Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Süskind’

I read Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume’ a few years back and since then I have wanted to read more of his works. I thought I will read his novella ‘The Pigeon’ for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I finished reading it in one breath. Here is what I think.

‘The Pigeon’ is the story of one day in the life of a fifty-something years old man, Jonathan Noel, who works as a guard in a bank. He is introverted, doesn’t like talking to people, likes being left alone, goes to work and comes back and minds his own business. When small unpredictable things happen in his life, his world turns upside down.  One day a pigeon ends up in front of his door. It gives him infinite anxiety and he packs his stuff and leaves his room. One small thing leads to another, his whole day turns topsy turvy, his peaceful, calm world becomes chaotic and his carefully laid decades-old plans come tumbling down.  Whether he is able to survive the domino effect of this small change to his day and come back to his home forms the rest of the story.


I loved ‘The Pigeon’. It has Süskind’s trademark beautiful sentences, his commentary on the human condition and his frighteningly realistic depiction of a character who is an outsider. If I had read this book when I was younger I don’t think I would have liked it that much. I am glad that I read it at the right time. It is a wonderful slim gem. A tiny masterpiece even. One of the reviews says this about the book – ‘Reminiscent of Kafka in its fearsome triviality and its bleak depiction of vulnerability.’ I can’t agree more.


Süskind has a very slim backlist. Other than ‘Perfume’ and ‘The Pigeon’ he has written just four more slim volumes. Wikipedia says that “Süskind lives reclusively in Munich, in Seeheim (Lake Starnberg) and in France (probably Paris and Montolieu). The public knows little about Süskind currently. He has withdrawn from the literary scene in Germany and never grants interviews or allows photos.”  The description looks like that of one of Süskind’s own characters.  Reclusive authors are always fascinating and it is intriguing why the best ones always end up being reclusive. However, one part of my heart feels sad that Süskind doesn’t write much anymore. I hope one of these days he gets up and starts on his new book. His readers would want to read that.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.


He had once calculated that by the time of his retirement he would have spent seventy-five thousand hours standing on these three marble steps. He would then assuredly be the one person in all Paris – perhaps even in all France – who had stood the longest time in just one place. Presumably he had already achieved that, since by now he had spent fifty-five thousand hours on those marble steps.


That night there was a thunderstorm. It was one of those thunderstorms that do not burst suddenly with a volley of lightning bolts and thunder, but take a great deal of time and hold back their energies for a long while. For two hours it skulked about indecisively in the sky, with delicate sheet lightning, soft murmurs, shifting from neighbourhood to neighbourhood as if it didn’t know where it should gather its forces, and, expanding all the while, it grew and grew, finally covering the entire city like a thin, leaden blanket, waited again, using its irresolution to load itself with even more potent tension, and still it did not break…Nothing moved beneath the blanket. Not the slightest breeze stirred in the sultry air, not a leaf, not a particle of dust, the city lay there as if numbed, it trembled under the crippling tension, as if the city itself were the thunderstorm waiting to erupt into the sky.


He was just about to scream. He wanted to scream this one sentence…But in that moment of wanting to scream, he received an answer. He heard a noise. It was a knock. Very soft. And there was another knock. And a third and a fourth, from somewhere above. And then the knocking shifted into a regular, gentle drumming and the rolling of the drum grew more and more violent, and finally it was no longer drumming, but a powerful, glutted rushing around, and Jonathan recognised it as the rush of rain.


Have your read Süskind’s ‘The Pigeon’? What do you think about it?

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I read the book ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ by Pascal Mercier sometime back (You can find my review of it here). I loved the book. It made me think of German literature in general and how little of it I have read – except for Herman Hesse. So I thought I will ask fellow book blogger Bina, for recommendations. She was kind enough to introduce me to some wonderful German authors and books and one of the books that she recommended was ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind. I started reading it a few days back and finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the book as given in its back cover.

Patrick Süskind’s Perfume follows the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, abandoned at birth in the slums of eighteenth-century Paris, but blessed with an outstanding sense of smell. This gift enables Jean-Baptiste to master the art of perfume making, but one scent evades him : that of a virgin, whom he must possess to ensure her innocence and beauty are preserved. Laced with sense and suspense, this is a beguiling tale of lust, desire and deadly obsession.

What I think

I had a problem with the subtitle of the book, because eighty percent of the book was about perfumes and only the last twenty percent involved murders. Even that last twenty percent was predominantly about the main character’s search for a legendary perfume. But aside from this minor complaint, I really enjoyed reading ‘Perfume’. Patrick Süskind’s prose is beautiful, exquisite, delightful and is a pleasure to read. The book can be read just for the prose and for the sensory descriptions of scents and fragrances. I encountered beautiful lines and passages in every page that I couldn’t stop highlighting. I couldn’t stop thinking that if the prose was so good in translation how it would be in the original. I am jealous of readers who have read it in the original 🙂

One of the other things that I noticed about the book was that it had very less dialogue. One of the things that is taught in creative writing classes is that aspiring writers should learn how to write dialogue, because it makes it easy for the reader because the pages fly while reading dialogues between characters. But I have seen many masters being positively indifferent to dialogues – like Jose Saramago, Roberto Bolano, Cormac McCarthy and now Patrick Süskind – and who just told a story with minimal or no dialogue (even Michael Crichton in his first book ‘The Andromeda Strain’ avoided dialogues and stuck to narration). It is interesting to see how what is taught in schools is different from what is practised by the masters.

