Nineteen

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 immediately 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.

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