Parfums by Philippe Claudel

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Translated by Euan Cameron

Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

Parfums Claudel

Those unfamiliar with Claudel may have heard of him in association with the BAFTA-winning French film I’ve Loved You So Long, which starred Kristen Scott-Thomas as a woman returning to normal life after a lengthy prison sentence; Claudel wrote and directed the film. Others may know him from his novel Brodeck’s Report which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010. Although I’ve yet to read this book, I’ve only read praise of this dark fable of small-mindedness in a border town in a post-war France.

Claudel looks set to keep a high profile, for this book has already won an English Pen Award for Euan Cameron’s wonderful translation of his new volume of writing, which has only just been published!

Claudel’s latest is not a novel, but a memoir of sorts.  Parfums, subtitled ‘A Catalogue of Remembered Smells’ has 63 short chapters mostly of two or three pages, four at most – each headed by a particular smell. From Garlic to Cannabis, Clean Sheets to Prison – each vignette evokes a particular time in his life.

They are mostly, but not all, from his childhood. The majority of new odours that we encounter for the first time during our lives will be as children. These occasions form very strong memories, which can be recalled instantaneously when we recall a smell later – they provoke a conditioned response from our emotional brain.

One that will resonate for many is Party-time, in which Claudel describes the particular smells of teenagers getting up to mischief in the late 1970s at garage parties:

Our young bodies, surrounded by the perfumes of girls who are made up like Nina Hagen, Kate Bush or Lene Lovich, of boys’ deodorants, of sweet-smelling mouths, with the occasional hint of engine oil, petrol cans, lubricant, engine grease and white spirit …

… And later on, staggering around, head splitting from music and alcohol, red-eyed, retrieving everything on our clammy shirts that we remove once we get home, stained, drink-sodden, smoke-filled, kissed, worn out, limp, still damp. Like our lips and hearts.

It’s a scenario that *ahem* I remember quite well!

We turn the page over to Mist, and we’ve jumped in time to meet him as a student, cycling early one morning alongside fields full of shadowy horses.

The mist acts like the lid of a casserole dish: it preserves within it, beneath it, the smell of earth caught unaware by an early autumn, of grass sapped by the morning chill, of animals still out in the meadows, of empty fields and sodden asphalt. It’s like a large bottle without an exterior, a never-ending spray.

Not all the smells evoke pleasant memories though.  Ether is ‘what we use to kill kittens and help children sleep.’  This account of a childhood operation with its analogy of getting rid of unwanted felines made me shudder, but never has anaesthesia been described so lyrically.

These parfums are not presented chronologically (although those in which he is adult tend to be later in the book), nor do they appear to be grouped in any particular manner except to say that the order works.  Be they as a child, teenager, student or adult, and concerning food, nature, people or the stuff of our everyday lives, these vignettes form a rich patchwork.

I took my time with this book, reading no more than a few chapters at a go as I wanted to digest and savour them as if they were a gourmet meal rather than gorge on these olfactory delights. This is appropriate because, in French the word ‘parfum’ not only means scent or perfume, but also flavour, (particularly of fruit – this always confused me on early visits to France when I was asked ‘Quel parfum voudriez-vous?’ for my ice-cream). This may be a catalogue of smells, but it is also full of flavours in both literal and literary senses.

This is a slowburn memoir that needs to be read in small doses; it is too rich to take in more at a time. Each vignette is self-contained and quotable, but I shall leave you with a few lines from Mustiness:

No doubt it was here, in this old-fashioned library, deep in silence, among the absent faces of my classmates and their listless bodies, intoxicated by the remugle, the mustiness – for that is the name of the smell of old books, as I learned much later – that I entered a realm, that of fiction and its myriad paths, that I have never really left. I resemble books. I reside in books. They are the place I inhabit, both as reader and author, and which best define me.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors, and the odours of warm Cinzano and lemonade and Ma Griffe perfume by Carven would feature in her equivalent catalogue.

Philippe Claudel, Parfums (Maclehose, London, 2014) 978-0857052728, Hardback, 176 pages.

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