Sometimes, if this repulsive aperitif did not quite get him into stride, he would allow himself a brief, odoriferous detour to Grimal’s for a whiff of the stench of raw, meaty skins and tanning broths, or he imagined the collective effluvium of six hundred thousand Parisians in the sultry, oppressive heat of late summer.
And then all at once, the pent-up hate would erupt with orgasmic force—that was, after all, the point of the exercise. Like a thunderstorm he rolled across these odors that had dared offend his patrician nose. He thrashed at them as hail thrashes a grainfield; like a hurricane, he scattered the rabble and drowned them in a grand purifying deluge of distilled water. And how just was his anger. How great his revenge. Ah! What a sublime moment! Grenouille, the little man, quivered with excitement, his body writhed with voluptuous delight and arched so high that he slammed his head against the roof of the tunnel, only to sink back slowly and lie there lolling in satiation. It really was too pleasant, this volcanic act that extinguished all obnoxious odors, really too pleasant.… This was almost his favorite routine in the whole repertoire of his innermost universal theater, for it imparted to him the wonderful sense of righteous exhaustion that comes after only truly grand heroic deeds.
Now he could rest awhile in good conscience. He stretched out—to the extent his body fit within the narrow stony quarters. Deep inside, however, on the cleanly swept mats of his soul, he stretched out comfortably to the fullest and dozed away, letting delicate scents play about his nose: a spicy gust, for instance, as if borne here from springtime meadows; a mild May wind wafting through the first green leaves of beech; a sea breeze, with the bitterness of salted almonds. It was late afternoon when he arose—something like late afternoon, for naturally there was no afternoon or forenoon or evening or morning, there was neither light nor darkness, nor were there spring meadows nor green beech leaves … there were no real things at all in Grenouille’s innermost universe, only the odors of things. (Which is why the façon de parler speaks of that universe as a landscape; an adequate expression, to be sure, but the only possible one, since our language is of no use when it comes to describing the smellable world.) It was, then, late afternoon: that is, a condition and a moment within Grenouille’s soul such as reigns over the south when the siesta is done and the paralysis of midday slowly recedes and life’s urge begins again after such constraint. The heat kindled by rage—the enemy of sublime scents—had fled, the pack of demons was annihilated. The fields within him lay soft and burnished beneath the lascivious peace of his awakening—and they waited for the will of their lord to come upon them.
And Grenouille rose up—as noted—and shook the sleep from his limbs. He stood up, the great innermost Grenouille. Like a giant he planted himself, in all his glory and grandeur, splendid to look upon—damn shame that no one saw him!—and looked about him, proud and majestic.
Yes! This was his empire! The incomparable Empire of Grenouille! Created and ruled over by him, the incomparable Grenouille, laid waste by him if he so chose and then raised up again, made boundless by him and defended with a flaming sword against every intruder. Here there was naught but his will, the will of the great, spendid, incomparable Grenouille. And now that the evil stench of the past had been swept away, he desired that his empire be fragrant. And with mighty strides he passed across the fallow fields and sowed fragrance of all kinds, wastefully here, sparingly there, in plantations of endless dimension and in small, intimate parcels, strewing seeds by the fistful or tucking them in one by one in selected spots. To the farthermost regions of his empire, Grenouille the Great, the frantic gardener, hurried, and soon there was not a cranny left into which he had not thrown a seed of fragrance.
And when he saw that it was good and that the whole earth was saturated with his divine Grenouille seeds, then Grenouille the Great let descend a shower of rectified spirit, soft and steady, and everywhere and overall the seed began to germinate and sprout, bringing forth shoots to gladden his heart. On the plantations it rolled in luxurious waves, and in the hidden gardens the stems stood full with sap. The blossoms all but exploded from their buds.
