Patrick Süskind’s seminal 1985 novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, achieves that rare feat of creating a main character who is both protagonist and antagonist, all while being, of course, completely loathsome to the average person. Following the nefarious and odorless Grenouille from his infancy, Süskind shows us a man driven by one thing and one thing only: scent.
The irony of Grenouille being unable to smell himself, yet being able to so keenly detect even the kernel of an odor emanating from anyone or anything else is his great blessing and curse. His entire raison d’être, thus, becomes to be able to know what his own personal aroma is. It is in this way, that we become faintly sympathetic toward him and his unshakeable quest to discover it–by whatever means necessary.
Content to live off anything that comes his way, Grenouille grows up in an orphanage run by a soulless woman named Madame Gaillard who has no sense of smell as a result of being stubbed in the face with a fireplace poker as a child. Because she can’t process that Grenouille is odorless, she isn’t offput or alarmed by his creepiness as the other children are. It isn’t until he displays what she perceives to be “psychic” abilities that she begins to grow wary of him–particularly after he uses his nose to sniff out where her hidden money is when she can’t find it herself.
This leads Grenouille into the heartless arms of a tanner named Grimal, who treats Grenouille very slightly better than a dog. Once Grenouille proves indispensable by overcoming an anthrax infection, Grimal improves his accommodations greatly, all too aware that someone immune to this affliction after surviving it is instrumental to a tannery. Compared to a tick throughout the novel, with his ability to wait for years until smelling an opportunity on which to prey, Grenouille becomes increasingly loathsome as the tale progresses. At the core of his persona is this: “The tick had scented blood. It had been dormant for years, encapsulated, and had waited.” Grenouille’s skill for patient standby escalates him to the heights of working for famed but failing Paris parfumeur Giuseppe Baldini, who reluctantly makes him his assistant after smelling the intoxicating results of his concoctions.
Grenouille bides his time again, waiting for the next way to elevate his station in some way. While Baldini becomes world-renown off the scents that Grenouille creates, Grenouille decides to ask for journeyman papers that will take him to the south of France so that he can learn more about how to distill and preserve certain scents. Happy to see him go in exchange for more perfume formulae, Baldini’s building falls off the bridge and into the water immediately after Grenouille departs–telling of the destruction he quietly wreaks wherever he goes.
It is at this point in the story that Grenouille’s shift toward complete antagonist begins, as he retreats into a mountaintop cave where he can smell no other human beings and drink only of himself. But it is here that he comes to the distinct and sobering conclusion that he is truly odorless. A nightmare in which he drowns in his own scent prompts him to leave the cave after seven years with a new plan in mind: create a perfume that will make him the most loved and worshipped man in the world.
After being questioned and regarded as some sort of Neanderthal specimen, Grenouille is allowed reentry into society in the small town of Grasse, where he becomes a second journeyman to Druot, the lover of the woman who owns a perfumery. It is now, in all his tick-like fashion that Grenouille waits and collects the materials he needs to cultivate the most magical aroma ever known to man. The key ingredients? Lushly scented virgins, naturally. Going about the business of murdering twenty-four women throughout Grasse during the span of a year, Grenouille instills fear in every member of the population.
No one dreams of suspecting him because of his particular lack of scent. Because of this, “he succeeded in being considered totally uninteresting. People left him alone. And that was all he wanted.” To go about collecting his final and most prized kill, Laure Richis, the red-headed daughter of the richest man in town, Grenouille does what he is best at and waits for just the right moment to complete his perfume with Laure as the crowing piece. Caught leaving the scene of the crime, however, Grenouille is tried for murder and sentenced to a torturous end in the town square. Calm and unmoved as he is told his sentence, Grenouille chooses the moment of his release in the square to daub himself with a mere drop of the elixir he has created. Instantly, everyone in town forgets everything they thought he was capable of and throw themselves at him, digressing into a mass orgy–the sight of which sickens Grenouille and prompts the epiphany:
“…in that moment, as he saw and smelled how irresistible its effect was and how with lightning speed it spread and made captives of the people all around him—in that moment his whole disgust for humankind rose up again within him and completely soured his triumph, so that he felt not only no joy, but not even the least bit of satisfaction. What he had always longed for—that other people should love him—became at the moment of his achievement unbearable, because he did not love them himself, he hated them. And suddenly he knew that he had never found gratification in love, but always only in hatred—in hating and in being hated.”
And so, regardless of how diabolical Grenouille is and the ending his life comes to, he’s the only protagonist we’ve got in Perfume. Who are we supposed to root for, after all? Humanity? Certainly not.
