ends his life at the Cimetière des Innocents. But in the meantime, a most unusual—and unbelievable—life unfolds. Born with no odor of his own, Grenouille soon develops a sense of smell capable of almost supernatural olfactory distinctions. He wanders the reeking streets of Paris, absorbing thousands of scents, until one day he is irresistibly drawn to an odor of "pure beauty," a scent that he feels will provide the principle for ordering all the others. The source is an adolescent girl, and Grenouille coldly kills her in order to possess her smell. After getting away with the murder, he goes to work for the perfumer Baldini and quickly reveals a genius for creating fragrances of unsurpassed subtlety and allure. He makes his master rich, but his contempt for mankind drives him into the wilderness, away from the smell of humans, and he spends seven years in a cave beneath France's loneliest mountain. When he emerges, he travels to Grasse, the center of the perfume industry, where he learns how to distill the essential scents of objects, animals and, ultimately, of humans. Here he creates for himself an arsenal of odors which he manipulates in order to make himself unnoticeable, repellent, or pitiable. But he is driven to an even greater goal and begins a ghastly series of murders, robbing the most beautiful virgin girls in the town of their scents to concoct a perfume capable of making everyone, even the father of one of his victims, love and revere the wearer. Whether such powers will save him from his own self-destructive emotions is not revealed until the novel's harrowing final pages. A story in which the trajectories of genius, obsession, and cruelty come together in one extraordinary character, Perfume offers a fascinating look at the seething underside of the Age of Reason.

About the Author

Patrick Süskind was born in Ambach, near Munich, in 1949. He studied medieval and modern history at the University of Munich. His first play, The Double Bass, was written in 1980 and became an international success. It was performed in Germany, in Switzerland, at the Edinburgh Festival, in London, and at the New Theatre in Brooklyn. His first novel, Perfume became an internationally acclaimed bestseller. He is also the author of The Pigeon and Mr. Summer's Story, and a coauthor of the enormously successful German television series Kir Royal. Mr. Süskind lives and writes in Munich.

Discussion Guides

1. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in a food market that had been erected above the Cimetiere des Innocents, the "most putrid spot in the whole kingdom" [p. 4]. He barely escapes death at his birth; his mother would have let him die among the fish guts as she had her four other children. But Grenouille miraculously survives. How would you relate the circumstances of his birth to the life he grows up to live?

2. When the wet nurse refuses to keep Grenouille because he has no smell and therefore must be a "child of the devil" [p. 11], Father Terrier takes him in. But he is exasperated. He has tried to combat "the superstitious notions of the simple folk: witches and fortune-telling cards, the wearing of amulets, the evil eye, exorcisms, hocus-pocus at full moon, and all the other acts they performed" [p. 14]. In what ways can Perfume be read as a critique of the eighteenth century's conception of itself as the Age of Reason? Where else in the novel do you find rationality being overcome by baser human instincts?

3. Throughout the novel, Grenouille is likened to a tick. Why do you think Süskind chose this analogy? In what ways does Grenouille behave like a tick? What does this analogy reveal about his character that a more straightforward description would not?

4. Grenouille is born with a supernaturally developed sense of smell. He can smell the approach of a thunderstorm when there's not a cloud in the sky and wonders why there is only one word for smoke when "from minute to minute, second to second, the amalgam of hundreds of odors mixed iridescently into ever new and changing unities as the smoke rose from the fire" [p. 25]. He can store and synthesize thousands of odors within himself and re-create them at will. How do you interpret this extraordinary ability? Do you think such a sensitivity to odor is physically possible? Do you feel Süskind wants us to read his novel as a kind of fable or allegory? Why do you think Süskind chose to build his novel around the sense of smell instead of one of the other senses?

5. What motivates Grenouille to commit his first murder? What does he discover about himself and his destiny after he has killed the red-haired girl?

6. Do the descriptions of life in eighteenth-century France—the crowded quarters, the unsanitary conditions, the treatment of orphans, the punishment of criminals, etc.—surprise you? How are these conditions related to the ideals of enlightenment, reason, and progress that figure so prominently in eighteenth-century thinking?

7. The perfumer Baldini initially regards Grenouille with contempt. He explains, "Whatever the art or whatever the craft—and make a note of this before you go!—talent means next to nothing, while experience, acquired in humility and with hard work, means everything" [p. 74]. And yet Grenouille is able to concoct the most glorious perfumes effortlessly and with no previous experience or training. What do you think the novel as a whole conveys about the relationship between genius and convention, creativity and destruction, chaos and order?

8. The narrator remarks, "Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it" [p. 82]. Do you think this is true? Why would an odor have such power? In what ways does Grenouille use this power to his advantage?

9. Some reviewers have claimed that the Süskind's writing in Perfume is "verbose and theatrical," while others have described it as "sensuous and supple." Clearly, the writing is more extravagantly imaginative than the pared down minimalism of much recent American fiction. How do you respond to Süskind's prose? How do you respond to the critical reactions outlined above?

10. Grenouille is introduced as "one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages" [p. 3]. Does Süskind manage to make him a sympathetic character, in spite of his murders and obsessions? Or do you find him wholly repellent? How might you explain Grenouille's actions? To what extent do his experiences shape his behavior? Do you think he is inherently evil?

11. When Grenouille emerges from his self-imposed seven-year exile, he is brought to the attention of the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, whose theory that "life could develop only at a certain distance from the earth, since the earth itself constantly emits a corrupting gas, a so-called fluidum letale, which lames vital energies and sooner or later totally extinguishes them" [pp. 139 - 140] seems to explain Grenouille's sad condition. This theory also contends that all living creatures therefore "endeavor to distance themselves from the earth by growing" upwards and away from the earth [p. 140]. What attitudes and beliefs is Süskind satirizing through the character of Taillade-Espinasse?

12. Grenouille becomes, toward the end of the novel, a kind of olfactory vampire, killing young women to rob them of their scents. "What he coveted was the odor of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love. These were his victims" [p. 188]. Why does he need the scents of these people?

13. In the novel's climatic scene, just as Grenouille is about to be executed, he uses the perfume he's created to turn the townspeople's hatred for him into love and to inspire an orgy which collapses class distinctions and pairs "grandfather with virgin, odd-jobber with lawyer's spouse, apprentice with nun, Jesuit with Freemason's wife—all topsy-turvy, just as opportunity presented" [p. 239]. Grenouille is revered and regards himself as godlike in this triumph. Does he enjoy this moment, or is it a hollow victory? What is the novel suggesting about the nature of human love? About order and disorder?

14. After Grenouille leaves the town of Grasse, where he has caused so much death and suffering, his case is officially closed and we're told, "The town had forgotten it in any event, forgotten it so totally that travelers who passed through in the days that followed and casually inquired about Grasse's infamous murderer of young maidens found not a single sane person who could give them any information" [p. 247]. Why do the townspeople react this way? Why isn't it possible for them to integrate what has happened into their daily consciousness?

15. How do you interpret the novel's ending, as Grenouille returns to the Cimetiere des Innocents and allows himself to be murdered and eaten by the criminals who loiter there? What ironies are suggested by the narrator's assertion that Grenouille's killers had just done something, for the first time, "out of love" [p. 255]?

16. Perfume is set in eighteenth-century France and tells an extravagant story of a man possessed with a magical sense of smell and a bizarrely destructive obsession. Do its historical setting and fantastic elements make it harder or easier to identify with? What contemporary issues and anxieties does the story illuminate?


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