Parfums by Philippe Claudel

Philippe Claudel is a French writer and film-maker. While I’ve yet to read any of Claudel’s novels (which include Brodeck’s Report and Grey Souls), I am familiar with I’ve Loved You So Long, a film he wrote and directed in 2010. It features a standout performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as a woman struggling to adjust to a new phase in her life following an extended period of alienation from her family and society. So when Claudel’s memoir, Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells dropped through my letterbox, I was keen to give it a whirl.

This beautifully-written memoir consists of sixty-three vignettes each of which captures a scene or two from Claudel’s life, and it reads like a collection of memories, each one evoked by a certain smell. The title of each vignette represents the aroma concerned, and the topics range from floral (Acacia) to animal (Fried Bacon) to mineral (Pink Sandstone). Other smells capture places (Ironmonger) or particular stages in Claudel’s life. Gym, for example, reflects the author’s memories of the school gymnasium where young boys and girls brush up against one another and the odours of teenage hormones and feet mingle with the whiff of rubber mats.

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Many of the vignettes focus on memories from Claudel’s childhood. These are mostly happy times which convey images of Claudel cycling through the countryside of Lorraine in north-east France, fishing in the local river and picnicking in the forests of the Vosges. In Garlic, one of my favourites from the memoir, Claudel’s Grandmère cooks a steak for Philippe. It feels like an early memory, possibly one that captures the young boy’s first taste of steak (as his feet fail to reach the ground when he sits at the kitchen table). It’s a wonderful scene, so vividly realised that the reader can almost smell the cubes of garlic as they ‘diffuse their intangible miracle over the hot, golden meat.’

The naked clove of the garlic resembles the canine tooth of a big cat, and the weapon used for the crime chisels out of it tiny pearly, slighly greasy cubes that scarcely have time to give off their aromas because my grandmother throws them promptly into the dented, black frying pan, over the steak that is already sizzling. Explosion. Smoke from a blacksmith’s forge. Eyes smarting. The kitchen of the small house at 18 rue des Champs Fleury disappears in billows of fumes. My mouth waters. The smell of garlic, of burning butter, of blood and fluids, is converted into a delicious juice from the meat as it merges with the melting fat. Hollow with hunger, I wait. (pgs. 13-14)

Like life itself, Claudel’s memories vary in tone with some vignettes capturing darker memories. In Cellar, he recalls visiting ‘The Aunts from Saint-Blaise,’ a trio of spinsters who live together in a large house complete with a dark, dank cellar. Clearly a frightening place for a young boy:

I step onto earth that you would think had been turned over by a gravedigger’s shovel. The cavern discharges its deep, pit-like breath over me, heavy, clinging, seeped in clay and mud. I shiver. I stop moving. I try to remain in the abyss for as long as possible. My heart, a small caged animal, thumps against its fleshy bars. The cellar attempts to enchant me with its whiff of must and saltpetre, of muffled condensation, a siren from the depths with a night-time kiss that oppresses me and winds itself around me. (pg. 35)

Rather than following a chronological path through Claudel’s life, the chapters move backwards and forwards in time. This movement gives the memoir a fluid, almost spontaneous feel leaving the reader free to guess what might be coming next.

Claudel brings a beautifully poignant tone to this memoir and some vignettes could be read as a lament to loss: the passing of certain traditions; the loss of a way of life as progress alters the shape of a town; the loss of a loved one. In Pullover, Claudel recalls how an old pullover that his Uncle Dédé used to wear when renovating the family home now serves as a reminder of this much-loved man. One day Dédé failed arrive at the house as expected; he had died during the night. All that remains is his work jumper:

My uncle was there, shockingly present in the cold whiff of his cigarette, the lingering traces of some cheap aftershave, the cement dust, the wallpaper paste, rising up through an alchemy subliminally accumulated in the fabric. I can’t throw it in the dustbin or wear it. I put it aside in the cupboard, near the attic, from which I frequently retrieve it so that I can touch it, breath it in and, thereby, rediscover the uncle I had loved dearly since childhood, who watched me grow up like a second father, though freed of all responsibility and all the worries of fatherhood, and who, as a result, was less demanding and more amusing than my father. To grieve is like tossing a fistful of life at the games death plays. We know that death will be blinded for a brief instant, but it does us good. And we carry on. (pg. 134)

As you can probably tell by now, Claudel’s prose is very lyrical and poetic, so much so that these vignettes read like prose poems especially given the evocative and sensual nature of the parfums. Personally, I love the way Claudel writes although I appreciate his prose style might not be to everyone’s taste. If you like the passages I’ve quoted in this review, then there’s a good chance you’ll like Parfums. Less so if you’re not particularly fond of lyrical, poetic prose.