Then Grenouille the Great commanded the rain to stop. And it was so. And he sent the gentle sun of his smile upon the land; whereupon, to a bud, the hosts of blossoms unfolded their glory, from one end of his empire unto the other, creating a single rainbowed carpet woven from myriad precious capsules of fragrance. And Grenouille the Great saw that it was good, very, very good. And he caused the wind of his breath to blow across the land. And the blossoms, thus caressed, spilled over with scent and intermingled their teeming scents into one constantly changing scent that in all its variety was nevertheless merged into the odor of universal homage to Him, Grenouille the Great, the Incomparable, the Magnificent, who, enthroned upon his gold-scented cloud, sniffed his breath back in again, and the sweet savor of the sacrifice was pleasing unto him. And he deigned to bless his creation several times over, from whom came thanksgiving with songs of praise and rejoicing and yet further outpourings of glorious fragrance. Meanwhile evening was come, and the scents spilled over still and united with the blue of night to form ever more fantastic airs. A veritable gala of scent awaited, with one gigantic burst of fragrant diamond-studded fireworks.
Grenouille the Great, however, had tired a little and yawned and spoke: “Behold, I have done a great thing, and I am well pleased. But as with all the works once finished, it begins to bore me. I shall withdraw, and to crown this strenuous day I shall allow myself yet one more small delectation in the chambers of my heart.”
So spoke Grenouille the Great and, while the peasantry of scent danced and celebrated beneath him, he glided with wide-stretched wings down from his golden clouds, across the nocturnal fields of his soul, and home to his heart.
Ah, returning home was pleasant! The double role of avenger and creator of worlds was not a little taxing, and then to be celebrated afterwards for hours on end by one’s own offspring was not the perfect way to relax either. Weary of the duties of divine creator and official host, Grenouille the Great longed for some small domestic bliss.
His heart was a purple castle. It lay in a rock-strewn desert, concealed by dunes, surrounded by a marshy oasis, and set behind stone walls. It could be reached only from the air. It had a thousand private rooms and a thousand underground chambers and a thousand elegant salons, among them one with a purple sofa when Grenouille—no longer Grenouille the Great, but only the quite private Grenouille, or simply dear little Jean-Baptiste—would recover from the labors of the day.
The castle’s private rooms, however, were shelved from floor to ceiling, and on those shelves were all the odors that Grenouille had collected in the course of his life, several million of them. And in the castle’s cellars the best scents of his life were stored in casks. When properly aged, they were drawn off into bottles that lay in miles of damp, cool corridors and were arranged by vintage and estate. There were so many that they could not all be drunk in a single lifetime.
Once dear little Jean-Baptiste had finally returned chez soi, lying on his simple, cozy sofa in his purple salon—his boots finally pulled off, so to speak—he clapped his hands and called his servants, who were invisible, intangible, inaudible, and above all inodorous, and thus totally imaginary servants, and ordered them to go to the private rooms and get this or that volume from the great library of odors and to the cellars to fetch something for him to drink. The imaginary servants hurried off, and Grenouille’s stomach cramped in tormented expectation. He suddenly felt like a drunkard who is afraid that the shot of brandy he has ordered at the bar will, for some reason or other, be denied him. What if the cellar or the library were suddenly empty, if the wine in the casks had gone sour? Why were they keeping him waiting? Why did they not come? He needed the stuff now, he needed it desperately, he was addicted, he would die on the spot if he did not get it.
Calm yourself, Jean-Baptiste! Calm yourself, my friend! They’re coming, they’re coming, they
’re bringing what you crave. The servants are winging their way here with it. They are carrying the book of odors on an invisible tray, and in their white-gloved, invisible hands they are carrying those precious bottles, they set them down, ever so carefully, they bow, and they disappear.
And then, left alone, at last—once again!—left alone, Jean-Baptiste reaches for the odors he craves, opens the first bottle, pours a glass full to the rim, puts it to his lips, and drinks. Drinks the glass of cool scent down in one draft, and it is luscious. It is so refreshingly good that dear Jean-Baptiste’s eyes fill with tears of bliss, and he immediately pours himself a second glass: a scent from the year 1752, sniffed up in spring, before sunrise on the Pont-Royal, his nose directed to the west, from where a light breeze bore the blended odors of sea and forest and a touch of the tarry smell of the barges tied up at the bank. It was the scent from the end of his first night spent roaming about Paris without Grimal’s permission. It was the fresh odor of the approaching day, of the first daybreak that he had ever known in freedom. That odor had been the pledge of freedom. It had been the pledge of a different life. The odor of that morning was for Grenouille the odor of hope. He guarded it carefully. And he drank of it daily.
