ON SEPTEMBER 1, 1753, the anniversary of the king’s coronation, the city of Paris set off fireworks at the Pont-Royal. The display was not as spectacular as the fireworks celebrating the king’s marriage, or as the legendary fireworks in honor of the dauphin’s birth, but it was impressive nevertheless. They had mounted golden sunwheeis on the masts of the ships. From the bridge itself so-called fire bulls spewed showers of burning stars into the river. And while from every side came the deafening roar of petards exploding and of firecrackers skipping across the cobblestones, rockets rose into the sky and painted white lilies against the black firmament. Thronging the bridge and the quays along both banks of the river, a crowd of many thousands accompanied the spectacle with ah’s and oh’s and even some “long live” ‘s-although the king had ascended his throne more than thirty-eight years before and the high point of his popularity was Song since behind him. Fireworks can do that.
Grenouille stood silent in the shadow of the Pavilion de Flore, across from the Pont-Neuf on the right bank. He did not stir a finger to applaud, did not even look up at the ascending rockets. He had come in hopes of getting a whiff of something new, but it soon became apparent that fireworks had nothing to offer in the way of odors. For all their extravagant variety as they glittered and gushed and crashed and whistled, they left behind a very monotonous mixture of smells: sulfur, oil, and saltpeter.
He was just about to leave this dreary exhibition and head homewards along the gallery of the Louvre when the wind brought him something, a tiny, hardly noticeable something, a crumb, an atom of scent; no, even less than that: it was more the premonition of a scent than the scent itself-and at the same time it was definitely a premonition of something he had never smelled before. He backed up against the wall, closed his eyes, and flared his nostrils. The scent was so exceptionally delicate and fine that he could not hold on to it; it continually eluded his perception, was masked by the powder smoke of the petards, blocked by the exudations of the crowd, fragmented and crushed by the thousands of other city odors. But then, suddenly, it was there again, a mere shred, the whiff of a magnificent premonition for only a second… and it vanished at once. Grenouille suffered agonies. For the first time, it was not just that his greedy nature was offended, but his very heart ached. He had the prescience of something extraordinary-this scent was the key for ordering all odors, one could understand nothing about odors if one did not understand this one scent, and his whole life would be bungled, if he, Grenouille, did not succeed in possessing it. He had to have it, not simply in order to possess it, but for his heart to be at peace.
He was almost sick with excitement. He had not yet even figured out what direction the scent was coming from. Sometimes there were intervals of several minutes before a shred was again wafted his way, and each time he was overcome by the horrible anxiety that he had lost it forever. He was finally rescued by a desperate conviction that the scent was coming from the other bank of the river, from somewhere to the southeast.
He moved away from the wall of the Pavilion de Flore, dived into the crowd, and made his way across the bridge. Every few strides he would stop and stand on tiptoe in order to take a sniff from above people’s heads, at first smelling nothing for pure excitement; then finally there was something, he smelled the scent, stronger than before, knew that he was on the right track, dived in again, burrowed through the throng of gapers and pyrotechnicians unremittingly setting torch to their rocket fuses, lost the scent in the acrid smoke of the powder, panicked, shoved and jostled his way through and burrowed onward, and after countless minutes reached the far bank, the Hotel de Mailly, the Quai Malaquest, the entrance to the rue de Seine,…
Here he stopped, gathering his forces, and smelled. He had it. He had hold of it tight. The odor came rolling down the rue de Seine like a ribbon, unmistakably clear, and yet as before very delicate and very fine. Grenouille felt his heart pounding, and he knew that it was not the exertion of running that had set it pounding, but rather his excited helplessness in the presence of this scent. He tried to recall something comparable, but had to discard all comparisons. This scent had a freshness, but not the freshness of limes or pomegranates, not the freshness of myrrh or cinnamon bark or curly mint or birch or camphor or pine needles, nor that of a May rain or a frosty wind or of well water… and at the same time it had warmth, but not as bergamot, cypress, or musk has, or jasmine or daffodils, not as rosewood has or iris… This scent was a blend of both, of evanescence and substance, not a blend, but a unity, although slight and frail as well, and yet solid and sustaining, like a piece of thin, shimmering silk… and yet again not like silk, but like pastry soaked in honeysweet milk-and try as he would he couldn’t fit those two together: milk and silk! This scent was inconceivable, indescribable, could not be categorized in any way-it really ought not to exist at all. And yet there it was as plain and splendid as day. Grenouille followed it, his fearful heart pounding, for he suspected that it was not he who followed the scent, but the scent that had captured him and was drawing him irresistibly to it.
