Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 11

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Grenouille did it. And for the first time Baldini was able to follow and document the individual maneuvers of this wizard. Paper and pen in hand, constantly urging a slower pace, he sat next to Grenouille and jotted down how many drams of this, how many level measures of that, how many drops of some other ingredient wandered into the mixing bottles. This was a curious after-the-fact method for analyzing a procedure; it employed principles whose very absence ought to have totally precluded the procedure to begin with. But by employing this method, Baldini finally managed to obtain such synthetic formulas. How it was that Grenouille could mix his perfumes without the formulas was still a puzzle, or better, a miracle, to Baldini, but at least he had captured this miracle in a formula, satisfying in part his thirst for rules and order and preventing the total collapse of his perfumer’s universe.

In due time he ferreted out the recipes for all the perfumes Grenouille had thus far invented, and finally he forbade him to create new scents unless he, Baldini, was present with pen and paper to observe the process with Argus eyes and to document it step by step. In his fastidious, prickly hand, he copied his notes, soon consisting of dozens of formulas, into two different little books—one he locked in his fireproof safe and the other he always carried with him, even sleeping with it at night. That reassured him. For now, should he wish, he could himself perform Grenouille’s miracles, which had on first encounter so profoundly shaken him. He believed that by collecting these written formulas, he could exorcise the terrible creative chaos erupting from his apprentice. Also the fact that he no longer merely stood there staring stupidly, but was able to participate in the creative process by observing and recording it, had a soothing effect on Baldini and strengthened his self-confidence. After a while he even came to believe that he made a not insignificant contribution to the success of these sublime scents. And when he had once entered them in his little books and entrusted them to his safe and his bosom, he no longer doubted that they were now his and his alone.

But Grenouille, too, profited from the disciplined procedures Baldini had forced upon him. He was not dependent on them himself. He never had to look up an old formula to reconstruct a perfume weeks or months later, for he never forgot an odor. But by using the obligatory measuring glasses and scales, he learned the language of perfumery, and he sensed instinctively that the knowledge of this language could be of service to him. After a few weeks Grenouille had mastered not only the names of all the odors in Baldini’s laboratory, but he was also able to record the formulas for his perfumes on his own and, vice versa, to convert other people’s formulas and instructions into perfumes and other scented products. And not merely that! Once he had learned to express his fragrant ideas in drops and drams, he no longer even needed the intermediate step of experimentation. When Baldini assigned him a new scent, whether for a handkerchief cologne, a sachet, or a face paint, Grenouille no longer reached for flacons and powders, but instead simply sat himself down at the table and wrote the formula straight out. He had learned to extend the journey from his mental notion of a scent to the finished perfume by way of writing down the formula. For him it was a detour. In the world’s eyes—that is, in Baldini’s—it was progress. Grenouille’s miracles remained the same. But the recipes he now supplied along with them removed the terror, and that was for the best. The more Grenouille mastered the tricks and tools of the trade, the better he was able to express himself in the conventional language of perfumery—and the less his master feared and suspected him. While still regarding him as a person with exceptional olfactory gifts, Baldini no longer considered him a second Frangipani or, worse, some weird wizard—and that was fine with Grenouille. The regulations of the craft functioned as a welcome disguise. He virtually lulled Baldini to sleep with his exemplary procedures, weighing ingredients, swirling the mixing bottles, sprinkling the test handkerchief. He could shake it out almost as delicately, pass it beneath his nose almost as elegantly as his master. And from time to time, at well-spaced intervals, he would make mistakes that could not fail to capture Baldini’s notice: forgetting to filter, setting the scales wrong, fixing the percentage of ambergris tincture in the formula ridiculously high. And took his scoldings for the mistakes, correcting them then most conscientiously. Thus he managed to lull Baldini into the illusion that ultimately this was all perfectly normal. He was not out to cheat the old man after all. He truly wanted to learn from him. Not how to mix perfumes, not how to compose a scent correctly, not that of course! In that sphere, there was no one in the world who could have taught him anything, nor would the ingredients available in Baldini’s shop have even begun to suffice for his notions about how to realize a truly great perfume. The scents he could create at Baldini’s were playthings compared with those he carried within him and that he intended to create one day. But for that, he knew, two indispensable prerequisites must be met. The first was the cloak of middle-class respectability, the status of a journeyman at the least, under the protection of which he could indulge his true passions and follow his true goals unimpeded. The second was the knowledge of the craft itself, the way in which scents were produced, isolated, concentrated, preserved, and thus first made available for higher ends. For Grenouille did indeed possess the best nose in the world, both analytical and visionary, but he did not yet have the ability to make those scents realities.