I didn’t have much affection for most of the characters in the story except for maybe, Antoine Richis. I felt sorry and sad for the main character Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who doesn’t see any genuine human warmth or love or affection throughout his whole life – everyone whom he meets since birth try to push him away or use him for their own selfish ends. It is no surprise that someone like him ends up being cynical about the world and people and ends up being passionate for his art of perfume-making and is ready to do anything to master it. I would say that it is a sad commentary on the community in which Grenouille was born and in which he lived.

The book also raises questions on what lengths one can go if one is passionate and obsessed about one’s field and tries to invent something new or wants to attain glory. It is an interesting question.

I also found the first passage of the book quite interesting. It goes like this :

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, Fouche’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 succintly, wickedness…

I found it interesting that Napolean Bonaparte has been bracketed with Marquis de Sade and is called arrogant, immoral, wicked 🙂 Some people might wince at that.


I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

What does a baby smell like

‘…now be so kind as to tell me : what does a baby smell like when he smells the way you think he ought to smell? Well?’

‘He smells good,’ said the wet nurse.
‘What do you mean, “good”?’ Terrier bellowed at her. ‘Lots of things smell good. A bouquet of lavender smells good. Stewed meat smells good. The gardens of Arabia smell good. But what does a baby smell like, is what I want to know?’
The we nurse hesitated. She knew very well how babies smell, she knew precisely – after all she had fed, tended, cradled and kissed dozens of them…She could find them at night with her nose. Why, right at that moment she bore that baby smell clearly in her nose. But never until now had she described it in words.
‘Well?’ barked Terrier, clicking his fingernails impatiently.
‘Well it’s – ‘ the wet nurse began, ‘it’s not all that easy to say, because…because they don’t smell the same all over, although they smell good all over, Father, you know what I mean? Their feet for instance, they smell like a smooth warm stone – or no, more like curds…or like butter, like fresh butter, that’s it exactly. They smell like fresh butter. And their bodies smell like…like a pancake that’s been soaked in milk. And their heads, up on top, at the back of the head, where the hair makes a cowlick…there, right there, is where they smell best of all. It smells like caramel, it smells so sweet, so wonderful, Father, you have no idea! Once you’ve smelled from there, you love them whether they’re your own or somebody else’s. And that’s how little children have to smell – and no other way.’

The Smell of the Sea

The sea smelled like a sail whose billows had caught up water, salt and a cold sun. It had a simple smell, the sea, but at the same time it smelled immense and unique, so much so that Grenouille hesitated to dissect the odours into fishy, salty, watery, seaweedy, fresh-airy, and so on. He preferred to leave the smell of the sea blended together, preserving it as a unit in his memory, relishing it whole. The smell of the sea pleased him so much that he wanted one day to take it in, pure and unadulterated, in such quantities that he could get drunk on it. And later, when he learned from stories how large the sea is and that you can sail upon it in ships for days on end without ever seeing land, nothing pleased him more than the image of himself sitting high up in the crow’s nest of the foremost mast on such a ship, gliding on through the endless smell of the sea – which really was no smell, but a breath, an exhalation of breath, the end of all smells – dissolving with pleasure in that breath.

The Mysterious Scent

…the wind brought him something, a tiny, hardly noticeable something, a crumb, an atom of scent; no, even less than that : it was more the premonition of a scent than the scent itself – and at the same time it was definitely a premonition of something he had never smelled before. He backed up against the wall, closed his eyes and flared his nostrils. The scent was so exceptionally delicate and fine that he could not hold on to it; it continually eluded his perception, was masked by the powder-smoke of the petards, blocked by the exudations of the crowd, fragmented and crushed by the thousands of other city odours. But then, suddenly, it was there again, a mere shred, the whiff of a magnificent premonition for only a second…and it vanished at once. Grenoiulle suffered agonies. For the first time, it was not just that his greedy nature was offended, but his very heart ached. He had the prescience of something extraordinary – this scent was the key for ordering all odours, one could understand nothing about odours if one did not understand this one scent…
…He tried to recall something comparable, but had to discard all comparisons. This scent had a freshness, but not the freshness of limes or pomegranates, nor the freshness of myrrh or cinnamon bark or curly mint or birch or camphor or pine needles, nor that of a May rain or a frosty wind or of well water…and at the same time it had warmth, but not as bergamot, cypress or musk has, or jasmine or narcissi, not as rosewood has or iris…This scent was a blend of both, of evanescence and substance, not a blend, but a unity, although slight and frail as well, and yet solid and sustaining, like a piece of thin, shimmering silk…and yet again not like silk, but like pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk – and try as he would he couldn’t fit those two together : milk and silk! This scent was inconceivable, indescribable, could not be categorized in any way – it really ought not to exist at all. And yet there it was as plain and splendid as day. Grenouille followed it, his fearful heart pounding, for he suspected that it was not he who followed the scent, but the scent that had captured him and was drawing him irresistibly to it.
…Strangely enough, the scent was not much stronger. It was only purer, and in its augmented purity, it took on an even greater power of attraction.

