I think it was Robin writing on Now Smell This that said the one thing that all people with a passion for perfume have in common, is a love of books.
Thanks to Esperanza, I got a last minute ticket to an evening imbibing scents, alcohol and literature. This was held at the brand new bookshop, Libreria, on Hanbury Street (incidentally the same road as niche perfumerie, Bloom) in East London.Independent bookshops are having a tough time these days but Libreria is offering something a bit different. They provide an internet-free zone where you can attend events and of course, browse the books, but you can also take a course on how to use the printing press in the basement and even print your own work.
The Imbibliotheque event was hosted by drinks writer, Henry Jeffreys and Lizzie Ostrom, author of “Perfume : A Century of Scents“. Lizzie runs regular perfume-themed soirées in the capital under her excellent nom de plume, Odette Toilette.
Looking around the room, it seemed to be more of a literary crowd than a fragrant one (I won’t presume that anyone was there primarily for the booze). We started with a small sherry (to be followed by Marsala and gin) and then Henry and Lizzie proceeded to regale us with tales of literary works that mention either alcohol or scent. As this is mostly a perfume blog, I’ll be concentrating on Lizzie’s contributions.Lizzie started by saying that whenever she tells anyone about her interest in fragrance they usually respond with “Have you read Perfume by Patrick Suskind?”. Being the well-brought-up woman she is, Lizzie merely tells them that she has, while admitting to us “I hate it”.
These are the books with fragrant motifs that she prefers.
Wise Children by Angela Carter
Wise Children is the magical tale of two identical twins, Nora and Dora Chance, who were both chorus girls in their youth. The only way you could tell them apart was by their scent: one wore Shalimar while the other wore Mitsouko.
Lizzie points out these are clever choices because like the twins, both perfumes come from the same mother; Guerlain. In the novel the girls swap scents and so manage to deceive their lovers as to their identity. This is because their scent is their identity.
In the 1930s, when the novel is set, Lizzie tells us that scent was sold as a way to portray an “amped-up” version of yourself. Perfume was about role-play.
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
Apparently perfume is mentioned quite regularly in detective novels, sometimes as a plot device. It’s referred to in a number of Raymond Chandler’s works in which it has the ability to betray someone. It literally leaves a scent trail.
In one story, a potential suspect is eliminated because the perfume found on a handkerchief at the crime scene is too vulgar for her to possibly wear.
In The Lady in the Lake, Philip Marlowe visits “The Gillerlain Company” (Hmm sounds familiar). Here’s an excerpt.
“The cream of the crop seemed to be something very small and simple in a squat amber bottle. It was in the middle at eye height, had a lot of space to itself, and was labeled Gillerlain Regal, The Champagne of Perfumes. It was definitely the stuff to get. One drop of that in the hollow of your throat and the matched pink pearls started falling on you like summer rain.”
Riders by Jilly Cooper
Lizzie had recently done an event for the Jilly Cooper Book Club and found that her bonkbusters are peppered with references to scent. Women are always pouring perfume over themselves in anticipation of meeting their lover. It gives the impression of “putting on the glitz”. It’s also used to show how extravagant a character is when another quips that she pours “God knows how many bottles of Diorissimo” into her swimming pool.
When describing the character, Mrs Walters, Jilly Cooper writes “Caleche rises like morning mist from her ravine of a cleavage”. We tried some Caleche by Hermes on paper strips, which Lizzie says makes people treat her like a bitch whenever she wears it.
The Loved Ones by Evelyn Waugh
Published in 1948, The Loved Ones is a short novel set in Los Angeles. In it, Waugh satirises how perfume is being sold to women at that time.
“With a steady hand Aimee fulfilled the prescribed rites of an American girl preparing to meet her lover — dabbed herself under the arms with a preparation designed to seal the sweatglands, gargled another to sweeten the breath, and brushed into her hair some odorous drops from a bottle labelled: “Jungle Venom”- “From the depth of the fever-ridden swamp,” the advertisement had stated, “where juju drums throb for the human sacrifice, Jeannette’ s latest exclusive creation Jungle Venom comes to you with the remorseless stealth of the hunting cannibal.”
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
For a book full of descriptions of scent and smell, Lizzie reckons you can’t do better than The Leopard. This novel is set in Scilly in the 1860s, during the upheaval caused by the unification of Italy. Its theme of a decaying way of life is reflected in the depiction of the aristocratic family’s garden with its “oily emanations of magnolias” and a multitude of other scents clamouring for attention.
The garden has beauty but it’s also squalid, with the body of a soldier buried within it. The scent descriptions intoxicate the reader but they also send them reeling from the olfactory cacophony.
Lizzie matched The Leopard with a roll-on jasmine scent from Hyderabad which was indeed both captivating and repulsive, being both fleshy and plastick-y.
Snowball by Brigid Brophy
Snowball is a comedy of manners set at a New Year’s Eve Ball in a fancy house in London. Lizzie read us a description of how a perfume’s presence disappears from a room – it “shrivels like a corpse entombed”. One of the characters also consumes peppermint creams so this was a nice excuse to pass a box around the audience. I have to say I didn’t do
any much sniffing before I wolfed one down.
The wife of an adulterer in Doting isn’t sure of what she saw, but when dismissed by her cheating husband during a confrontation, she says “I smelt you, Arthur”. She was born with such a strong sense of smell that she has utmost confidence in it.
Set in post-war London, the writer lets the reader experience the novel’s environment solely through the senses of the characters.
Brighton Rock by Graeme Green
Graeme Green drops in various uninspiring aromas from dead fish to creosote in order to remind the reader of how dreary the setting is. It creates a shorthand for a whole environment in this classic 1930s murder thriller.
Lizzie obtained one of the scents from IFF’s “Living Portfolio” which uses headspace technology to recreate everyday smells. The one that we tried was “Living Motor Oil” and it was incredibly realistic.
In Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the new Mrs De Winter is haunted by Rebecca’s perfume. There are also references to scent in the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
Fragrance can be used to represent the ethereal presence of someone long gone or inspire grief when encountering the scent associated with a lost loved one.
Have you read any of these books? Do you have any novels with scent references to share?
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a favourite of mine with wonderful descriptions of various aromas sprinkled throughout.