And so he gladly let himself be instructed in the arts of making soap from lard, sewing gloves of chamois, mixing powders from wheat flour and almond bran and pulverized violet roots. Rolled scented candles made of charcoal, saltpeter, and sandalwood chips. Pressed Oriental pastilles of myrrh, benzoin, and powdered amber. Kneaded frankincense, shellac, vetiver, and cinnamon into balls of incense. Sifted and spatulated poudre impériale out of crushed rose petals, lavender flowers, cascarilla bark. Stirred face paints, whites and vein blues, and molded greasy sticks of carmine for the lips. Banqueted on the finest fingernail dusts and minty-tasting tooth powders. Mixed liquids for curling periwigs and wart drops for corns, bleaches to remove freckles from the complexion and nightshade extract for the eyes, Spanish fly for the gentlemen and hygienic vinegars for the ladies.… Grenouille learned to produce all such eaux and powders, toilet and beauty preparations, plus teas and herbal blends, liqueurs, marinades, and such—in short, he learned, with no particular interest but without complaint and with success, everything that Baldini knew to teach him from his great store of traditional lore.

He was an especially eager pupil, however, whenever Baldini instructed him in the production of tinctures, extracts, and essences. He was indefatigable when it came to crushing bitter almond seeds in the screw press or mashing musk pods or mincing dollops of gray, greasy ambergris with a chopping knife or grating violet roots and digesting the shavings in the finest alcohol. He learned how to use a separatory funnel that could draw off the purest oil of crushed lemon rinds from the milky dregs. He learned to dry herbs and flowers on grates placed in warm, shady spots and to preserve what was once rustling foliage in wax-sealed crocks and caskets. He learned the art of rinsing pomades and producing, filtering, concentrating, clarifying, and rectifying infusions.

To be sure, Baldini’s laboratory was not a proper place for fabricating floral or herbal oils on a grand scale. It would have been hard to find sufficient quantities of fresh plants in Paris for that. But from time to time, when they could get cheap, fresh rosemary, sage, mint, or anise seeds at the market, or a shipment of valerian roots, caraway seeds, nutmegs, or dried clove blossoms had come in, then the alchemist in Baldini would stir, and he would bring out the large alembic, a copper distilling vessel, atop it a head for condensing liquids—a so-called moor’s head alembic, he proudly announced—which he had used forty years before for distilling lavender out on the open southern exposures of Liguria’s slopes and on the heights of the Lubéron. And while Grenouille chopped up what was to be distilled, Baldini hectically bustled about heating a brick-lined hearth—because speed was the alpha and omega

of this procedure—and placed on it a copper kettle, the bottom well covered with water. He threw in the minced plants, quickly closed off the double-walled moor’s head, and connected two hoses to allow water to pass in and out. This clever mechanism for cooling the water, he explained, was something he had added on later, since out in the field, of course, one had simply used bellowed air for cooling. And then he blew on the fire.

Slowly the kettle came to a boil. And after a while, the distillate started to flow out of the moor’s head’s third tap into a Florentine flask that Baldini had set below it—at first hesitantly, drop by drop, then in a threadlike stream. It looked rather unimpressive to begin with, like some thin, murky soup. Bit by bit, however—especially after the first flask had been replaced with a second and set aside to settle—the brew separated into two different liquids: below, the floral or herbal fluid; above, a thick floating layer of oil. If one carefully poured off the fluid—which had only the lightest aroma—through the lower spout of the Florentine flask, the pure oil was left behind—the essence, the heavily scented principle of the plant.

