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I remember when the circus used to come each year to Rathcool, the town I grew up in. The posters would appear days before the arrival, with images of laughing clowns and acrobats performing death-defying feats. Then the big day itself would come and my much-pestered parents would accompany me to the opening show. Only for a sense of disappointment to set in almost immediately.

I remember when during the knife-throwing act there was a call for volunteers. My aunt, who had herself been volunteered by my parents to join me on this occasion, had to physically restrain me from throwing up my hand. Then I noticed the man who was chosen was a stage-hand. I had seen him hanging around with the performers before the show. My poor aunt tried to pretend otherwise – I think adults always appreciate the importance of childish illusions, which is why Santa Claus has survived for so long – but I already knew the truth.

This story begins with a man dressed in an acrobat costume voiding his bowels before leaping into his own legend – illustrated by a woodcut of his prowess and two pages of sheet music describing his feats – only to land in his death-bed, drained by a fatal case of smallpox. By his bedside are colleagues and friends arguing over his estate. His nephew Etienne arrives, whose job at the circus was to clean up elephant dung. He is the beneficiary of the great Leotard’s estate, which turns out to be a gnomic riddle, an empty journal containing a fake moustache. Etienne understands his uncle’s dying wish. He is to become Leotard and continue the legend of his uncle.

Unfortunately for Etienne, the troup is still stuck in Paris while it is under siege by the Prussian army. The company’s animals have all been eaten by the starving city inhabitants. Without any animal acts Etienne’s troupe is at a loss as to how they are to continue on. Their new young leader proposes that they become a circus of the stange and wonderful. They are after all strong-men and contortionists, tattooed ladies and bear-impersonators. Etienne is a young man with big dreams, which do not match reality. During their first show a human cannonball sets the famous Paris Cirque de Hiver on fire, burning it to the ground.

Etienne and his fellow artistes have an unerring knack for landing in trouble, becoming embroiled in the infamous Jack the Ripper murder investigation; theft of the Mona Lisa; the sinking of the Titanic; even a catastrophic bloodbath involving nineteen dwarves and a beast known as a ‘Ti-lion’. Through it all success avoids Etienne, leaving him impoverished in old age, despite inventing such implements as fantastical as ‘spring heeled shoes’.

Campbell and Best have fashioned a breezy and romantic counterpoint to the nihilism of that other historical epic, From Hell. Split into a series of episodes, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a winning evocation of a lost vision of popular entertainment. There are even hints that the circus is an ancestor of sorts to the comic book superhero. Campbell introduces the amusingly titled Le Quartette Fantastique and has the creators of Superman witness Etienne’s final show.

The work as a whole has a rich Pynchonian feel to it. When we discover the romantic leanings of Pallenberg, the man disguised as a bear, it is a fine comic moment that is later revealed to be a set-up to the climactic adventure on board the Titanic. History and whimsy are married together to great effect, with Campbell’s febrile art stylings lending an uncanny edge to the proceedings. Best and Campbell even intrude upon Etienne to discuss the progress of the book so far. It is just that kind of book.

Beautifully illustrated, with a rich comic tone and a lurking sense of tired tragedy, this is a wonderful effort by Campbell, an Australian master of the medium.

I have read so many books…And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading – and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.

This novel about intelligence hiding behind an ordinary mask in a Paris apartment building, the necessity of having to disguise one’s interests for fear of being exposed as someone with ambitions beyond the norm, posed an interesting problem for me. Francophiles the world over know the average French person is just moments from a marvelous quip, or a stunning observation. They all have impeccable taste, wearing gorgeous fashions all year round and eat without gaining an ounce! They live and breathe beauty, do they not? So what makes Madame Michel and the precocious child Paloma Josse so special? It would appear our French teachers and those insipid travelogues on television have been lying to us friends. The French are just like us. Lonely, tired of having to pretend to fit in all the time, depressed at the thought of what life is all about.

Oh did I mention this is a delightful book? Sorry, perhaps I’m leading you astray.

