Patrick Süskind Essay - Critical Essays

Süskind, Patrick

Introduction

Patrick Süskind 1949-

(Also transliterated as Patrick Sueskind) German novelist, playwright, short story writer, critic, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Süskind's career through 2001.

Regarded as one of the wunderkinds of German letters in the 1980s, Süskind debuted onto the German stage with Der Kontrabaß (1981; The Double Bass) which became one of the most popular German plays of the decade. He later achieved international popular and critical acclaim for his first novel Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders (1985; Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), a historical fable about a murderous perfume-maker with a keen sense of smell, who oddly lacks any human odor himself. In his fiction, Süskind typically explores the effects of obsessive behavior upon an individual's life. The dense allusiveness and pastiche style that mark his narrative technique have yielded richly diverse interpretations, including readings that variously study Perfume as a detective story, bildungsroman, and picaresque novel. Although critics have often classified all of Süskind's slender output as definitive contributions to the development of German literary postmodernism, the majority of scholarship has focused on Perfume, which poses for some scholars the dilemma of reconciling the novel's literary merits with its hugely popular appeal.

Biographical Information

Born in 1949, Süskind was raised in Ambach, Germany, the eldest son of Wilhelm Emanuel Süskind, a writer and journalist best known in Germany for his collection of essays on language, Aus dem Worterbuch des Unmenschen. In 1968 Süskind entered the University of Munich to study history. He later completed a master of arts degree at the University of Aix-en-Provence, France, in 1974. While studying in the perfume-producing country of southern France, Süskind traveled and gathered material for what eventually became the novel Perfume. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1981, Süskind's play The Double Bass premiered, establishing him as one of the most popular playwrights of German theatre. Originally conceived as prose piece that was repeatedly rejected for publication, The Double Bass eventually appeared in novella form in 1984. Around the same time, Süskind began collaborating with Helmut Dietl on the hit German television series, Monaco Franze. In late 1984 the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung contracted Süskind to serially publish his first prose work, Perfume. Published in book form the following year, Perfume immediately became a German best-seller and subsequently sold over six million copies worldwide by 1991. Wary of his newfound celebrity, Süskind declined a five-thousand dollar prize for best first novel from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 1986, vowing to never again accept awards for writing. That same year, Süskind resumed his collaboration with Dietl by co-writing the script for another popular television series, Kir Royal, which revolved around the adventures of a titular Munich gossip columnist. In 1987 Süskind published the novella Die Taube (The Pigeon) which, though critically well received, failed to attain the popular success of Perfume. Süskind and Dietl reteamed again in 1996 to write the screenplay for the film Rossini: oder die mörderische Frage, wer mit wem schlief, which follows the careers of a variety of characters in the German film industry as their lives intersect in a Munich restaurant.

Major Works

The principal focus of Süskind's works has been the motivations and behavior of the typical outsider. The Double Bass is a serio-comic monologue that explores a double-bass player's relationship to his instrument, illuminating the instrument's—and the player's—supporting role in the orchestra and in life. The double-bass is alternately characterized as feminine, reliable, discriminated against, and simultaneously protesting and threatening revolution. However, in the end, both the instrument and its player allow themselves to conform and play their allotted secondary part. Set in urban Paris and the French countryside of the 1700s, Perfume is a study of the dynamics of scents and the sense of smell. The bizarre and ironic tale focuses on an alienated antihero, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a despised outcast orphan who lacks any bodily odor. He roams through eighteenth-century France murdering beautiful young women in order to distill their bodily scents into a perfume that will make him the most desirable and powerful man on Earth—not to mention nominally human. In addition, Perfume also weaves a detailed discourse on historical perfume-making techniques into its narrative, complete with sensuous descriptions of both pleasant and repellent odors as a recurrent motif.

