Patrick Süskind Critical Essays

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.