I once had a mad crush on a boy who smelled of lemon soap and clean laundry. I remember standing close to him, our heads bent over a photograph, and inhaling that scent, lemon and fresh laundry, such a clean smell, like the fragrance of the night-blooming cereus. I wanted to lean into him and breathe in deeply, but instead focused my attention on whatever we were discussing at the moment. In those days (about ten years ago) high-school boys smelled of Polo Ralph Lauren, or Calvin Klein (or horror of all horrors, Drakkar Noir). They would enter a room and a cloud of cologne would rise over the classroom, set loose by the heat of bodies and hissing radiators in winter. But not him.
In Perfume, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with no smell. The wet-nurse hired to nurse him (for his fish-wife mother is hanged for trying to let him die as all her previous babies died) refuses to continue nursing him because he feeds so voraciously that she has no more milk for other babies, and because she is frightened by the fact that he does not smell like other babies, or in fact, does not smell of anything at all. Babies should smell like warm stone, or curds, or butter, or a griddle cake, the crown of their heads like caramel, the nurse tells Father Terrier.
For all this lack of smell the infant Grenouille has an incredible sense of smell, so keen that it seems to be an extra sense, one that can tell who or what is missing from a room, or hidden under a floorboard, like x-ray vision or sonar hearing. There is something disquieting about this baby, later a child, who seems to smell things the way the rest of us look at things. Later it would lead him to create fantastical things, perfumes, for an aging perfumer, inventing new scents from all the individual oils and essences and ingredients in his shop.
But one day, Grenouille catches a whiff of a scent so beautiful that he will kill to possess it, a smell that unwinds before him like a ribbon, which he follows through all the other noisome smells of the city streets, the odors of other people, following that unbearable, ethereal, indescribable scent until he finds its source, a young girl pitting plums, whose scent he breathes in until he has absorbed every last bit of it, this master scent.
I have never read anything that was so much concerned with smell. Of the five senses it seems the least explored, at least to me. The reek of the streets of Paris comes to life as clearly as the perfumes created by Grenouille, the manure in the streets and urine in the courtyards, spoiled cabbage and moldering wood and people who stank of sweat and rotting teeth, of human decay. The only thing beautiful is the perfumes created to mask the stench of everyday life, a perfume that conjures up an evening in a Neapolitan garden, of the woods, of blossoms growing at the edge of a park in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Smell conjures up memories in a flash-flood that drowns all the senses. It has been years since I thought of that boy who smelled of lemon soap and clean laundry. I wonder, if I met him again, would he still have that clean smell about him, and would I recognize it, or him?