The novella The Pigeon focuses on a single day in the life of Jonathan Noel, a Parisian bank guard, who has finally attained a measure of happiness after years of personal strife. Totally satisfied with his job and the isolation he secures in his small apartment, Noel finds his serenity abruptly interrupted when a pigeon lands on his doorstep and remains there for the rest of the day. The event is so unnerving for Noel that he goes to sleep vowing to kill himself in the morning. In Die Geschichte vom Herrn Sommer (1991; The Story of Mr. Sommer), the narrator recalls his post-war childhood, framing his growing knowledge of the adult world in terms of his frequent encounters with the eccentric Herr Sommer, who spends his days frantically traversing the local environs by foot, barely saying a word to anyone but always carrying his extraordinarily long walking stick. The novella concludes with the death of the wandering misfit, which teaches the boy valuable life lessons about responsibility, suffering, and distress that contrast with his comfortable, contented existence as a child. In the first story comprising Three Stories and a Reflection (1996), a young artist retreats from the world and eventually kills herself because critics labeled her art as superficial. The second story involves a game of chess in Luxembourg Gardens between a dashing young stranger and a perennial elderly champion. As the game progresses, the confidence and foolhardiness of the youthful novice unexpectedly yields a victory over the expertise of the seasoned veteran, stunning the audience and ultimately persuading the old man to abandon playing chess. The longest piece of the collection, “Das Vermächtnis des Maitre Mussard,” consists of the first-person deathbed writings of Mussard, a historical figure mentioned in Jean-Jacque Rousseau's Confessions (1782-89), who is suffering from the delusion that petrifaction is overtaking the world. In an addendum, an anonymous narrator tells us that Massard died of a strange form of paralysis and had to be buried in a right-angled hole. The final item of the collection, “Amnesie in litteris,” is a reflection on books, with Süskind proclaiming that he has long since forgotten every book that had once deeply stirred him.

Critical Reception

Highly regarded by German critics for his contributions to German literary postmodernism, Süskind has also been recognized worldwide as one of the most popular German-language writers since Erich Maria Remarque published All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929. Reviewers have acclaimed Perfume's masterful narrative and splendid evocation of eighteenth-century France, while others have praised its detailed discourse on perfume-making and the sensuality of its odiferous motif. Conversely, some have protested that segments of the novel seem contrived, objecting to the incongruity between its hero's own lack of body odor and his highly developed olfactory nerves. Commentators have also noted the novel's lack of secondary characters at the expense of developing an unsympathetic protagonist, though most have generally conceded that Grenouille is portrayed as a charismatic antihero. Such critics have also drawn parallels between Grenouille and Adolf Hitler, echoing a perennial theme of contemporary German literature—Germany's Nazi past. Acknowledging its pivotal role in the development of a new generation of German writers, literary scholars have long recognized Perfume as a definitive example of German literary postmodernism, particularly its pastiche of past literary and cinematic styles as well as its intertextual play with numerous cultural and literary allusions. Subsequent scholarship has yielded intertextual studies of Perfume in relation to such German narrative traditions as the grotesque, the angst of existentialism, the vitality of the Ubermensch, the critique of reason through folkloric myth, the romantic fascination with criminality, and the psychology of aesthetic decadence and obsession. Others have conducted structural analyses of the novel as a fairy tale, philosophical novel, and political allegory, while some have deconstructed the significance and function of its textual allusions in relation to traditional religious, philosophical, psychological, and societal structural models. In addition, critics have also examined Perfume within the context of conventional ideas concerning the relationship between authorship and the text, partly in reaction to Süskind's legendary resistance to reveal literary influences and his alleged inability to recall other writers's works he has read.

Principal Works

*Der Kontrabaß [The Double Bass] (play) 1981

Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders [Perfume: The Story of a Murderer] (novel) 1985

Die Taube [The Pigeon] (novella) 1987

Die Geschichte vom Herrn Sommer [The Story of Mr. Sommer; illustrations by Sempé] (novella) 1991; also published as Mr. Summer's Story

Rossini: oder die mörderische Frage, wer mit wem schlief [with Helmut Dietl] (screenplay) 1996

Three Stories and a Reflection (short stories and criticism) 1996

*Süskind adapted the play as a novella in 1984.

