Thursday 25 December 2008

A book never smelled so good...

Perfume: The story of a murderer by Patrick Suskind was published in 1985, originally in German. It is quite unlike any other novel I have read in recent memory, and is considered by some to be a 'modern classic'. It was recommended to me a couple of years ago by a good friend of mine, and so once this academic year finished and I went on my end of semester book binge I made sure that this book was among those I acquired. 

Grenouille, the protagonist of this novel, was born into the most rancid and unwelcoming of environments - under the table of a fish gutting stall in the middle of 18th century Paris. His mother, not viewing him, her fifth unplanned pregnancy, as a "real child", simply birthed him and then got back up to get on with her life leaving him for dead amongst the fish offal and blood on the ground. Unlike her previous four children, however, Grenouille refuses to die in such undignified circumstances. 

He has no personal odour to speak of, yet has an unsurpassed sense of smell. In fact, smell is the only thing that exists for him. Although one might be tempted to sympathise with a baby born into such unfortunate circumstances to such a callous mother, it is soon abundantly clear that Grenouille is only out for himself and his own gains. He does not care for the company of others and in fact actively avoids it, going to extreme lengths to do so at one stage. The only thing he is interested in getting from  human society is a certain smell... the delicate fragrance of a virgin girl. 

I find this novel an interesting blend of the historical novel and a character study. Grenouille is a truly fascinating character, one who inspires only fear and repulsion from the reader - or me at least! I'd be interested to know if anyone who has read this novel feels any sympathy for this guy. He's sub-human, and yet super-human. He lacks a souls, but possesses an amazing gift. There is literally nothing to like about him, although I guess one could wonder at and perhaps admire his determination and will to survive. 

One thing I have noticed since reading this book is that it has deepened my appreciation for my sense of smell.  Suddenly I have started taking note of things that I had previously not given a second thought. It's opened my nose - something a book has never done before!! Opened minds, yes. Opened eyes to unknown things, yes. My nose? This is a first! 

A book never smelled so good!

Saturday 6 December 2008

The Book and the Brotherhood

One of life's great delights is, for me, a good book. I hope to goodness that I never lose the joy in opening a new unread book - the smell of the pages, the feel of the paper, the look of the cover and most of all that delicious anticipation of stories and voices as yet untold and unheard...

At the moment I am nearing the end of my first "non-compulsory" read after the academic year officially ended in November. I've been reading Iris Murdoch's The Book and the Brotherhood. It was published in 1987, one of her later books although not her last. It was shortlisted for the 1987 Booker Prize, won by Penelope Lively for her novel Moon Tiger. It is, according to Wikipedia, considered to be her best novel. I can't really argue with that - I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

Personally I prefer to read something a bit more challenging. I love having a solid piece of literature to chew on rather than something lighter, fluffier, forgettable. It's the difference between a piece of good quality whole grain bread and a sandwich slice of cheap white bread. It's just more satisfying and fills you up for longer. Occasionally, of course, you just fancy a slice of something lighter. And of course, some people are white bread fans. Nothing wrong with that at all, I'm just expressing personal preference - so long as people are reading at all, the world is going to be OK.

Given that I'm only on page 445 of 600, I'm hardly in a position to be giving any account of this book as yet. I can, however, express that this is indeed a fantastic book. It is of the wholegrain variety - those who don't enjoy chewing might not thank me for recommending this kind of book to them - and even I'm finding that it is taking a good amount of time to complete. Normally I can rip through a book at a cracking pace but this one has slowed me down. It's not overly dense or hard going (although a knowlegde of philosophy, ancient history and literature will surely serve you well), I think it's more a function of the detailed characterisation and scene setting. You can't skip anything - every word adds value.

A few things I have noticed about Iris Murdoch's writing is that she is a Master of juggling a large number of characters on the pages - the lives and exploits of whom interweave into a fine web of intrigue which forms the basis for her plot. There seems to be a good vs evil structure, although the good is not entirely 'good' and the evil normally has some redeemable qualities. The two rivals in TBATB seems to be Duncan Cambus and David Crimond (sharing the same initials - surely intentional) with Duncan in the corner for Good and Crimond in the corner for Evil. At present there is a build up to what I imagine will be a final showdown between them both, which, gven their history, is likely to be explosive and have some dire consequences for one or the other.

In any case. I shall continue reading and post some more comment when I have finished.