An open letter to my book group – Well-Read in Motherwell


Sod’s law they call it.  For 5+ years I’ve been trying to get you to read something originally penned in German. Finally it happens and I’m not there.  As they’d say typisch!  However, I can register my virtual presence and put in my tuppence worth. So here I am and here it is!

Let’s start as we sometimes do:  Describe the novel in one word – I bet some of you say “stinking”.  (I can hear you now ….)   My adjective of choice would be “creepy”  and if I’m allowed a second , I’d call it brilliant.  It’s  not quite a masterpiece. It’s spoiled by that second section, the one in which Grenouille crawls into his cave for 7 years.  I found that quite boring and simply too fantastical.  (And if my memory serves, it was totally expunged from the excellent movie version.)

I observed everything else, however, with horrified fascination.   Poor Grenouille.  You have to feel sorry for him – at least at the beginning.  Not his fault that he was born hideous, nor can he be blamed for his upbringing.  It’s a supreme irony that it’s his lack of personal odor in the stinking cesspool that was Paris, that makes him so repulsive.  Do I discern the beginnings of a nature versus nurture debate?  I’m sure there’s some mileage in it – at least until the first dastardly deed – the first stop on his journey to becoming  a fully-fledged misanthrophic scheming murdering toad – oh yes, you can have a field day with the adjectives to describe this fella.  The question for me is whether he always was, as the author suggests, a parasitic tick, waiting to drop on his next victim.

I’m somewhat adjective obsessed in this review and no wonder.  I didn’t realise there were so many words to describe odor, smell, olfactory delights.  What language and what a difficult task Süskind set himself –  to convey the pervasive influence of scent  through the written word in order to prove  that human responses to beauty and love are simply responses to smell.

I don’t have time for a detailed review.  Suffice now to say that the subsidiary characters Baldini and the Marquis were perfect counterfoils to Grenouille’s scheming malevolence.  I found Süskind’s treatment of his grotesque antihero compelling.  If you look at the structure of the novel as a bildungsroman, the ending, horrific as it is, suggests that in the end the boy made good. Looking at it from another angle, however, can’t you see a contemporary aftershave advert gone wrong?

 1/2        (9/10)