It’s episode 52 – not a continuous year (the first post is here), but a year nonetheless, so I’m going to indulge myself a little this week. Will you be able to tell the difference, I hear you ask!
Bear with me whilst I tell you a story:
In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name – in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade’s, for instance, or Saint-Just’s, Fouché’s, Bonaparte’s, etc. – has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent. [a]
Thus begins Patrick Süskind‘s remarkable Perfume: The Story of a Murderer …
It’s one of my top five books to recommend to kindred spirits, i.e. Readers (capitalisation intended). Grenouille, Süskind’s protagonist, is the quintessential ‘flawed genius’, and one of my favourite literary questions, as you probably know from my obsession with Richard III, is the extent to which we accommodate these people: the gifted, yet abominable. Their stories are always tragic, I think … we love to identify the humanity, the hamartia, in our heroes, and there seems to be a part of us which rejoices in their downfall.
Last week, as part of my Marlovian Summer, I waxed about Kit’s character – I won’t say waxed lyrical as plenty of the adjectives I used are fairly uncomplimentary.
By contrast to Shakespeare, I only have three (excellent) books on Marlowe, yet I feel I am beginning know him better than I do Shakespeare. [b] And I’m increasingly convinced he is such a flawed genius, ‘gifted and abominable’, arrogant, misanthropic, immoral and wicked, to paraphrase Süskind. And yet, even Ben Jonson had to (perhaps grudgingly) acknowledge his ‘mighty line’ in no less a place than his dedication to Shakespeare’s First Folio. [c]
One of the wonderful things about choosing to teach Marlowe at A Level (the only opportunity I have, so I have grasped it with both hands), is that the exam question covering Edward II (comparing it to Tennyson‘s ‘Maud’) is 50% context, and so the deeper I (and hopefully, the students) dig, the potentially greater the rewards. At a time when I am feeling restless about the range of texts I am teaching, Marlowe repays my loyalty to him with the complex, charismatic disreputability of his legacy.
To my Quote of the Week. For a book which almost acts as a forensic examination of a ‘cold case’, Nicholl’s work has been enthralling in its use of contextual information to examine what exactly happened on 30 May 1593.
We are brought back to the same question that hangs over the meeting at Deptford [at which Marlowe died]: why is Marlowe to be found in this bad company?
One answer is easily made: Marlowe becomes mixed up in this world because it is a way forward. It puts money in his purse, gets him noticed, gives him entrée to influential circles. The desire for ‘advancement’ – the ‘devil’ of ambition, as [Richard] Baines would have it – brings him here. This is one reason, but not one that tells us much about Marlowe himself. There were thousands of ambitious young men in England, but they did not all become spies.
Another answer might be that Marlowe enters this devious, predatory company because he was himself a devious, predatory young man. […]
[Thomas] Kyd’s words are troubling: a young man with a ‘cruel heart’. A similar impression of Marlowe seeps in continuously from reading and watching his plays. They are ‘cruel’ in their frequent depiction of brutality, but more than that they have a certain mental ambience: sardonic and bleak. T.S. Eliot saw Marlowe’s dramatic mode as not so much tragedy as a kind of ‘serious, even savage’ farce. Perhaps in this chilliness that lies behind the often passionate lyrics of his poetry, we see something of the spy’s sang-froid. [c]
Would we have had such wonderful works without the seemingly unlikeable, untrustworthy character of the author?
[a] Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Penguin: London, 1985)
[b] In addition to Nicholl, below, I highly recommend the following:
- Harry Levin, Christopher Marlowe: The Overreacher (Faber & Faber: London, 1961)
- David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe (Faber & Faber: London, 2004)
[c] British Library
[d] Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (Vintage: London, 2002)