Madame Michel is the concierge for number 7, Rue de Grenelle. She is a widow and has few friends in this world, besides a Portuguese cleaning lady who meets her for tea after cleaning the soiled underwear of the building’s tenants. The residents of number 7 are very wealthy, very cultured members of the upper class. To them Renée Michel and her friend Manuela Lopes are invisible, members of the lower classes whose sole purpose is to open their doors, check their mail and clean up their mess. Our story begins with Renée accidentally admitting to knowledge of Marx to one of the residents of the building, a pretentious student who has just declared himself enlightened after a brush with Communist theory. Before she can stop herself, Renée mentions that The German Ideology is an essential text for students of Marxism. Cursing herself, she quickly retreats into her concierge’s lodge. The role of the concierge is not to be seen, or acknowledged by her betters. She is not meant to admit to her love of literature, her dismissive assessment of modern philosophy and appreciation of Japanese cinema. If Renée were to mention Edmund Husserl, or Ozu to her employers, they would assume she was babbling nonsense. So she hides herself in her duties and lives a secret life of quiet contemplation.

Paloma is an equally intelligent and fiercely proud individual who simply wants to hide away. Her father is a government minister who likes to pretend to be an ordinary bourgeois at home, with a bottle of beer in hand as he watches the football. Her mother has been in therapy for ten years, although in actuality this translates as having been medicated for ten years. She embarrasses Paloma with her insipid observations and interfering manner. Colombe, the eldest Josse child, is a student at the École normale supérieure and enjoys looking down on anyone she deems inferior. She’s a philistine in philosophy drag. Unwilling to spend the rest of her life hiding from the world like Renée has, Paloma decides that on her thirteenth birthday she will kill herself. Until then she keeps a journal of thoughts, on the offchance that something she observes will convince her to continue living.

This is a wonderful book.  Each of the two main characters narrate their respective chapters to the reader. Renée speaks of her past, her love of literature and Ridley Scott films. Paloma writes haikus at the start of each journal entry and professes her love for Manga, in between suicidal digressions. Their shared appreciation of Japanese culture leads to a fateful encounter with a new tenant at number 7, who changes their lives.

Read the book, watch the film and fall in love with the delicate story of two lost souls finding something worth living for.

For one thing, as any writer will tell you, people do tell a writer things that they don’t tell others. I don’t know why, unless it is that having read one or two of his books they feel on peculiarly intimate terms with him; or it may be that they dramatize themselves and, seeing themselves as it were as characters in a novel, are ready to be as open with him as they imagine the characters of his invention are.

Most people have had the good fortune to have at least one teacher during their time at school able to inspire and guide them. Mine was a geography teacher. He was a strong influence on my growing wanderlust, interest in movies (Easy Rider for one) and the books I read. One afternoon in class he mentioned W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, although he was quick to add, ‘it’s not that kind of book’. I chased down a copy and found it to be a book about failed ambition and our need to find a purpose in life. It was inspiring to read when I was a teenager and caused me to question many certainties I had.

Of Human Bondage was a semi-autobiographical work, but Maugham goes even further in The Razor’s Edge, inserting himself into the text as a character. The opening chapter has the author speak directly to us, insisting that the story he wishes to tell is based on actual events. He refuses to introduce fiction into the proceedings besides changing the names of his ‘characters’, to protect their reputation. Instead he only relates events in their lives as he witnessed them, or as they were told to him by those directly involved. The three principals are Elliott Templeton, a kind-hearted insufferable snob whom Maugham befriends in Paris; Templeton’s niece Isabel, who confides in the author; and the strangely aloof Larry Darrell.

For all intents and purposes this is Larry’s story. A childhood sweetheart of Isabel’s he returned from the First World War strangely apathetic, not wishing to find work, or enter business as his peers have done. Growing up a member of the American upper class, his decision to devote his life instead to study is bewildering to those who know him. Elliott is personally offended that Larry has rejected the kind of life he lives for, networking at parties and ensuring that one is always a friend to the right people. Isabel, while hopelessly in love with Larry, is troubled that he would prefer to lead a penniless life than settle down with her and enter business.

Eventually she breaks off her engagement to him and he vanishes from their lives. Maugham manages to reconstruct what happened next to Larry and tells his story to us in chronological order, although for the majority of his acquaintance with the intense young American his actions remain a mystery. Having abandoned America just as it takes its first strides to becoming a superpower, Larry travels the world, looking for enlightenment at the bottom of a mine, in a monk’s cell and under the guidance of a yogi. The events of the book take place during the roaring twenties, with the 1929 Stock Market Crash a rude awakening for Isabel’s dreams of a life of ease. When next she meets Larry she finds they are both very different people now, a discovery that is hard for her to accept.

