Nine Perfume Novels: Books for the Chemical Senses by Philip Kraft

Perfume_suskind“Sweetly, albeit with a touch of throatiness, the redhead began to recite words which were baffling but seductive, judging by the women’s faces in the orchestra, ‘Guerlain, Chanel No. 5, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noir, evening gowns, cocktail dresses…'”

This passage from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita caught my attention from the first time I read the novel, given my tendency to search out works of fiction where the topic of scent is given prominence. For someone who reread Fyodor Sologub’s Petty Demon (Melkii Bes) for the perfume parts, a discovery of an article on scent novels in Angewandte Chemie, a chemistry journal, comes as a pleasant surprise. If you or your institution have a subscription, the article can be accessed from interscience.wiley.com. Otherwise, please read on for reviews.

The article written by Philip Kraft, provides excellent reviews of nine novels, supplementing them with witty remarks. The reviews comprise books written in English, French and German. While Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the ironic and haunting story of the olfactory genius-monster, is a novel familiar to many (and is about to become even more so with the upcoming film release in the fall of 2006), it was very interesting to discover several other works of fiction focusing on the subject of scent…

Againstnature Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Against Nature was a particularly welcome mention, especially given its influence on many aesthetes and writers, from Marcel Proust to Oscar Wilde. The story of decadence and obsession revolves around Des Esseintes, a descendant of a prominent noble family, who has so much contempt for mankind and nature’s imperfections that he sequesters himself with the sole aim to cultivate his sense of smell. Perfume becomes his drug, which eventually leads to his demise. At the time of its debut in 1884, Against Nature was the first novel to explore the relationship between scent and emotion, and the theme is still of interest today.

Jitterbug Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume, takes a lighthearted and humorous approach to the subject of scent (and immortality). The aim of Alobar and Kudra is to mask the odor of Pan, the god of the shepherds. When even heavy guns like patchouli, sandalwood, styrax, labdanum and vanilla resinoid fail, Alobar discovers the magic power of beet pollen. In the end, Pan inspires the world’s greater perfume and Alobar and Kumar literally become immortal. Besides being humorous, the novel contains various interesting facts, such as where and how the best jasmine absolute is produced. Tom Robbins is a master of combining metaphor and comedy, and this is a good example of his style.

Dead_funny Another humorous take is a novel by a British writer Tom Holt, called Flying Dutch. In this novel, which also manages to link various scientific discoveries to the sense of smell, the reason that the legendary Flying Dutchman, Captain Cornelius Vanderdecker and the crew of the Verdomde can go ashore for a month only once every seven years is their smell. A London accountant Jane Doland steps in at just the right moment to rectify the problem and to prevent a disaster from Captain Cornelius Vanderdecker cashing on a life insurance policy. Tom Holt’s brand of humor is what many people would label as British, and here it comes across that way as well.

Dahl Roald Dahl is known for his short stories, which are both droll and bizarre. His story “Bitch” does not deviate from this style. The aim of a chemist Henri Biotte is to produce the ultimate powerful aphrodisiac. After several years of painstaking work, he discovers it, only to die from a heart attack when his co-worker sprays herself with the distillate. Only a work of Dahl can combine Amoor’s theory of odor perception with the plan of removing the President of the USA from the office. I cannot disagree when Kraft notes that “this is a sizzling, dazzling, twisted little masterpiece” (6106).

Prix_guerlain I was particularly grateful when the review article mentioned Musc, a novel by Percy Kemp that won the Prix Guerlain. I have heard many praises from those who read it, and while I have not done so myself, the review in Angewandte Chemie is enough to attempt putting my long-neglected French to use. The story revolves around a topic that many of my readers surely feel strongly about—the reformulation of their favorite fragrances. Kemp’s hero, a former agent of the French secret service, has his identity so rooted in the perfume Musc that when its composition changes, his life undergoes a severe turmoil. What follows is a typical process familiar to any perfume addict on a quest. First, he tries to locate the remaining stock. When that fails, he tries to discover the original formula. However, at one point, he deviates from the course of the action–he gives up. As Kraft writes, “soon one has an inkling of the dramatic ending; yet, until the final chapter there is hope, and one continues reading with rapt attention” (6106).

