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Perfume turns 25

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This spring sees the 25th anniversary of an extraordinary success in the history of publishing: the publication in German and English of Patrick Süskind’s bestselling and critically acclaimed novel, Perfume. The novel was an instant bestseller when it was published in German, and its international success is astonishing: it has been translated into 47 languages and over 20 million copies have been sold worldwide.
 
Süskind’s publisher is Zurich-based Diogenes, a pioneering firm with an international list including Bernhard Schlink, Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler, Muriel Spark and the great graphic artist Tomi Ungerer. The author delivered his manuscript to publisher Daniel Keel in the summer of 1984, and the novel was selected for serialisation by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, beginning in October of that year. Its huge popularity contributed to the publication date being brought forward to February 1985 and after only eight weeks, 115,000 copies had been sold and the book was on all the bestseller lists.
 
This flurry of excitement translated into a scramble for the English-language rights. Diogenes was keen to select a company whose programme was right for Perfume, rather than just going to the highest bidder, but the huge interest that the book had generated pushed up the prices being offered. Hamish Hamilton and Penguin finally won out with a bid over ten-fold more than initial industry estimates. Tanja Howarth, still today the most important agent for German-language books in Britain, and one of the founding members of NBG’s Editorial Committee, completed the sale while on holiday in Indonesia. She was guest of the Austrian Consul, and the avalanche of telexes that she received about the auction meant that everyone at the Embassy – including the Ambassador himself – thought she was the agent for a highly exclusive perfume. ‘As it turned out,’ Tanja says, ‘Perfume, the novel, has become far more important than any scent and will remain the highlight of my career.’
Das Parfum was translated into English by John E. Woods, who went on to translate two more novels by Süskind, The Pigeon and Mr Summer’s Story.
 
 
 
Diogenes are celebrating the 25-year anniversary with a jubilee edition of Das Parfum, while Hamish Hamilton at Penguin are marking it with reissues of both Perfume and Süskind’s other Parisian novel, The Pigeon.
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