by Jean Roberta
Here is the description of a historical novel that I picked up several years ago from the ever-changing pile of used books in the hallway of the English Department. All of us who teach there leave our leftovers out for anyone to take.
Perfume, the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind (Random House, 2001).
In the slums of 18th-century Paris a baby is born and abandoned, passed over to monks as a charity case. But the monks can find no one to care for the child-he is too demanding, and he doesn't smell the way a baby should smell. In fact, he has no scent at all. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille clings to life with an iron will, growing into a dark and sinister young man who, although he has no scent of his own, possesses an incomparable sense of smell. Never having known human kindness, Grenouille lives only to decipher the odors around him, the complex swirl of smells-ashes and leather, rancid cheese and fresh-baked bread-that is Paris. He apprentices himself to a perfumer, and quickly masters the ancient art of mixing flowers, herbs, and oils. Then one day he catches a faint whiff of something so exquisite he is determined to capture it. Obsessed, Grenouille follows the scent until he locates its source-a beautiful young virgin on the brink of womanhood. As his demented quest to create the "ultimate perfume" leads him to murder, we are caught up in a rising storm of terror until his final triumph explodes in all of its horrifying consequences. Told with dazzling narrative brilliance, Perfume is a hauntingly powerful tale of unnatural passion and sensual depravity.
I was not impressed that, as usual, the supposedly fascinating anti-hero finds a reason to kill young women. What did they expect, smelling like flowers in a time and a place where that was certainly not the norm?
I put the dog-eared paperback in the hallway again, and it disappeared soon afterward. The book itself had been circulating long enough to acquire a faint smell.
Beau Brummel, a real-life English dandy of about the same period, apparently bragged that he didn’t have to wear perfume, like everyone else at the Court of King George, because he bathed every day. He was considered a fanatic.
This all brings me to my own history. I wasn’t alive in the 1700s, but nonetheless, I remember an Age of Smell. All the adults I knew were smokers, and the smell of stale smoke permeated their clothes and their houses, including the ones where I lived with my parents. In a time when most houses had bathtubs but no showers, I was expected to take a bath once a week. That was probably enough for me before I reached puberty, but I had the impression that adults didn’t see a need to bathe more often than that. After all, they had aftershave, perfume, various skin and hair products to mask their body odor. All this stuff mixed into a complicated aroma.
Apparently no one was allergic to anything in the 1950s and 60s. Little bottles of cologne were popular holiday and birthday gifts even for girls, and all the women I knew trailed sweet (usually cloying) smells behind them.
I felt somewhat like the speaker of the following poem by a popular American poet with a name that sounded like a joke, William Carlos Williams. (He died in 1963.)
Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them. With what deep thirst
we quicken our desires
to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
Can you not be decent? Can you not reserve your ardors
for something less unlovely? What girl will care
for us, do you think, if we continue in these ways?
Must you taste everything? Must you know everything?
Must you have a part in everything?
Well, duh. Noses smell because it’s their job.
By the time I came out as a lesbian in the 1980s, the smell of the masses seemed to have receded. When apartment-hunting, I noticed that washrooms in newer buildings often contained utilitarian showers, but no bathtubs. It seemed as if there had been a quiet revolution in cleanliness. Even relatively poor, single adults had the means to shower every day, and my first woman lover was shocked that I didn’t. I smelled the coffee, so to speak, and joined the trend.
I was delighted to learn that pussy (or cunt, snatch, whatever word seemed both acceptable and sexy in the moment) always has a certain bouquet, even when its owner is squeaky-clean. Arousal intensifies the scent.
Maybe it’s because I came from an era when I couldn’t afford to be too sensitive to the smells of other bodies that I never smelled a pussy I didn’t like. I did notice, however, that no two smelled exactly alike.
Xena, as I’ll call her, had the most unusual smell and taste of any woman I had met so far. She tasted sweet, and the scent between her legs was like a preview of the dessert to come. Her body, at least, seemed healthy and innocent, even though she drank like a fish and had an alarming temper.
When she left me for a woman I had introduced her to, I felt both disappointed and humiliated. Under those feelings, like a subtle smell, I felt relief and hope, as though I had been spared to enjoy my own (and my young daughter’s) company until I could find someone more compatible with us both.
Years later, I read that body fluids that smell and taste sweet are a bad sign, much like sweetness in tofu that has been left out of the fridge too long. (It’s made from beans. They’re not supposed to smell like fruit.) The sweetness I smelled and tasted inside Xena was probably the sign of a blood sugar imbalance.
Yoy. While too many of the gay men I knew were picking up HIV in the 1980s, the dykes were suffering the consequences of uncontrolled drinking: weight gain, diabetes, serious injuries (in some cases, death) from vehicle accidents on ice in a prairie winter.
I’ve heard that Xena is still alive in another town, though I haven’t seen her for years. I hope her health is good, especially since it would now be completely inappropriate for me to check out her most intimate smell, knowing more than I did when we were an item.
It’s probably just as well that I enjoyed any womanly smell that wasn’t downright rancid.