Maugham writes with sincerity and conviction, as well as an obsessive degree of detail. Larry’s quest for happiness and a purpose in life with meaning is eked out in such a way that we are not overburdened with long philosophical rants. By balancing the story between Isabel, Elliott and Larry, he gives equal perspective to three very different accounts of what is important in life.

He also writes in a self-conscious manner, almost apologizing at both the beginning and end of the book for the way in which he has written his tale. He tartly criticizes Henry James for failing to capture the English voice, hence the pretence of being a witness to actual events. This book continues to enthrall readers, with its audacious insertion of philosophy into an entertaining narrative. Most surprisingly Bill Murray was obsessed with making a film of it early in his career.

I can see why.

But since he knew the smell of humans, knew it a thousandfold, men, women, children, he could not conceive of how such an exquisite scent could be emitted by a human being. Normally human odour was nothing special, or it was ghastly. Children smelled insipid, men urinous, all sour sweat and cheese, women smelled of rancid fat and rotting fish. Totally uninteresting, repulsive – that was how humans smelled.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the villain of this novel, is a monster, a demonic presence. A homicidal maniac. He is also an artist, a creator of fabulous combinations of scents, whose talent lies in his ability to identify a multitude of individual odours using his sense of smell alone. His skills are so extraordinary that the parfumiers he is apprenticed to cannot understand why he does not exploit his abilities for financial gain – just as they are exploiting him themselves. Little do they realize he is intent on a far more ambitious project. The creation of a scent that defines what it is to be human.

For Grenouille himself was born without a personal odour of his own. Orphaned from the moment of his birth by his mother’s criminal neglect, he is passed between a series of wet nurses and monks until arriving at a boarding house for children. No person can stand to be near him for long, his lack of a smell forming an intolerable absence that leaves those in his vicinity uncomfortable and disturbed. Grenouille assumes this is due to contempt, for his body bears the tell-tale scars of disease and infection.

Paris is the city of his birth, a metropolis of rankness and rot, the smells and odours possessing to the ugly foundling character and presence due to his preternatural olfactory talents. He soaks up the scents and aromas of the city, cataloguing them in his brain and feeding his imagination with the material for possible future creations. He becomes fascinated with the idea of perfume and its ability to mask what is essentially human. Eventually he wrangles his way into the service of Giuseppe Baldini, a parfumier whose business is failing. Grenouille earns his new master great fortune, all the while learning more about the business of perfume and privately experimenting with his own otherworldly concoctions. He is uninterested in earning the partronage of an aristocrat, or starting his own successful business. Grenouille is on a quest to distill the scent of innocence itself and is willing to murder to achieve his aims.

Suskind’s novel appears to be attempting to be a Candide for the twentieth century, Voltaire’s comic satire on Enlightenment philosophy and its abstractions. Sadly I feel he missed the mark, with the tone of the book resembling Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. This is a modern novel that apes the conventions of the period it describes, but offers up anachronistic parody. At one point Baldini and his assistant have an exchange that is rendered on the page in the form of a script. Most exposition is given to us from the point of view of one of the characters, with the commonplace omniscient narrator absent, save only for references to the present day. There is a smug cynicism to the proceedings that I found off-putting.

Grenouille’s demonic aspect is a supernatural element that confounds the reason of those he meets. Baldini is used to the business of perfume being conducted through formulae and his scarred apprentice’s instinctive mixing of bases and scents is an affront to his understanding. A misguided lord experiments on Grenouille to prove his theories of fluidum vitale, which resembles Swift’s philosophers attempting to extract sunlight from cucumbers in Gulliver’s Travels. Antoine Richis, the father of one of Grenouille’s intended victims, uses the investigative method to evade the murderer, failing to realize the extent of his rival’s powers. Furthermore anyone who encounters him is subject to a mysterious curse, that results in their death, or great misfortune after he leaves. Suskind relates these demises with barely suppressed blackly comic glee.

The conceit of the novel is to introduce a supernatural agent who can manipulate the baser aspects of human nature. Reason collapses and religion is exposed as fraud before Grenouille’s talent with vials of scent. Overall though I found the tone unnecessarily parodic and the humour cruelly callous. To be honest I far prefer Lemony Snicket’s tragic fables.

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