Criticism

Robert Schwarz (review date autumn 1985)

SOURCE: Schwarz, Robert. Review of Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders, by Patrick Süskind. World Literature Today 59, no. 4 (autumn 1985): 587.

[In the following review, Schwarz summarizes the plot and themes of Das Parfum, comparing the novel to the works of Günter Grass and Marcel Proust.]

In eighteenth-century Paris the illegitimate urchin Grenouille, endowed with a spectacular sense of smell, hires himself to a rich perfume maker [in Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders]. His innate genius at identifying and creating fragrances from memory would make him famous, but he cares nothing for riches or prestige. His is the kind of...

(The entire section is 384 words.)

Ruth Baumgarten (review date 26 September 1986)

SOURCE: Baumgarten, Ruth. “Sugar and Spice.” New Statesman 112, no. 2896 (26 September 1986): 34.

[In the following review, Baumgarten evaluates the metaphorical use of the sense of smell in Perfume.]

Patrick Süskind's first novel [Perfume] comes here accompanied by the full blast of its publisher's fanfares. These announce it as the new Umberto Eco, a ‘serious’ (continental) historical novel meeting equally with critical rapture and middle-brow mass appeal. In the year since its domestic publication it hasn't budged once from the German bestseller chart.

But where the appeal of Eco's Name of the Rose lay in its complex twisting...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Sara Terry (review date 10 December 1986)

SOURCE: Terry, Sara. “Süskind's Novel of Scents and Sensibility.” Christian Science Monitor (10 December 1986): 28, 30.

[In the following review, Terry assesses the style and themes of Perfume, calling the novel a “fascinating exploration of the ‘essence’ of identity.”]

Long before this novel by Patrick Süskind hit bookstores—and best-seller lists—in the United States, word from across the Atlantic was that Perfume was a “major work” by a “brilliant” West German writer.

The superlatives may seem somewhat surprising considering that the object of the praise is a rather erudite historical novel. Its protagonist is...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Robert Schwarz (review date autumn 1987)

SOURCE: Schwarz, Robert. Review of Die Taube, by Patrick Süskind. World Literature Today 61, no. 4 (autumn 1987): 620.

[In the following review, Schwarz praises Süskind's “wonderful” and “profound” achievement in Die Taube.]

[In Die Taube,] Jonathan Noel, a fifty-year-old recluse, likes the uneventful life, the low profile, the security born of an unchanging daily routine. He abominates “making waves” and feels threatened by the slightest alteration of a self-imposed, dull protocol. Ever since certain youthful disasters sapped his personality juices, he had decided on stability and unswerving loyalty to a monotonous, solitary, diffident...

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John Sutherland (review date 12 November 1987)

SOURCE: Sutherland, John. “French Air.” London Review of Books 9, no. 20 (12 November 1987): 12-13.

[In the following review, Sutherland discusses the examination of scents and smells throughout literature, comparing the themes and styles of Perfume and The Double Bass.]

In his autobiographical papers, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman?, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, describes being piqued by an article in Science about how well bloodhounds can smell. Feynman hates not being best, and so he took time off from inventing the atom bomb (he was working at Los Alamos) to run an experiment. He had his wife handle certain coke...

(The entire section is 3091 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 3 August 1988)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. Review of The Pigeon, by Patrick Süskind. Christian Science Monitor (3 August 1988): 13.

[In the following review, Rubin outlines the plot of The Pigeon, lauding the novella for constructing a classical “aesthetic catharsis.”]

Once again, German writer Patrick Süskind demonstrates his predilection—and his gift—for writing about obsession. His first novel, Perfume, unfurled a shocking tale, set in 18th-century France, of an odorless man obsessed with odor who stops at nothing—including murder—in his quest to create a perfume that no one will be able to resist.

The Pigeon, set in...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

Ian Brunskill (review date 30 December 1988-5 January 1989)

SOURCE: Brunskill, Ian. “Seeing the Unseeing.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4474 (30 December 1988-5 January 1989): 1448.

