IT WAS LIKE living in Utopia. The adjacent neighborhoods of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie and Saint-Eustache were a wonderland. In the narrow side streets off the rue Saint-Denis and the rue Saint-Martin, people lived so densely packed, each house so tightly pressed to the next, five, six stories high, that you could not see the sky, and the air at ground level formed damp canals where odors congealed. It was a mixture of human and animal smells, of water and stone and ashes and leather, of soap and fresh-baked bread and eggs boiled in vinegar, of noodles and smoothly polished brass, of sage and ale and tears, of grease and soggy straw and dry straw. Thousands upon thousands of odors formed an invisible gruel that filled the street ravines, only seldom evaporating above the rooftops and never from the ground below. The people who lived there no longer experienced this gruel as a special smell; it had arisen from them and they had been steeped in it over and over again; it was, after all, the very air they breathed and from which they lived, it was like clothes you have worn so long you no longer smell them or feel them against your skin. Grenouille, however, smelled it all as if for the first time. And he did not merely smell the mixture of odors in the aggregate, but he dissected it analytically into its smallest and most remote parts and pieces. His discerning nose unraveled the knot of vapor and stench into single strands of unitary odors that could not be unthreaded further. Unwinding and spinning out these threads gave him unspeakable joy.
He would often just stand there, leaning against a wall or crouching in a dark corner, his eyes closed, his mouth half open and nostrils flaring wide, quiet as a feeding pike in a great, dark, slowly moving current. And when at last a puff of air would toss a delicate thread of scent his way, he would lunge at it and not let go. Then he would smell at only this one odor, holding it tight, pulling it into himself and preserving it for all time. The odor might be an old acquaintance, or a variation on one; it could be a brand-new one as well, with hardly any similarity to anything he had ever smelled, let alone seen, till that moment: the odor of pressed silk, for example, the odor of a wild-thyme tea, the odor of brocade embroidered with silver thread, the odor of a cork from a bottle of vintage wine, the odor of a tortoiseshell comb. Grenouille was out to find such odors still unknown to him; he hunted them down with the passion and patience of an angler and stored them up inside him.
When he had smelled his fill of the thick gruel of the streets, he would go to airier terrain, where the odors were thinner, mixing with the wind as they unfurled, much as perfume does-to the market of Les Halles, for instance, where the odors of the day lived on into the evening, invisibly but ever so distinctly, as if the vendors still swarmed among the crowd, as if the baskets still stood there stuffed full of vegetables and eggs, or the casks full of wine and vinegar, the sacks with their spices and potatoes and flour, the crates of nails and screws, the meat tables, the tables full of doth and dishes and shoe soles and all the hundreds of other things sold there during the day… the bustle of it all down to the smallest detail was still present in the air that had been left behind. Gre-nouille saw the whole market smelling, if it can be put that way. And he smelled it more precisely than many people could see it, for his perception was after the fact and thus of a higher order: an essence, a spirit of what had been, something undisturbed by the everyday accidents of the moment, like noise, glare, or the nauseating press of living human beings.
Or he would go to the spot where they had beheaded his mother, to the place de Greve, which stuck out to lick the river like a huge tongue. Here lay the ships, pulled up onto shore or moored to posts, and they smelled of coal and grain and hay and damp ropes.
And from the west, via this one passage cut through the city by the river, came a broad current of wind bringing with it the odors of the country, of the meadows around Neuilly, of the forests between Saint-Germain and Versailles, of far-off cities like Rouen or Caen and sometimes of the sea itself. The sea smelled like a sail whose billows had caught up water, salt, and a cold sun. It had a simple smell, the sea, but at the same time it smelled immense and unique, so much so that Grenouille hesitated to dissect the odors into fishy, salty, watery, seaweedy, fresh-airy, and so on. He preferred to leave the smell of the sea blended together, preserving it as a unit in his memory, relishing it whole. The smell of the sea pleased him so much that he wanted one day to take it in, pure and unadulterated, in such quantities that he could get drunk on it. And later, when he learned from stories how large the sea is and that you can sail upon it in ships for days on end without ever seeing land, nothing pleased him more than the image of himself sitting high up in the crow’s nest of the foremost mast on such a ship, gliding on through the endless smell of the sea-which really was no smell, but a breath, an exhalation of breath, the end of all smells-dissolving with pleasure in that breath. But it was never to be, for Grenouille, who stood there on the riverbank at the place de Greve steadily breathing in and out the scraps of sea breeze that he could catch in his nose, would never in his life see the sea, the real sea, the immense ocean that lay to the west, and would never be able to mingle himself with its smell. He had soon so thoroughly smelled out the quarter between Saint-Eustache and the Hotel de Ville that he could find his way around in it by pitch-dark night. And so he expanded his hunting grounds, first westward to the Faubourg Saint-Honore, then out along the rue Saint-Antoine to the Bastille, and finally across to the other bank of the river into the quarters of the Sorbonne and the Faubourg Saint-Germain where the rich people lived. Through the wrought-iron gates at their portals came the smells of coach leather and of the powder in the pages’ wigs, and over the high walls passed the garden odors of broom and roses and freshly trimmed hedges. It was here as well that Grenouille first smelled perfume in the literal sense of the word: a simple lavender or rose water, with which the fountains of the gardens were filled on gala occasions; but also the more complex, more costly scents, of tincture of musk mixed with oils of neroli and tuberose, jonquil, jasmine, or cinnamon, that floated behind the carriages like rich ribbons on the evening breeze. He made note of these scents, registering them just as he would profane odors, with curiosity, but without particular admiration. Of course he realized that the purpose of perfumes was to create an intoxicating and alluring effect, and he recognized the value of the individual essences that comprised them. But on the whole they seemed to him rather coarse and ponderous, more slapdashed together than composed, and he knew that he could produce entirely different fragrances if he only had the basic ingredients at his disposal.
He knew many of these ingredients already from the flower and spice stalls at the market; others were new to him, and he filtered them out from the aromatic mixture and kept them unnamed in his memory: ambergris, civet, patchouli, sandalwood, bergamot, vetiver, opopanax, benzoin, hop blossom, castor…
He was not particular about it. He did not differentiate between what is commonly considered a good and a bad smell, not yet. He was greedy. The goal of the hunt was simply to possess everything the world could offer in the way of odors, and his only condition was that the odors be new ones. The smell of a sweating horse meant just as much to him as the tender green bouquet of a bursting rosebud, the acrid stench of a bug was no less worthy than the aroma rising from a larded veal roast in an aristocrat’s kitchen. He devoured everything, everything, sucking it up into him. But there were no aesthetic principles governing the olfactory kitchen of his imagination, where he was forever synthesizing and concocting new aromatic combinations. He fashioned grotes-queries, only to destroy them again immediately, like a child playing with blocks-inventive and destructive, with no apparent norms for his creativity.