Once he had emptied the second glass, all his nervousness, all his doubt and insecurity, fell away from him, and he was filled with glorious contentment. He pressed his back against the soft cushions of his sofa, opened a book, and began to read from his memoirs. He read about the odors of his childhood, of his schooldays, about the odors of the broad streets and hidden nooks of the city, about human odors. And a pleasant shudder washed over him, for the odors he now called up were indeed those that he despised, that he had exterminated. With sickened interest, Grenouille read from the book of revolting odors, and when his disgust outweighed his interest, he simply slammed the book shut, laid it aside, and picked up another.
All the while he drank without pause from his noble scents. After the bottle of hope, he uncorked one from the year 1744, filled with the warm scent of the wood outside Madame Gaillard’s house. And after that he drank a bottle of the scent of a summer evening, imbued with perfume and heavy with blossoms, gleaned from the edge of a park in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, dated 1753.
He was now scent-logged. His arms and legs grew heavier and heavier as they pressed into the cushions. His mind was wonderfully fogged. But it was not yet the end of his debauch. His eyes could read no more, true, the book had long since fallen from his hand—but he did not want to call an end to the evening without having emptied one last bottle, the most splendid of all: the scent of the girl from the rue des Marais.…
He drank it reverently and he sat upright on the sofa to do so—although that was difficult and the purple salon whirled and swayed with every move. Like a schoolboy, his knees pressed together, his feet side by side, his left hand resting on his left thigh, that was how little Grenouille drank the most precious scent from the cellars of his heart, glass after glass, and grew sadder and sadder as he drank. He knew that he was drinking too much. He knew that he could not handle so much good scent. And yet he drank till the bottle was empty. He walked along the dark passage from the street into the rear courtyard. He made for the glow of light. The girl was sitting there pitting yellow plums. Far in the distance, the rockets and petards of the fireworks were booming.…
He put the glass down and sat there for a while yet, several minutes, stiff with sentimentality and guzzling, until the last aftertaste had vanished from his palate. He stared vacantly ahead. His head was suddenly as empty as the bottle. Then he toppled sideways onto the purple sofa, and from one moment to the next sank into a numbed sleep.
At the same time, the other Grenouille fell asleep on his horse blanket. And his sleep was just as fathomless as that of the innermost Grenouille, for the Herculean deeds and excesses of the one had more than exhausted the other—they were, after all, one and the same person.
When he awoke, however, he did not awaken in the purple salon of his purple castle behind the seven walls, nor upon the vernal fields of scent within his soul, but most decidedly in his stony dungeon at the end of a tunnel, on hard ground, in the dark. And he was nauseated with hunger and thirst, and as chilled and miserable as a drunkard after a night of carousing. He crept on all fours out of his tunnel.
Outside it would be some time of day or another, usually toward the beginning or end of night; but even at midnight, the brightness of the starlight pricked his eyes like needles. The air seemed dusty to him, acrid, searing his lungs; the landscape was brittle; he bumped against the stones. And even the most delicate odors came sharp and caustic into a nose unaccustomed to the world. Grenouille the tick had grown as touchy as a hermit crab that has left its shell to wander naked through the sea.
He went to his watering spot, licked the moisture from the wall, for an hour, for two; it was pure torture. Time would not end, time in which the real world scorched his skin. He ripped a few scraps of moss from the stones, choked them down, squatted, shitting as he ate—it must all be done quickly, quickly, quickly. And as if he were a hunted creature, a little soft-fleshed animal, and the hawks were already circling in the sky overhead, he ran back to his cave, to the end of the tunnel where his horse blanket was spread. There he was safe at last.
He leaned back against the stony debris, stretched out his legs, and waited. He had to hold his body very still, very still, like some vessel about to slosh over from too much motion. Gradually he managed to gain control of his breathing. His excited heart beat more steadily; the pounding of the waves inside him subsided slowly. And suddenly solitude fell across his heart like a dusky reflection. He closed his eyes. The dark doors within him opened, and he entered. The next performance in the theater of Grenouille’s soul was beginning.
