Musc is the story of a man's obsession with a perfume and its reformulation. Monsieur Eme, a retired secret service agent living a serene life in Paris, is a physically well preserved and inconspicuously elegant gentleman. True to his Gallic nature, the art of seducing women is his favorite pastime; his secret weapon is Musc, an eau de toilette from a small house in Grasse that works in perfect harmony with his skin. He is by no means a perfume aficionado, but he's been more faithful to his fragrance than to any of the women in his life — including Eve, his mistress of 12 years. Monsieur Eme hasn't worn any other scent in the last 40 years, and Musc has become an essential part of his identity. So what happens when it no longer smells the way it used to? When it diffuses as a bland and synthetic aroma, giving off exactly the same odor on everyone else? For Monsieur Eme, a dramatic scenario unfolds.
The bad news starts on the day he opens a newly designed bottle of Musc. He tries to splash on the usual dose, but a great deal more spills out. Slightly annoyed, he tries his best not to loose his composure, and goes to his local café to meet Eve. She immediately notices the difference in his scent, and casually makes a remark about it: it's nice, just a little bit different. He rushes back home, finds a drop in an old bottle that still lies in the bin, and instantly realizes that the problem has nothing to do with the unfortunate overdose. The juice in the new Musc bottle is different.
Monsieur Eme, who takes the matter very seriously, writes a letter to the house in Grasse, and learns about the reformulation. The new Parisian owners inform him that every measure has been taken to make sure that the fragrance smells as good as ever, but Monsieur Eme's nose doesn't deceive him. The natural scent of musk, animalic and sensual, is no longer there. To get a better grasp on the problem in all its complexity, he starts reading books by famous perfumers, and races through piles of medical journals. He realizes that the situation is irreversible, and slowly but surely starts feeling like a musk deer in captivity.
He decides to stock up on old bottles. His consumption of Musc is an estimated 125 ml (4.2 ounces) a month, and with a life expectancy of 82, he needs at least 156 bottles to live serenely till the end. But stocking up is not as easy as it seems: after two months he has gathered the largest supply possible, which will only last him a few years. So he needs a new plan.
Not far from Avenue George V there's a perfumery with a distinct Anglo Saxon name; he writes them a letter, asking them to create a replica of Musc. It takes ages for them to reply, therefore he tries his luck elsewhere — again to no avail. Utterly disenchanted, he gives up his quest and decides to dump his mistress too. He starts to neglect himself both physically and mentally; and in the mornings, he no longer raises his middle finger at the Montparnasse cemetery with the usual vigorousness. Monsieur Eme is a shadow of his former self, and ready to take some drastic measures.
There are striking parallels between Musc and other famous (perfume-related) stories. There is a clear resemblance, for instance, between Monsieur Eme and Lt.Col. Frank Slade, the retired U.S. Army officer portrayed by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman — in their cosmopolitan conduct, military machismo, and compulsion to seduce beautiful women, they're very much alike. Then there's the theme of mortality linked to a perfume running out (think of Tom Robbin's Jitterbug Perfume), where fragrance and time become intertwined; and perhaps to a lesser extent, the notion of perfume as a metaphorical announcement of death, as in Calvino's Under the Jaguar Sun. Kemp's novel is best described as a black comedy, although it's far from mindblowing in that respect. I was hoping for some sort of counterpoint in the narrative, but Monsieur Eme remains a rather flat character throughout the novel, and his internal struggles are largely left to the reader's imagination.
Musc was originally written in French, and then translated into several languages; to my knowledge, it's not available in English.
Percy Kemp (1962) was born in Beirut to a Lebanese mother and a British father. He lives in France, where he works as a consultant in Middle Eastern operational intelligence. Musc is his first novel, and was awarded with the Prix Guerlain. Other titles include Moore le Maure (2001) and The Boone System (2003).
Paris: Albin Michel (2000)
Hardcover, 180 pages.