Grenouille was fascinated by the process. If ever anything in his life had kindled his enthusiasm—granted, not a visible enthusiasm but a hidden one, an excitement burning with a cold flame—then it was this procedure for using fire, water, steam, and a cunning apparatus to snatch the scented soul from matter. That scented soul, that ethereal oil, was in fact the best thing about matter, the only reason for his interest in it. The rest of the stupid stuff—the blossoms, leaves, rind, fruit, color, beauty, vitality, and all those other useless qualities—were of no concern to him. They were mere husk and ballast, to be disposed of.

From time to time, when the distillate had grown watery and clear, they took the alembic from the fire, opened it, and shook out the cooked muck. It looked as flabby and pale as soggy straw, like the bleached bones of little birds, like vegetables that had been boiled too long, insipid and stringy, pulpy, hardly still recognizable for what it was, disgustingly cadaverous, and almost totally robbed of its own odor. They threw it out the window into the river. Then they fed the alembic with new, fresh plants, poured in more water, and set it back on the hearth. And once again the kettle began to simmer, and again the lifeblood of the plants dripped into the Florentine flask. This often went on all night long. Baldini watched the hearth, Grenouille kept an eye on the flasks; there was nothing else to do while waiting for the next batch.

They sat on footstools by the fire, under the spell of the rotund flacon—both spellbound, if for very different reasons. Baldini enjoyed the blaze of the fire and the flickering red of the flames and the copper, he loved the crackling of the burning wood, the gurgle of the alembic, for it was like the old days. You could lose yourself in it! He fetched a bottle of wine from the shop, for the heat made him thirsty, and drinking wine was like the old days too. And then he began to tell stories, from the old days, endless stories. About the War of the Spanish Succession, when his own participation against the Austrians had had a decisive influence on the outcome; about the Camisards, together with whom he had haunted the Cévennes; about the daughter of a Huguenot in the Esterel, who, intoxicated by the scent of lavender, had complied with his wishes; about a forest fire that he had damn near started and which would then have probably set the entire Provence ablaze, as sure as there was a heaven and hell, for a biting mistral had been blowing; and over and over he told about distilling out in the open fields, at night, by moonlight, accompanied by wine and the screech of cicadas, and about a lavender oil that he had created, one so refined and powerful that you could have weighed it out in silver; about his apprentice years in Genoa, about his journeyman years in the city of Grasse, where there were as many perfumers as shoemakers, some of them so rich they lived like princes, in magnificent houses with shaded gardens and terraces and wainscoted dining rooms where they feasted with porcelain and golden cutlery, and so on.…

Such were the stories Baldini told while he drank his wine and his cheeks grew ruddy from the wine and the blazing fire and from his own enthusiastic storytelling. Grenouille, however, who sat back more in the shadows, did not listen to him at all. He did not care about old tales, he was interested in one thing only: this new process. He stared uninterruptedly at the tube at the top of the alembic out of which the distillate ran in a thin stream. And as he stared at it, he imagined that he himself was such an alembic, simmering away inside just like this one, out of which there likewise gushed a distillate, but a better, a newer, an unfamiliar distillate of those exquisite plants that he tended within him, that blossomed there, their bouquet unknown to anyone but himself, and that with their unique scent he could turn the world into a fragrant Garden of Eden, where life would be relatively bearable for him, olfactorily speaking. To be a giant alembic, flooding the whole world with a distillate of his own making, that was the daydream to which Grenouille gave himself up.

But while Baldini, inflamed by the wine, continued to tell ever more extravagant tales of the old days and got more and more tangled up in his uninhibited enthusiasms, Grenouille soon abandoned his bizarre fantasy. For the moment he banished from his thoughts the notion of a giant alembic, and instead he pondered how he might make use of his newly gained knowledge for more immediate goals.


It wasn’t long before he had become a specialist in the field of distillation. He discovered—and his nose was of more use in the discovery than Baldini’s rules and regulations—that the heat of the fire played a significant role in the quality of the distillate. Every plant, every flower, every sort of wood, and every oil-yielding seed demanded a special procedure. Sometimes you had to build up the hottest head of steam, sometimes you just left it at a moderate boil, and some flowers yielded their best only if you let them steep over the lowest possible flame.

