“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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.