Claudel offers the view that smells define us, they help us understand one another. In the modern world, there’s a tendency to tolerate only those aromas which are pleasant and socially acceptable, but by taking this approach we risk obliterating certain aspects of our character and experiences. Parfums is a celebration of smells both good and bad; it’s a celebration of life.

Stu at Winstonsdad’s has also review this memoir.

Parfums (tr. by Euan Cameron) is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

19 thoughts on “Parfums by Philippe Claudel

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Great. I think you’ll love this Helen, especially if you’ve read and enjoyed other Claudels. I’m sure it will be a delight to experience this in French. Hats off to Euan Cameron for an excellent translation, though, as the English version reads so beautifully. I definitely want to read some of Claudel’s fiction now.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It is a lovely little book, one that would make a beautiful gift for someone (or a treat for yourself). I’ll be interested to hear how you hear get with your recent purchase of Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report; one or two others recommended it to me when I tweeted about Parfums last week.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    I love your commentaries Jacqui. You really seem to capture the important things inherent in a book.

    The ideas of a series of vignettes based upon memories of aromas is a great idea. I have often detected a smell that brought back memories and after reading your commentary I will likely be so more often.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian. I really appreciate you saying this. As one might expect, there’s a nostalgic thread running through these vignettes, but the feeling of loss (in its varying forms) came through very clearly to me.

      I love the idea behind this memoir, too, and smells are such an evocative trigger of memories, aren’t they? One of my earliest memories is the aroma of a chicken roasting for Sunday lunch, and one of Claudel’s vignettes on the smell of fir trees reminded me of childhood trips to England’s New Forest.

      Reply
  2. realthog

    What a brilliant conceit for a memoir! Many thanks for drawing attention to what sounds like a fascinating book. I must keep an eye out for it, assuming it ever reaches these shores.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Very welcome! It is a wonderful theme for a memoir and a beautiful book to dip into each day. And as you read, you start to think of your own personal memories and associations with particular smells. I hope it does make the trip stateside as it deserves to reach a wide audience.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I did see those studies, Guy. Very interesting, especially the longitudinal one which followed people for a few years. Loss of smell could be an early indicator, but it must be very difficult to establish a causal relationship in these things. On a personal level, I’m dreading the prospect of losing my sense of smell as it plays such a big part in my enjoyment of wine (and food). I fear the day when my senses start to deteriorate…

      This memoir left me keen to try something else by Claudel, so I’m looking at his fiction at the moment. Brodeck’s Report sounds excellent (and a couple of others have recommended it) so I might go there.

      Reply
  3. Emma

    I’m glad someone shows something positive about Lorraine for a change.

    If you liked this one, try La première gorgée de bière by Philippe Delerm. (In English: The Small Pleasures of Life)
    Grey Souls is rather bleak, it’s a great candidate for a bleak read if you’re still looking for one.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I don’t know the area at all, but Claudel conveys very happy memories of the Lorraine countryside and trips to the Vosges forests. He still lives in the town where he was born. A couple of vignettes touch on how the place has changed over time with small independent shops and traditions giving way to larger anonymous stores, but I guess that’s inevitable.

      Thanks for the recommendations, Emma. The Delerm looks interesting, and I can see similarities with Parfums. I definitely want to read something else by Claudel, maybe next year as my tbr pile is out of control at the moment!

      Reply
  4. Seamus Duggan

    I like the idea for a memoir but have a feeling I might find this overwritten. It;’s hard to judge on small quotes, though, as I know that prose can take time to get to you. I’ve often disliked the opening chapter of a book only to reread it after finishing, and liking, the book and enjoying the opening second time around.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      This style won’t appeal to everyone, Seamus, and I found it best to read 3 or 4 vignettes at a time…otherwise the beauty of these passages can start to become overwhelming. It’s a little like visiting an art gallery and being surrounded by a multitude of beautiful paintings. After a while, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate each piece on its own terms, and you find yourself getting maxed out on art.

      It is difficult to judge, though, and I know what you mean about giving some prose/books time to seep into your consciousness. I had to start one of David Mitchell’s books three times before taking to a certain style.

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    I liked Grey Souls a lot but it is bleak. In a beautiful way though. This sounds wonderful.
    I see if I can get it in French. I’m fascinated by sense memories.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I’m interested in Grey Souls as it sounds haunting but beautifully written. It looks as if MacLehose Press will be issuing a new edition next year, so I’ll keep an eye out for it.

      If you like sense memoirs, I think you’d enjoy Parfums. It’s a good one for dipping into by reading a few vignettes at a time.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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