[In the following review, Brunskill compares and contrasts The Pigeon with Das Parfum, focusing on the protagonists, themes, and styles.]

In The Parable of the Blind, Gert Hofmann uses the collective voice of the blind beggars in Brueghel's painting of the same title to question man's ability to make sense of the world. The beggars confront the problem in its most literal form. Lacking the comfort of familiar images against which to organize experience, they can know the world only by interrogating each new moment,...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

Judith Ryan (essay date summer-fall 1990)

SOURCE: Ryan, Judith. “The Problem of Pastiche: Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum.German Quarterly 63, nos. 3–4 (summer-fall 1990): 396-403.

[In the following essay, Ryan examines the textual significance of allusions in Das Parfum to the Romanticism and Symbolist-Aestethic literary periods in light of postmodern ideas concerning pastiche and parody.]

As critics of postmodernism would have it, the phenomenon consists of “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random allusion.”1 At the end of Patrick Süskind's novel Das Parfum, the protagonist has himself been cannibalized, but not before his author has...

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Stuart Parkes (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Parkes, Stuart. “The Novels of Patrick Süskind: A Phenomenon of the 1980s.” In Literature on the Threshold: The German Novel in the 1980s, edited by Arthur Williams, Stuart Parkes, and Roland Smith, pp. 309-19. New York: Berg, 1990.

[In the following essay, Parkes provides a thematic overview of Das Parfum, Die Taube, and Der Kontrabaß, contrasting their purpose and style with the general characteristics of the postmodern German novel.]

In his introduction to The Name of the Rose dated 5 January 1980, Umberto Eco compares the intellectual climate of that time with the atmosphere of ten years earlier. He no longer sees ‘a widespread...

(The entire section is 4621 words.)

Manfred R. Jacobson (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Jacobson, Manfred R. “Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum: A Postmodern Künstlerroman.German Quarterly 65, no. 2 (spring 1992): 201-11.

[In the following essay, Jacobson explicates Das Parfum in terms of the traditions of Küstlerliteratur and literary postmodernism.]

Its immense popularity notwithstanding, the critical reception of Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum has been quite mixed, as well as fraught with contradictions and disagreements. It this novel a “brilliant fable”1 or “a ridiculously improbable piece of verbose claptrap”?2 Is it an “allegory of the Third Reich”3 or a...

(The entire section is 6820 words.)

Neil H. Donahue (essay date summer 1992)

SOURCE: Donahue, Neil H. “Scents and Insensibility: Patrick Süskind's New Historical Critique of ‘Die Neue Sensibilität’ in Das Parfum (1985).” Modern Language Studies 22, no. 3 (summer 1992): 36-43.

[In the following essay, Donahue speculates on the relationship between the formal pastiche of Das Parfum and parallel developments in New Historicism, demonstrating how the novel's parody of Peter Handke's Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975) informs its satirical critique of the 1970s “Die Neue Sensibilität” movement in German literature.]

Patrick Süskind's sensational novel Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders (1985)...

(The entire section is 3723 words.)

Philip Brady (review date 16 October 1992)

SOURCE: Brady, Philip. “Child-Minded.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4672 (16 October 1992): 24.

[In the following review, Brady assesses the plot, style, and themes of The Story of Mr. Sommer.]

Patrick Süskind, rarely out of Germany's bestseller lists in recent years, cannot be accused of always trawling the same rich waters. His tragi-comic, minutely observed monodrama The Double Bass (1984) prepared no one for his record-breaking novel Perfume (1985), exotic, gruesome, part history, part crime-fiction and far from comic. The Story of Mr. Sommer springs another surprise. It is a novella told—or, more precisely, ramblingly recollected—by...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Edith Borchardt (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Borchardt, Edith. “Caricature, Parody, Satire: Narrative Masks as Subversion of the Picaro in Patrick Süskind's Perfume.” In State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film, edited by Nicholas Ruddick, pp. 97-103. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Borchardt examines the function and subversion of picaresque novel conventions in Perfume, equating the authorial narrator of the picaresque novel with Perfume's hyperbolic protagonist.]

Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume (1985) is a picaresque narrative1 that foregrounds the fantastic fictional...

(The entire section is 3024 words.)

R. G. Whitinger and M. Herzog (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Whitinger, R. G., and M. Herzog. “Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi and Süskind's Das Parfum: Elements of Homage in a Postmodernist Parody of a Romantic Artist Story.” German Quarterly 67, no. 2 (spring 1994): 222-34.

[In the following essay, Whitinger and Herzog explore the elements of “postmodernist parody” found in E. T. A. Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi and Süskind's Das Parfum.]

Simply by portraying a gifted artist on the loose as a serial killer in bygone France, Patrick Süskind's novel Das Parfum (1985) recalls E. T. A. Hoffmann's story Das Fräulein von Scuderi (1818). Yet critics have noted...

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Bradley Butterfield (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Butterfield, Bradley. “Enlightenment's Other in Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum: Adorno and the Ineffable Utopia of Modern Art.” Comparative Literature Studies 32, no. 3 (1995): 401-18.

[In the following essay, Butterfield examines Das Parfum in terms of the positive values of the text's negativity as postulated by Theodor Adorno's concept of “determinate negation” which concerns the consciousness of contradiction which denies resolution.]

(T)here is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what...

(The entire section is 6752 words.)

Gabriel Josipovici (review date 22 November 1996)

SOURCE: Josipovici, Gabriel. “Deep Books.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4886 (22 November 1996): 24.

[In the following review, Josipovici discusses Süskind's prose and criticism in Three Stories and a Reflection, expressing disappointment with the overall collection.]

The vogue for small books, so long a delightful feature of Continental publishing, is at last growing in Britain. Of course, small does not necessarily mean satisfying, and there are times when a small volume feels distinctly insubstantial. This is a case in point. Patrick Süskind has always been a clever writer, which means he is often just clever-clever. Of the four items in this...

(The entire section is 757 words.)

Jeffrey Adams (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Adams, Jeffrey. “Narcissism and Creativity in the Postmodern Era: The Case of Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum.Germanic Review 75, no. 4 (fall 2000): 259-79.

[In the following essay, Adams explores the relation between Süskind's personal identity and literary persona as projected in the themes and characters of Das Parfum, demonstrating how the text undermines the conventional opinion that a literary text exclusively belongs to its author.]

THE POETICS OF MELANCHOLIA AND MOURNING

One of the most celebrated younger writers in contemporary German literature, Patrick Süskind owes his fame mainly to his literary debut,...

(The entire section is 10105 words.)

Dieter Stolz (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Stolz, Dieter. “Patrick Süskind's Parfum: ‘No One Knows How Well Made It Is.’” In German-Language Literature Today: International and Popular?, edited by Arthur Williams, Stuart Parkes, and Julian Preece, pp. 19-30. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2000.

[In the following essay, Stolz discusses Das Parfum within the context of “new” countercultural European narrative techniques.]

Mein Genie ist in meinen Nüstern …

(Nietzsche: Ecce Homo)

I

Also das gibt es immer noch oder schon wieder: einen deutschen Schriftsteller,...

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Ed Moffatt (essay date July 2001)

SOURCE: Moffatt, Ed. “Grenouille: A Modern Schizophrenic in the Enlightening World of Das Parfum.Forum for Modern Language Studies 37, no. 3 (July 2001): 298-313.

[In the following essay, Moffatt diagnoses Grenouille, the protagonist in Das Parfum, with acute schizophrenia, exploring the critical implications of the relationship between Grenouille and his cultural milieu and showing how the text subverts received notions of socio-cultural development and human progress.]

To maintain that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a modern, schizophrenic anti-hero, more advanced and psychologically complex than his Enlightenment context, is to fly in the face both...

(The entire section is 7740 words.)