He walked up the rue de Seine. No one was on the street. The houses stood empty and still. The people were down by the river watching the fireworks. No hectic odor of humans disturbed him, no biting stench of gunpowder. The street smelled of its usual smells: water, feces, rats, and vegetable matter. But above it hovered the ribbon, delicate and clear, leading Grenouille on. After a few steps, what little light the night afforded was swallowed by the tall buildings, and Grenouille walked on in darkness. He did not need to see. The scent led him firmly.
Fifty yards farther, he turned off to the right up the rue des Marais, a narrow alley hardly a span wide and darker still-if that was possible. Strangely enough, the scent was not much stronger. It was only purer, and in its augmented purity, it took on an even greater power of attraction. Grenouille walked with no will of his own. At one point, the scent pulled him strongly to the right, straight through what seemed to be a wall. A low entryway opened up, leading into a back courtyard. Grenouille moved along the passage like a somnambulist, moved across the courtyard, turned a corner, entered a second, smaller courtyard, and here finally there was light-a space of only a few square feet. A wooden roof hung out from the wall. Beneath it, a table, a candle stuck atop it. A girl was sitting at the table cleaning yellow plums. With her left hand, she took the fruit from a basket, stemmed and pitted it with a knife, and dropped it into a bucket. She might have been thirteen, fourteen years old. Gre-nouille stood still. He recognized at once the source of the scent that he had followed from half a mile away on the other bank of the river: not this squalid courtyard, not the plums. The source was the girl.
For a moment he was so confused that he actually thought he had never in all his life seen anything so beautiful as this girl-although he only caught her from behind in silhouette against the candlelight. He meant, of course, he had never smelled anything so beautiful. But since he knew the smell of humans, knew it a thousandfold, men, women, children, he could not conceive of how such an exquisite scent could be emitted by a human being. Normally human odor was nothing special, or it was ghastly. Children smelled insipid, men urinous, all sour sweat and cheese, women smelled of rancid fat and rotting fish. Totally uninteresting, repulsive-that was how humans smelled… And so it happened that for the first time in his life, Grenouille did not trust his nose and had to call on his eyes for assistance if he was to believe what he smelled. This confusion of senses did not last long at all. Actually he required only a moment to convince himself optically-then to abandon himself all the more ruthlessly to olfactory perception. And now he smelled that this was a human being, smelled the sweat of her armpits, the oil in her hair, the fishy odor of her genitals, and smelied it all with the greatest pleasure. Her sweat smelled as fresh as the sea breeze, the tallow of her hair as sweet as nut oil, her genitals were as fragrant as the bouquet of water lilies, her skin as apricot blossoms… and the harmony of all these components yielded a perfume so rich, so balanced, so magical, that every perfume that Grenouille had smelled until now, every edifice of odors that he had so playfully created within himself, seemed at once to be utterly meaningless. A hundred thousand odors seemed worthless in the presence of this scent. This one scent was the higher principle, the pattern by which the others must be ordered. It was pure beauty.
Grenouille knew for certain that unless he possessed this scent, his life would have no meaning. He had to understand its smallest detail, to follow it to its last delicate tendril; the mere memory, however complex, was not enough. He wanted to press, to emboss this apotheosis of scent on his black, muddled soul, meticulously to explore it and from this point on, to think, to live, to smell only according to the innermost structures of its magic formula.
He slowly approached the girl, closer and closer, stepped under the overhanging roof, and halted one step behind her. She did not hear him.