Heike The other three novels mentioned in the review are written in German. Heike Koschyk’s Der Duft der Aphrodite (The Scent of Aphrodite) seems to be influenced by Süskind’s Perfume. The focus is on a precious ambrosia formula from the beginning of the 19th century. The discovery of the divine scent does not remain secret for long, and the hero finds himself persecuted by a gang of criminals. The reviews of thrillers invariably sound unbelievable, but there seem to be many twists and turns to this plot. The thriller, as Kraft notes, is about “the greed for power, corruption, and self-discovery. There is even a happy ending for the dangerous scent, in the form of a safe commercial modification with a fresh top note!” (6105).

Wustenparfum Apparently, I should not rely on the neorealist theories of international relations to explain the lift of the embargo against Libya. According to Claudia Gudelius’ Das Wüstenparfüm (The Desert Perfume), everything has to do with “the Phoenician royal perfume: vanilla pods, which the Phoenicians apparently traded on the shores of Mexico long before Columbus discovered America” (6106). Or rather, with the concatenation of events that lead a young plan and perfume expert to discover the secret of the Phoenician perfume and then eventually to influence the course of political events. As Kraft remarks, “the story is vividly written and exciting to read,” however it seems to posses numerous inaccuracies, the most glaring of which is that the characteristic odor of vanilla pods has to do with coumarin (as opposed to vanillin, which is responsible for their smell) (6106).

Thomas Finally, Albert Thomas’ Die Düfte meiner Erinnerung (The Smells of My Memory) seems like a particularly exciting novel, given the fact that it is based on real events. The story is set in Berlin of 1920s, and it revolves around the alluring fragrance used by the novel’s heroine. Created by her father, a Spanish soap boiler, the fragrance with its sweet ambery character is irresistible. However, even her two best friends are not allowed to know its formula. When they have to part in January of 1936, “Lizzi tears the paper bearing the formula into three pieces. She burns the middle part, and hands a piece to each of her two friends, with the words ‘to make you always remember me’ “(6106). Two friends independently begin to recreate the fragrance, and the description of their efforts presents “a great deal of valuable and fascinating information about scent” (6106).

Philip Kraft. 2005. Books for the (Chemical) Senses. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 44, pp. 6105–6107; German version: Angewandte Chemie 117, pp. 6259–6261.

Books: In English: Roald Dahl, Switch Bitch, Penguin, London, 1976; Tom Holt, Flying Dutch (in Omnibus 1. Dead Funny), Orbit, London, 2000; Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature, Penguin, London, 2001; Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume, Bantam, New York, 1990; Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Penguin, London, 1987. In French: Percy Kemp, Musc, Albin Michel, Paris, 2000. In German: Claudia Gudelius, Das Wüstenparfüm, Aufbau Taschenbuch, Berlin, 2003; Heike Koschyk, Der Duft der Aphrodite, Fischer, Frankfurt, 2004; Albert Thomas, Die Düfte meiner Erinnerung, Christians, Hamburg, 2002.

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35 Comments

  • Jenavira: Another wonderful book that uses perfume is Wise Children by Angela Carter: features all the old house greats. October 19, 2005 at 2:24am Reply

  • Marcello: Great article, V! I’m right in the middle of Huysmans’ book, it’s a great read. Will definitely look deeper in some of the other suggestions you made. As for the German chemistry journal, I can only say this: Shame on Pay-per-View Science! I would have loved to read that report… Thanks for your excellent post, as ever. October 19, 2005 at 4:52am Reply

  • Octavian: What an excellent review and a good article to start the day with. I’ve already read some of them but other are quite a surprise for me. Unfortunatelly my german is rather basic. 🙁

    I also discovered a wonderful book (also in german) and hope to read it soon.
    It is called: Tasten, Riechen, Schmecken – Eine Ästhetik der anästhesierten Sinne October 19, 2005 at 2:02am Reply

  • Marina: Oh wow, what a great review, thank you for this, V!!

