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.
25 responses to “Perfume, Books and Booze -The Imbibliotheque at Libreria, London”
Brilliant post. I wish I could spend a year on my sofa, dabbed with various perfumes, reading. I think May might be a nice time for anothe visit, don’t you? Have read Rebecca but none of the others. Don’t plan to start on Jilly Cooper though. Big hug. xxxxx
Oh yes, May would be perfect! I will be in desperate need of a CQ top-up by then.
I won’t be reading the Jilly Cooper books either but they do sound hilarious. All these glitzy women pouring perfume over their pneumatic bosoms.
I’m very much with Val on Jilly Cooper (I hate that book cover !). In fact I quite like Suskind’s Perfume… And I think I like cookbooks because the good ones evoke scents in me, like for example Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem.
BTW, may I join you & Val in May ?
I hate to include that cover because it is so cringy 🙂
I liked the scent descriptions in Perfume but struggled with it at times – skipped much of the whole sitting-in-a-mountain bit.
Great reason for liking cookbooks! I totally get that.
Please, please, please join us in May.
I’m looking forward 😀
Great post! Yes, I’ve read Lady in the Lake, it’s one of my favourite books. Among Phillip Marlowe’s many accomplishments is the ability to tell a cheap chypre from an expensive one!
I’ve also read Rebecca of course. I imagine the perfume would be an amber or heavy oriental, something sinister, sexy and too-long lasting.
Have not read the others. Oh, but I’ve just finished reading Carol, the novel by Patricia Highsmith on which the recent movie was based. It’s full of references to Carol’s (un-named) perfume.
Thanks, Anne Marie. Lovely to see you.
Great call on Rebecca’s perfume.
I saw the film of Carol and Neil over at Black Narcissus spotted a Chanel bottle. Her perfume is referenced a lot on screen so interesting to know that comes from the original book.
I owned ‘Lady in the Lake’ for years without reading it. I read it only after learning of the perfume reference thanks to annemariec (it *was* you if I am not mistaken..:)).
Aah, how nice!
I love the perfume references in the Hannibal series. Clarice famously wore L’air du Temps of course and there’s also a mention of Santa Maria Novella when Hannibal buys Clarice some almond hand soap.
My fave reference has to be in the newest TV series when Hannibal tells a character she smells like the air after a lighting strike and it turns out she’s wear ‘Bolt of lighting’ by JAR 😊
I’m intrigued by those Hannibal fragrance references in both the books and the TV series. I had no idea.
It’s fascinating when they actually name the perfume. That rarely seems to be the case.
I have a signed copy of Jilly Cooper’s Pandora in my bookcase. Not too proud of that but she took the trouble to come to our Lilliputian branch of Waterstones so I felt I should support that. May even read it now to see if it also has scent references somewhere! To answer your question, I had only read Rebecca and Brighton Rock, but you have given us lots more to go on the scented reading list! The whole evening – not least the venue – sounds fascinating. I would have enjoyed all the alcohol commentary too, and any samples doing the rounds. 😉
That was very supportive of you, V! Oh, it would be great it there was perfume in it.
I reckon you would have liked Henry Jeffreys a lot. I think he writes for The Guardian. The Brighton Gin was a particular hit.
Sounds like a fabulous concept and great evening, Tara! *taking notes for the net time I visit London*.I’ve read Lady in the Lake and Rebecca but not the rest. Wise Children sounds particularly intriguing.
Oh yes, you must combine a visit to Libreria with one to Bloom – so convenient 🙂 Looking forward to you coming back to London one of these days.
I’m intrigued by Wise Children too.
That sounds like a great evening: books, booze and perfume!
Like most here I’ve read Rebecca, what an amazing book. For some reason I never got started on the Leopard, although I have it, so that will be on next.
I do love Das Parfum, what an amazing writer, and I remember Crime and Punishment having very vivid scent scenes, so vivid in fact, that I believe it was part of why I had to put it away unfinished until I felt more ready for death, guilt and self-destruction 😉
And sorry PC being repaired so difficult to comment at the moment
I’ve never heard that about Crime and Punishment, how interesting. I should give it a go when I’m feeling ready for those themes too 🙂
I hope you enjoy The Leopard and all its pungency.
I must admit now, I’ve never Rebecca because it never appealed, but its such a classic I will put that right. The perfume motif helps.
Hope your PC repair goes okay and its not too painful for your wallet. Thanks for persevering and leaving a comment.
Dostoyevsky is about as far from a pleasant perfume book as you get, but what an author…
Ha! I can imagine.
I bought The Idiot years ago but didn’t get very far.
Rebecca has always been one of my favourite novels. I imagine Rebecca’s perfume or “scent”, as it was called in those days, would be similar to the azaleas that grew around Manderley, or the lilac that is bunched around the house. Even though Rebecca is portrayed as evil, her fragrance would be fresh and delicate in my mind. Love Jilly Cooper, she is so funny and uplifting! Libreria looks lovely, must visit one day.
Annette, I really love your take on what Rebecca’s scent would smell like. I think you make an excellent case for it being fresh rather than heavy.
Yes, do visit Libreria if you get the chance. They categorise the books by theme so it’s perfect for browsing, for example “Enchantment for the Disenchanted”.
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