She had red hair and wore a gray, sleeveless dress. Her arms were very white and her hands yellow with the juice of the halved plums. Grenouille stood bent over her and sucked in the undiluted fragrance of her as it rose from her nape, her hair, from the neckline of her dress. He let it flow into him like a gentle breeze. He had never felt so wonderful. But the girl felt the air turn cool.
She did not see Grenouille. But she was uneasy, sensed a strange chill, the kind one feels when suddenly overcome with some long discarded fear. She felt as if a cold draft had risen up behind her, as if someone had opened a door leading into a vast, cold cellar. And she laid the paring knife aside, pulled her arms to her chest, and turned around.
She was so frozen with terror at the sight of him that he had plenty of time to put his hands to her throat. She did not attempt to cry out, did not budge, did not make the least motion to defend herself. He, in turn, did not look at her, did not see her delicate, freckled face, her red lips, her large sparkling green eyes, keeping his eyes closed tight as he strangled her, for he had only one concern-not to lose the least trace of her scent.
When she was dead he laid her on the ground among the plum pits, tore off her dress, and the stream of scent became a flood that inundated him with its fragrance. He thrust his face to her skin and swept his flared nostrils across her, from belly to breast, to neck, over her face and hair, and back to her belly, down to her genitals, to her thighs and white legs. He smelled her over from head to toe, he gathered up the last fragments of her scent under her chin, in her navel, and in the wrinkles inside her elbow.
And after he had smelled the last faded scent of her, he crouched beside her for a while, collecting himself, for he was brimful with her. He did not want to spill a drop of her scent. First he must seal up his innermost compartments. Then he stood up and blew out the candle.
Meanwhile people were starting home, singing and hurrahing their way up the rue de Seine. Grenouille smelled his way down the dark alley and out onto the rue des Petits Augustins, which lay parallel to the rue de Seine and led to the river. A little while later, the dead girl was discovered. A hue and cry arose. Torches were lit. The watch arrived. Grenouille had long since gained the other bank.
That night, his closet seemed to him a palace, and his plank bed a four-poster. Never before in his life had he known what happiness was. He knew at most some very rare states of numbed contentment. But now he was quivering with happiness and could not sleep for pure bliss. It was as if he had been born a second time; no, not a second time, the first time, for until now he had merely existed like an animal with a most nebulous self-awareness. But after today, he felt as if he finally knew who he really was: nothing less than a genius. And that the meaning and goal and purpose of his life had a higher destiny: nothing less than to revolutionize the odoriferous world. And that he alone in ail the world possessed the means to carry it off: namely, his exquisite nose, his phenomenal memory, and, most important, the master scent taken from that girl in the rue des Marais. Contained within it was the magic formula for everything that could make a scent, a perfume, great: delicacy, power, stability, variety, and terrifying, irresistible beauty. He had found the compass for his future life. And like all gifted abominations, for whom some external event makes straight the way down into the chaotic vortex of their souls, Grenouille never again departed from what he believed was the direction fate had pointed him. It was clear to him now why he had clung to life so tenaciously, so -savagely. He must become a creator of scents. And not just an average one. But, rather, the greatest perfumer of all time.
And during that same night, at first awake and then in his dreams, he inspected the vast rubble of his memory. He examined the millions and millions of building blocks of odor and arranged them systematically: good with good, bad with bad, fine with fine, coarse with coarse, fetid with fetid, ambrosial with ambrosial. In the course of the next week, this system grew ever more refined, the catalog of odors ever more comprehensive and differentiated, the hierarchy ever clearer. And soon he could begin to erect the first carefully planned structures of odor: houses, walls, stairways, towers, cellars, rooms, secret chambers… an inner fortress built of the most magnificent odors, that each day grew larger, that each day grew more beautiful and more perfectly framed. A murder had been the start of this splendor-if he was at all aware of the fact, it was a matter of tota! indifference to him. Already he could no longer recall how the girl from the rue des Marais had looked, not her face, not her body. He had preserved the best part of her and made it his own: the principle of her scent.