As touched on in our first issue, Gustave Flaubert's genius lie in his ability to paint the most realist of pictures primarily because of the surreality of day-to-day living. While Madame Bovary is largely considered the pinnacle of his literary prowess, his entire canon of work offers something of the extraordinary.
Flaubert, who grew up in Rouen but found himself in Paris after high school, had originally intended to study law, but then succumbed to his creative tendencies upon traveling to the Pyrenees and Corsica and subsequently suffering a fit of epilepsy. His contempt for Paris was undoubtedly part of why he held such disdain for law, associating it with the frivolities of pursuing wealth and power.
Perhaps this is why Flaubert felt compelled to return to a place near his hometown. Croisset, a small settlement right next to the Seine, is where Flaubert would spend the rest of his life, writing all of his major works and drawing from the experience of living a pastoral existence. By shirking the entanglements of the modern world, Flaubert was able to focus solely on writing. Moreover, the only romance he ever allowed himself was with poet Louise Colet for six years. Other than that, Flaubert's sole source of having a sexual outlet came in the form of visiting prostitutes (who tend to generally serve as muses for the majority of authors).
November, his debut novella, was an autobiographical piece detailing a young man's sexual awakening and his subsequent heartbreak after the courtesan he falls in love with becomes a prostitute (again, always a go-to topic for authors). Following this, Flaubert began work on The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a book written in the form of a play that prompted his friends--Maxime Du Champ and Louis Bouilhet included--to give up writing and stick to his legal pursuits. Needless to say, he didn't listen to them, and spent five years writing and perfecting Madame Bovary after this insult was wielded at him.
Unlike the writers of today, Flaubert was meticulous in his process. There were times when he would spend a week writing and perfecting one page. The example he set with his perfectionism and will to succeed were unmatched, and proven by his lack of prolificness in comparison to his peers. While other writers of his time could churn out a novel a year, Flaubert had only a total of twelve original works, all taut beacons of what literature should be.
An alarming quote from Lana Del Rey in an interview for The Guardian back in June of 2014 found her asserting, "I wish I was dead already." Alluding to her idols, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, Del Rey's wistfulness over the freedom one can achieve through death poses the question: Does an artist need to be tragic to succeed?
Seeming to intuit that, yes, an artist does need to possess some sort of fatal flaw in order to be compelling to a mass audience, Lana Del Rey is a larger representation of the creator using his or her life as fodder for fans and scholars alike. Luring people in with a resonant tale inspired by true, doleful events is, indeed, usually the best way to generate substantial and long-lasting interest.
Among the ranks of great writers, the depressive, alcoholic likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Bukowski are amid the many tragic figures who met a destructive and grim end, and all for love and commitment to their art–and perhaps hatred for life (though, of course, Bukowski always found comfort in the company of women).
All the greatest painters and sculptors, too, have exemplified a life plagued by misery. From Rodin and Michelangelo to Van Gogh and Degas, the tendency toward loneliness and depression remains a constant theme of the formidable artist.
Where music is concerned, there is also no shortage of examples of affliction. Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake are among the numerous instances of deeply saddened musicians who couldn’t continue to carry on in this world. And so, to be quite frank, the tragic artist is, lamentably, the most bankable way to endure in the collective consciousness on an everlasting level.
With the death (and supposed birth) anniversary of William Shakespeare upon us, the usual reflection on the beloved bard’s breadth of work comes into “play.” While seemingly every aspect of his work has been scrutinized, the one element people seem to always take at face value is the all-consuming type of love between his characters. Whether this is because the so-called two-dimensionality of the love doesn’t strike enough of a chord with people or the overall themes of the play itself are what audiences find most resonant is at one’s discretion.
From Valentine and Proteus’ love triangle with Silvia to Ophelia’s unrequited love for Hamlet, the levels of intensity and passion portrayed in each of Shakespeare’s narratives, both comedic and dramatic, offer the sort of amorousness that most people (especially women) can only fantasize about.
Remarkably, the majority of great loves in Shakespeare plays appear in his comedies. Viola in Twelfth Night with her drag king snafu ends up falling for Duke Orsino, the man she has found herself staying with in the wake of her shipwreck. Drag king hilarity paired with romance ensues in As You Like It as well, with the heroine, Rosalind, forced to disguise herself as a servant in order to escape to the forest after being banished from the court.
This consistent plot device of disguise is an overt metaphor for the manner in which we all feel the need to camouflage our true selves when we give in to another person. The fear of losing their interest if we reveal too much at once is perhaps Shakespeare’s most resonant and authentic delineation. In this sense, yes, it is very possible to have the kind of love depicted in his plays. Just don’t expect the same level of ardency, lest you become suicidal like Ophelia.