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  • Jonathan Wlodarski

Timothy Schaffert and The Perfume Thief

On September 9th at the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, the UNL English Department came together to celebrate the release of Timothy Schaffert’s sixth book, The Perfume Thief, published by Doubleday in August 2020.

The Perfume Thief is the story of Clementine, a 72-year-old American—and a retired thief—who lives in Paris and brews perfumes. During the Nazi occupation, one of her friends in the cabaret scene, Zoé St. Angel, needs Clementine’s help, the one-last-job jewel in Clementine’s crown: she must recover a book of perfume recipes that Zoé’s father kept, a book which might include details revealing that Zoé is Jewish. To find the book, Clementine must get close to Oskar Voss, a Nazi who’s moved into Zoé’s father’s house and has an especial appreciation for the freedom and magic of Paris.

The event opened with a conversation between Schaffert and fellow creative writing faculty Chigozie Obioma. The two discussed several aspects of the writing of The Perfume Thief, including the historical fiction component of the novel. Because it takes place in 1940s Paris, Schaffert said, he had to do a lot of research to ensure that the details brought the time and place to life. Obioma also pointed out how the book seemed to bear the influence of older texts, including work by James Baldwin, in how Schaffert characterizes some of the people in the novel—the book itself also makes copious allusions to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, another nod to how history and literature influenced the construction of The Perfume Thief.

Obioma also noted the prevalence of Nebraska in Schaffert’s fiction: his last novel, The Swan Gondola, is set during the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, while some of his other books, including The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God and The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, take place in small-town Nebraska. Though the events of The Perfume Thief transpire in France, even this text bears a concrete connection to Nebraska, as we find out Clementine grew up on a Nebraska farm. Schaffert, amused by this analysis, promised that the project he’s been working on recently features no connection to Nebraska.

Schaffert also gave a reading from the novel during the event. The passage he selected highlighted the book’s decadent prose, which explores sensory pleasures and questions of gender. Intertwined in the tension and intrigue of Nazi Paris are poignant, potent flashbacks to Clementine’s love affair with a person named M, with whom she used to mix scents in the past. The Perfume Thief layers narratives and emotions together like an expensive perfume—subtly, powerfully, unexpectedly in an intoxicating blend.

After the reading and discussion had concluded, the event finished with some catering and open conversation, a very welcome in-person opportunity for socialization after the long isolation drought the pandemic fostered—literature, bringing people together, as it always has!

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