About ten years ago, on someone’s recommendation (I don’t remember the person), I read Patrick Süskind debut, and so far only, novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The novel was baroque in every which way, and I absolutely loved it. Its main character, Grenouille, was idiosyncratic in a way I had never seen before: gifted with an extraordinary and crippling sense of smell, the French man at first attempts to escape civilization in order to distance himself from the stench of humanity, only to find it impossible. He becomes a perfumer in Italy and in no time surpasses his master in ability thanks to his prodigious nose, only to eventually become obsessed with the scent of human (of course female and virginal) skin, and, as the title suggests, begins to kill in order to preserve it. The protagonist was singular and surprising, the plot dense and captivating, and the style (in spite of it being a translation and having read the book in English) drew me in with each sentence. I flew through the book, reading it (while conducting research in Italy over the summer of 2008) in parks, subways, buses… I couldn’t put it down. I recently was scanning my bookshelves and saw the novel, and reminiscing how much I had loved the book back then I decided to see what else Süskind had written. To my dismay I discovered that the author has never published another novel, and much like his debut’s antihero, Süskind is a recluse whom little is known about, preferring to live a quiet life split between his native Germany and the South of France (must be nice). He had, though, published a handful of items over the years since his 1985 novel, namely two novellas, a compact collection of stories, and an essay. I purchased all four items on Amazon (unable to find his first play, The Double Bass, anywhere as it appears to be out of print) and over the course of three days read them all.
THE PIGEON (1988)
The Pigeon is actually the last of the four books that I read, and by far my favorite. It’s a very difficult novella to describe, as it is predominantly the emotional journey of a man over the course of 24 hours. The protagonist, Jonathan Noel, is a middle aged man who lives alone in a Paris small studio apartment and happens to be quite content with his life. On the verge of purchasing his domicile outright, though, the man wakes one morning to find a pigeon stooped in the hallway as he was heading towards the communal bathroom. For some reason, never fully explained, this causes a breakdown in the man, whose entire life appears to him void of meaning and purpose, and what follows is a cataclysmic day filled with desperation and anxiety. A pervasive theme in Süskind’s work, and German literature as a whole, is the obsession, or at least contemplation, of suicide. I’m not sure what this says about the author, but many of his characters seriously entertain the notion, and especially in this work it seems to connect to Germany’s troubling history, as Jonathan’s parents’ disappearance when he was a young boy is clearly, though never explicitly states, connected to the Holocaust. This novella, just over 100 pages, reminded me a lot of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which was more about the metaphorical journey of Gregor Sansa, rather than the story of a man who turns into an insect. Similarly, this story has really nothing to do with a pigeon, it is a pretext, an excuse for Jonathan to come to terms with certain aspects of his life, and ponder over his existence and raison d’être.
THE STORY OF MR SOMMER (1991)
Not my favorite work by Süskind. I don’t think I entirely understood the point of this novella, as it felt directed towards a younger readership, and Sempé’s drawings would seem to suggest that, but its themes and contents seem decidedly unfriendly to children readers, possibly even inappropriate. The title is somewhat of a red herring, Mr Sommer does feature in the book, but this is definitely not his story. Instead, it focuses on the unnamed narrator, who discusses his childhood in Germany, and the bizarre connection he shares with an older man who never engages with the townspeople, preferring to spend every waking moment walking, seemingly without direction or purpose. The narrator recounts various memories of his youth: a first crush, his piano lessons, the night of a bad storm, and Mr Sommer just happens to always be in the proximity when something big happens, but not that big, for most of the memories are rather inconsequential and insignificant. Once again there is a contemplated suicide, as the young boy one day decides to kill himself because his piano teacher yelled at him (it really takes that little?), and he only stops himself because he sees the old man walking in the forest and pausing for a moment exactly on the spot he was aiming for from the tree he had climbed. And this is not the only suicide mentioned in this short novella of just over 100 pages. The drawings by Sempé are fine, good even, but prefer to depict the landscapes described, rather than any of the plot. The novella left me overall quite cold, never connecting fully.
THREE STORIES AND A REFLECTION (1996)
This was an interesting short collection, where I absolutely adored the first two stories, and could have done without the last story and the reflection. In the first story “Depth Wish” a young artist with a lot of promise reads a review praising her, but also mentioning the need for her work to have a bit more depth. This simple critique causes the artist to unravel and lose control, a spiral of agony follows as she pursues this white rabbit she cannot fully comprehend, as the obsession takes control of her and destroys her. The short story “A Battle” should really not work. The entire story is about a chess game, and yet it is captivating and mesmerizing from beginning to end. This perfectly showcases the abilities of a phenomenal author: when they are capable of making any topic fascinating, and Süskind really excels here. The game, between the town’s undefeated master and a cocky newcomer, holds its audience of sore losers completely captivated and enraptured. By the story’s end, the final outcome causes more damage than expected. The story “Maître Mussard’s Bequest” was a strange one. Taking place in the French enlightenment period, the titular character claims to have made a discovery about the nature of the world, and thus of existence: that the world is being overtaken by shells, and that sooner or later everything becomes calcified into the material that makes up shells. His evidence is the presence of shell formations on mountains, but the biblical flood was not long enough to justify it, as well as erosion supposedly supposed to make these presences disappear, and yet they remain. Mussard also believes he is becoming a shell himself because of this discovery – the shells are taking their revenge upon him. I did not get it. at all. Lastly, in “Amnesia in Litteris” the author, supposedly speaking in his own voice, laments his inability to recall anything about any book he’s ever read. He looks upon his shelves lined with books he is certain he must have read, and yet cannot recall a single detail from any of them, and cries this fate that he says befalls everyone else as well. I don’t think I can relate at all, maybe my memory is extraordinary, by I can recall vivid details, even quotes, from every book I’ve ever read, and I hold several degrees in literature (and am writing this post about a week after having read these books in the first place). I cannot relate to feelings of amnesia, but found his reflection humorous and pleasant enough.
ON LOVE AND DEATH (2006)
On Love and Death is an essay. Over sixty or so pages, Süskind reflects on the ways in which the erotic and the macabre intersect and overlap, once again dedicating a significant amount of space to the topic of suicide. When I was a young teenager I was obsessed with Greek Mythology and when I was in grad school I took a class on German Romanticism, had I not had those experiences, I’m not sure how much I would have been able to follow this writing, so be warned. Kleist, Wagner, Goethe, and Mann feature prominently, along with Saint Augustus, and the myth of Orpheus. I wrote my master’s thesis on Kleist, so I am very familiar with his work and life, I devoured The Sorrows of Young Werther in high school, I read and liked Death in Venice, I am familiar with the opera Tristan and Isolde, so all the connections and descriptions present in this text were extremely clear and familiar to me, but I can see how someone uninitiated could find this text impossible. The connections Süskind makes between the stories of Orpheus and Jesus Christ were fascinating, and shed a completely new light on both for me, which ultimately made this a very enjoyable and swift read. I would recommend this with caution, simply because of its very “inside baseball” nature, but it was very good overall.