The Power of Scent
…people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.

Coaxing the fragrance

Jasmine season began at the end of July, August was for tuberoses. The perfume of these two flowers was both so exquisite and so fragile that not only did the blossoms have to be picked before sunrise, but they also demanded the most gentle and special handling. Warmth diminished their scent; suddenly to plunge them into hot, macerating oil would have completely destroyed it. The souls of these noblest of blossoms could not be simply ripped from them, they had to be methodically coaxed away.

Chaining scents and preserving their freedom

There are scents that linger for decades. A cupboard rubbed with musk, a piece of leather drenched with cinnamon oil, a blob of ambergis, a cedar chest – they all possess virtually eternal olfactory life. While other things – lime oil, bergamot, jonquil and tuberose extracts, and many floral scents – evaporate within a few hours if they are exposed to the air in a pure, unbound form. The perfumer counteracts this fatal circumstance by binding scents that are too volatile by putting them in chains, so to speak, taming their urge for freedom – though his art consists of leaving enough slack in the chains for the odour seemingly to preserve its freedom, even when it is tied so deftly that it cannot flee. Grenouille had once succeeded in performing this feat perfectly with some tuberose oil, whose ephemeral scent he had chained with tiny quantities of civet, vanilla, labdanum and cypress – only then did it truly come into its own.

On a Beautiful Girl

She was indeed a girl of exquisite beauty. She was one of those languid women made of dark honey, smooth and sweet and terribly sticky, who take control of a room with a syrupy gesture, a toss of the hair, a single slow whiplash of the eyes – and all the while remain as still as the centre of a hurricane, apparently unaware of the force of gravity by which they irresistibly attract to themselves the yearnings and the souls of both men and women.

On Waiting

…it had always seemed to him that you stayed awake not so that you could take care of these occasional tasks, but because being awake had its own unique purpose. Even here in this bedchamber, where the process of enfleurage was proceeding all on its own, where in fact premature checking, turning or poking the fragrant package could only cause trouble – even here, it seemed to Grenouille, his waking presence was important. Sleep would have endangered the spirit of success.
It was not especially difficult for him to stay awake and wait, despite his weariness. He loved this waiting…it was not a dull waiting-till-it’s-over, not even a yearning, expectant waiting, but an attendant, purposeful, in a certain sense active waiting. Something was happening while you waited. The most essential thing was happening. And even if he himself was doing nothing, it was happening through him nevertheless. He had done his best. He had employed all his artistic skill. He had made not one single mistake. His performance had been unique. It would be crowned with success…He need only wait a few more hours. It filled him with profound satisfaction, this waiting. He had never felt so fine in all his life, so peaceful, so steady, so whole and at one with himself – not even back inside his mountain – as during these hours when a craftsman took his rest sitting in the dark of night… waiting and watching. They were the only moments when something like cheerful thoughts formed inside his gloomy brain.

The Movie

I saw the movie version of ‘Perfume’ after reading the book. The movie was faithful to the book, with respect to the overall story, but in many places the finer details of the story were changed a bit so that the story could work better in the visual medium. Also, some of the minor characters and subplots were dispensed away with, which was sad. Also, some of the characters in the movie looked very different when compared to the way they were depicted in the book – for example, Giuseppe Baldini was very different in the movie when compared to the book and so was Dominique Druot. Ben Wishaw, who played the role of the poet John Keats in Jane Campion’s ‘Bright Star’, plays the role of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and does well. The movie also brings 18th century France to life, quite realistically and beautifully. I felt that one of the limitations of the movie was in translating the olfactory experience described in the novel to the visual experience on screen. I felt it didn’t work so well in the movie as it did in the novel – maybe that is a tribute to Süskind’s genius. But the movie, seen as a standalone, is quite good. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars (out of four) and so it must be something.

Final Thoughts

I liked ‘Perfume’ very much. (Thanks Bina for recommending it :)) I think I will add it to my list of favourite books and I will read my favourite passages in the book again. I will also try to get hold of other books by Patrick Süskind (especially ‘The Story of Mr.Sommer’) and read them. If you want to explore German literature and like exquisite prose, you will love this book.

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