    Perfume will be my demise too, I just know it 🙂 October 19, 2005 at 9:52am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Octavian, there are some other great articles in that issue, therefore I am sure you will find many interesting things to read.

    I am glad that you liked the review. Like you, I discovered several interesting books thanks to it. October 19, 2005 at 10:02am Reply

  • parislondres: Great article and post dear V! Have a few of the books – yet to read the Jitterbug one which a friend insists is good fun. Hope you are well.

    Mwah! October 19, 2005 at 10:07am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Jenavira, thank you! I am adding it to my list. October 19, 2005 at 10:08am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Marcello, I loved the original article. It is great to learn of several new things, and I already have my time for pleasure reading set aside to read Musc. Glad to hear that you are enjoying Against Nature. It is definitely a great read. October 19, 2005 at 10:10am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Marinochka, my pleasure!

    Yes, well, like you, I foresee something similar… There are more detrimental passions/addictions to have, I suppose. October 19, 2005 at 10:12am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: N, thank you! Glad that you liked both.

    Hope that all is well! October 19, 2005 at 10:13am Reply

  • linda: This review made my morning! I was just thinking about purchasing some new books on scent, believe it or not. You are now reading minds, dear V. October 19, 2005 at 10:46am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Linda, no, I do not think that I have any psychic powers. They would have been useful though. 🙂 I am glad that you liked the review. October 19, 2005 at 11:15am Reply

  • Tania: This was a fantastic post. When I have time, I may compile all the references to smells from my favorite novel, “Gravity’s Rainbow.” It may be the most olfactive book I’ve ever read, beginning with smells of napthalene and coalsmoke, thrilling to a whiff of Sous le Vent amid the odors of gaslight, and featuring a gigantic mutant adenoid on the loose, which inhales entire crowds of Londoners as it rampages through the streets, leaving the streets littered with tophats and a lingering odor of cologne… October 19, 2005 at 11:45am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: T, “Gravity’s Rainbow” is a great novel, and if I had time, I would have done the same thing. You were right about Sous Le Vent being pre-war. It was created in 1933 (or 1934, depending on which source you read). October 19, 2005 at 11:56am Reply

  • linda: V, I just ordered Jitterbug Perfume and Against Nature from Amazon. I will check out others from the library. Your description of Musc made me smile. I still cry over my vanished Deneuve. October 19, 2005 at 12:00pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: L, let me know what you think! I hope that you will like these books.

    Musc does hit the sensitive spot, doesn’t it? To be honest, I am not sure what fragances I cry over, as there are so many to explore still. I recently had a chance to try Deneuve, and it is very elegant. She seems like a celebrity who should have a fragrance. Another celebrity I wish to come out with a scent is Suzanne Farrell (and Allegra Kent while we are at it), my early dancing muse. However, I am happy just to have their dancing recorded.
    Farrell:
    http://www.ballerinagallery.com/farrell.htm
    Kent:
    http://www.ballerinagallery.com/kent.htm October 19, 2005 at 12:15pm Reply

  • Tania: Sous le Vent…what a piece of work it was. I hope I get to smell it again someday.

    I haven’t written any fiction, really, since I started collecting perfume and thinking about it, so I wonder if my NaNoWriMo project will be influenced by it? I wonder if I too will focus on olfactive description? I’ll be writing at top speed, so I won’t be able to do much more than write what comes to me, so we’ll see. 🙂

    I will have to hunt down that Roald Dahl book. He’s one of my favorites—so wicked. October 19, 2005 at 12:25pm Reply

  • linda: V, as I wrote to you yesterday, my sister was a dancer, but after 7 years she suffered a hip injury that left her unable to dance. I was always a tomboy, completely unfit for ballet. I admire it though. You must be a very strong and disciplined person if you went through ballet training. A beautiful dancer, a great writer, and a very nice person. You are a rare combination, dear V! October 19, 2005 at 12:27pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: T, Roald Dahl is wicked! That whole collection of stories is great.

