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.
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.