And so it went, day in day out, week in week out, month in month out. So it went for seven long years.
Meanwhile war raged in the world outside, a world war. Men fought in Silesia and Saxony, in Hanover and the Low Countries, in Bohemia and Pomerania. The king’s troops died in Hesse and Westphalia, on the Balearic Islands, in India, on the Mississippi and in Canada, if they had not already succumbed to typhoid on the journey. The war robbed a million people of their lives, France of its colonial empire, and all the warring nations of so much money that they finally decided, with heavy hearts, to end it.
One winter during this period, Grenouille almost froze to death, without ever noticing it. For five days he lay in his purple salon, and when he awoke in his tunnel he was so cold he could not move. He closed his eyes again and would have slept himself to death. But then the weather turned around, there was a thaw, and he was saved.
Once the snow was so deep that he did not have the strength to burrow down to the lichen. He fed himself on the stiff carcasses of frozen bats.
Once a dead raven lay at the mouth of the cave. He ate it. These were the only events in the outside world of which he took notice for seven years. Otherwise he lived only within his mountain, only within the self-made empire of his soul. And he would have remained there until his death (since he lacked for nothing), if catastrophe had not struck, driving him from his mountain, vomiting him back out into the world.
The catastrophe was not an earthquake, nor a forest fire, nor an avalanche, nor a cave-in. It was not an external catastrophe at all, but an internal one, and as such particularly distressing, because it blocked Grenouille’s favorite means of escape. It happened in his sleep. Or better, in his dreams. Or better still, in a dream while he slept in the heart of his fantasies.
He lay on his sofa in the purple salon and slept, the empty bottles all about him. He had drunk an enormous amount, with two whole bottles of the scent of the red-haired girl for a nightcap. Apparently it had been too much; for his sleep, though deep as death itself, was not dreamless this time, but threaded with ghostly wisps of dreams. These wisps were clearly recognizable as scraps of odors. At first they merely floa
ted in thin threads past Grenouille’s nose, but then they grew thicker, more cloudlike. And now it seemed as if he were standing in the middle of a moor from which fog was rising. The fog slowly climbed higher. Soon Grenouille was completely wrapped in fog, saturated with fog, and it seemed he could not get his breath for the foggy vapor. If he did not want to suffocate, he would have to breathe the fog in. And the fog was, as noted, an odor. And Grenouille knew what kind of odor. The fog was his own odor. His, Grenouille’s, own body odor was the fog.
And the awful thing was that Grenouille, although he knew that this odor was his odor, could not smell it. Virtually drowning in himself, he could not for the life of him smell himself!
As this became clear to him, he gave a scream as dreadful and loud as if he were being burned alive. The scream smashed through the walls of the purple salon, through the walls of the castle, and sped away from his heart across the ditches and swamps and deserts, hurtled across the nocturnal landscape of his soul like a fire storm, howled its way out of his mouth, down the winding tunnel, out into the world, and far across the high plains of Saint-Flour—as if the mountain itself were screaming. And Grenouille awoke at his own scream. In waking, he thrashed about as if he had to drive off the odorless fog trying to suffocate him. He was deathly afraid, his whole body shook with the raw fear of death. Had his scream not ripped open the fog, he would have drowned in himself—a gruesome death. He shuddered as he recalled it. And as he sat there shivering and trying to gather his confused, terrified thoughts, he knew one thing for sure: he would change his life, if only because he did not want to dream such a frightening dream a second time. He would not survive it a second time.
He threw his horse blanket over his shoulders and crept out into the open. It was already morning outside, a late February morning. The sun was shining. The earth smelled of moist stones, moss, and water. On the wind there already lay a light bouquet of anemones. He squatted on the ground before his cave. The sunlight warmed him. He breathed in the fresh air. Whenever he thought of the fog that he had escaped, a shudder would pass over him. And he shuddered, too, from the pleasure of the warmth he felt on his back. It was good, really, that this external world still existed, if only as a place of refuge. Nor could he bear the awful thought of how it would have been not to find a world at the entrance to the tunnel! No light, no odor, no nothing—only that ghastly fog inside, outside, everywhere …