    I cannot wait to see the outcome of your project. When I started writing fiction a couple of years ago, the only thing that tied bits and pieces together was scent. Of course, now it has been put on hold, because of other obligations I have. On the other hand, I am signing up as the first person to read your book! October 19, 2005 at 12:34pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: L, I feel for your sister. It is very difficult to be suddenly deprived of the ability to dance, especially when the training makes it such a big part of your life. When I decided to quit, it was a voluntary choice, but it was very difficult. Still, I do not regret anything.

    Now you have made me blush! 🙂 October 19, 2005 at 12:38pm Reply

  • mreenymo: I just finished reading “Perfume,” and found it perversely fascinating. I hope the movie does it justice.

    Hugs!

    P.S.-I second Linda’s compliments to you. And, may I add my compliments to Linda. 🙂 October 19, 2005 at 1:41pm Reply

  • kaie: Merci beaucoup! What a great article. I also recommend Musc very highly. So engaging and well-written! October 19, 2005 at 1:42pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: R, you are very kind. Thank you for your sweet words.

    I also hope that the movie will do full justice to the book. Often, the renditions are so disappointing. October 19, 2005 at 1:54pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Kaie, thank you. Another recommendation is a final straw, so to speak. I shall order it right away. October 19, 2005 at 1:56pm Reply

  • Viennoiselle: I am surprised Perfume: Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind is excluded – such a treasure (fiction, but true:0)! October 19, 2005 at 5:32pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: It is included in the original review (total of nine novels). The reason I did not summarize it here (other than briefly) is because it is fairly well-known, and definitely more well-known than some of the other novels mentioned. I agree that it is a great novel. We shall see if the film will do it justice. October 19, 2005 at 5:42pm Reply

  • Tara: In response to Marina’s comments, I will modify a favorite quote:

    “Le parfum est une fatalite comme une autre; on n’en sort pas.”

    (the original quote referred to litterature rather than parfum, quite a propos as well) October 19, 2005 at 5:57pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Ah, very true, Tara! I cannot but agree. October 19, 2005 at 6:04pm Reply

  • Viennoiselle: Mille pardons, BoisdeJasmin, for the omission..
    I believe Justin Hoffman is somber enough for this travail. http://movies.hsx.com/servlet/SecurityDetail?symbol=PRFME October 19, 2005 at 6:55pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Cannot agree more on Dustin Hoffman casting! I am already anticipating the release, but I understand that it shall not be for another year.
    Thank you for the link! October 19, 2005 at 7:10pm Reply

  • Viennoiselle: my typo: should be Dustin, not Justin:0 October 19, 2005 at 7:31pm Reply

  • Gail Adrian: A personal favorite of mine is the novel:
    GAZELLE written by Rikki Ducornet. It tells the story of a young girl coming of age at the same time she meets a perfumer and has unforgettable quotes such as:
    “Grey amber never smells of fish..but only of flowers….He broke one in tow and showed us how it was flecked inside with white.” October 19, 2005 at 9:26pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Gail, thank you for mentioned Gazelle. I have not read it yet, but I shall definitely look for it now. The quote alone is enough to locate it. October 20, 2005 at 12:05am Reply

  • kristen: Love this! I have a great book that my dad found for me…not a novel, but a beautiful volume on the evolution of fragrance over time called The Art of Perfume. It’s a beautiful “coffee table book” and my copy is signed by the author. There’s lots of beautiful detail about perfume bottles, antique bottles, famous fragrances, etc. Gotta love my dad for finding that for me! October 21, 2005 at 9:16pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Kristen, how wonderful! Not only do you have a great book, but also an autographed copy. Thanks for mentioning this book. October 21, 2005 at 9:52pm Reply

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