It was much the same with their preparation. Mint and lavender could be distilled by the bunch. Other things needed to be carefully culled, plucked, chopped, grated, crushed, or even made into pulp before they were placed in the copper kettle. Many things simply could not be distilled at all—which irritated Grenouille no end.

Having observed what a sure hand Grenouille had with the apparatus, Baldini had given him free rein with the alembic, and Grenouille had taken full advantage of that freedom. While still mixing perfumes and producing other scented and herbal products during the day, he occupied himself at night exclusively with the art of distillation. His plan was to create entirely new basic odors, and with them to produce at least some of the scents that he bore within him. At first he had some small successes. He succeeded in producing oils from nettles and from cress seeds, toilet water from the fresh bark of elderberry and from yew sprigs. These distillates were only barely similar to the odor of their ingredients, but they were at least interesting enough to be processed further. But there were also substances with which the procedure was a complete failure. Grenouille tried for instance to distill the odor of glass, the clayey, cool odor of smooth glass, something a normal human being cannot perceive at all. He got himself both window glass and bottle glass and tried working with it in large pieces, in fragments, in slivers, as dust—all without the least success. He distilled brass, porcelain, and leather, grain and gravel. He distilled plain dirt. Blood and wood and fresh fish. His own hair. By the end he was distilling plain water, water from the Seine, the distinctive odor of which seemed to him worth preserving. He believed that with the help of an alembic he could rob these materials of their characteristic odors, just as could be done with thyme, lavender, and caraway seeds. He did not know that distillation is nothing more than a process for separating complex substances into volatile and less volatile components and that it is only useful in the art of perfumery because the volatile essential oils of certain plants can be extracted from the rest, which have little or no scent. For substances lacking these essential oils, the distilling process is, of course, wholly pointless. For us moderns, educated in the natural sciences, that is immediatel

y apparent. For Grenouille, however, this knowledge was won painfully after a long chain of disappointing experiments. For months on end he sat at his alembic night after night and tried every way he could think to distill radically new scents, scents that had never existed on earth before in a concentrated form. But except for a few ridiculous plant oils, nothing came of it. From the immeasurably deep and fecund well of his imagination, he had pumped not a single drop of a real and fragrant essence, had been unable to realize a single atom of his olfactory preoccupations.

When it finally became clear to him that he had failed, he halted his experiments and fell mortally ill.


He came down with a high fever, which for the first few days was accompanied by heavy sweats, but which later, as if the pores of his skin were no longer enough, produced countless pustules. Grenouille’s body was strewn with reddish blisters. Many of them popped open, releasing their watery contents, only to fill up again. Others grew into true boils, swelling up thick and red and then erupting like craters, spewing viscous pus and blood streaked with yellow. In time, with his hundreds of ulcerous wounds, Grenouille looked like some martyr stoned from the inside out.

Naturally, Baldini was worried. It would have been very unpleasant for him to lose his precious apprentice just at the moment when he was planning to expand his business beyond the borders of the capital and out across the whole country. For increasingly, orders for those innovative scents that Paris was so crazy about were indeed coming not only from the provinces but also from foreign courts. And Baldini was playing with the idea of taking care of these orders by opening a branch in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, virtually a small factory, where the fastest-moving scents could be mixed in quantity and bottled in quantity in smart little flacons, packed by smart little girls, and sent off to Holland, England, and Greater Germany. Such an enterprise was not exactly legal for a master perfumer residing in Paris, but Baldini had recently gained the protection of people in high places; his exquisite scents had done that for him—not just with the commissary, but also with such important personages as the gentleman holding the franchise for the Paris customs office or with a member of the Conseil Royal des Finances and promoter of flourishing commercial undertakings like Monsieur Feydeau de Brou. The latter had even held out the prospect of a royal patent, truly the best thing that one could hope for, a kind of carte blanche for circumventing all civil and professional restrictions; it meant the end of all business worries and the guarantee of secure, permanent, unassailable prosperity.

Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror