books: 13 posts

Lonely Mozart in Lemberg and Reflections on Solitude

In 1808 Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, the youngest son of the famous composer, traveled to Lemberg. Today it’s Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, but when the eighteen year old pianist was packing his sheet music and books and setting off on his journey, it was located in Galicia, an entity created by Joseph II after the partition of Poland in 1772. (It was the same Joseph that commented about the Marriage of Figaro, “too many notes, Mozart.”) While young Mozart was aware that he was trading Vienna for the provinces, he was in dire straits. Lemberg seemed like a promising place for a pianist to build his career and return to the capital. Mozart ended up staying for more than two decades.

Young Mozart’s early letters to his family were filled with mentions of his “loneliness [Einsamkeit].” He acutely felt the Galician isolation and complained that his inspiration was deserting him. He envisioned all of the brilliant conversations he could have experienced in Vienna society, the music, the books, the arts, and despaired of finding anything similar in Lemberg. Franz Mozart’s output over his lifetime was indeed small, yet, what becomes obvious is how much he drew on the local surroundings and how creatively he interpreted them.

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Chanel, Caron and Guerlain in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

“The first time I encountered a perfume that beguiled me was in the pages of a book. The sultry red-haired witch in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita enticed women with the promise of “Guerlain, Chanel No 5, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noir, evening gowns, cocktail dresses…” It would be some years before I smelled these perfumes, yet their names left a “baffling but seductive” imprint, just as the novel suggested.”

In my recent FT column, Revisiting Three Perfume Classics, I write about the three legendary perfumes that left their “baffling but seductive” trace in literature and history. They are Chanel No 5, Guerlain Mitsouko and Caron Narcisse Noir. Bulgakov started writing his novel in 1928 and worked on it until his death in 1940. The reason he selected these three perfumes as the lure for the black magic show was because they embodied glamour.

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What Does The Scent of Books Reveal?

My Proustian madeleine is a piece of furniture. One of the first things I do when I arrive at our house in Poltava is to pry open the stubborn glass doors of the old bookcase and take a deep inhale. Even before I knew how to read, I loved smelling the leather bound volumes standing in neat rows on its shelves, so it’s true that my love of reading and my interest in aromas developed in tandem. Inside, the bookcase smells of vetiver roots, vanilla and sesame biscuits.

I’m not being whimsical with my descriptions, however. A ground breaking project by researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage explored odor descriptions as they relate to the chemical composition of books and created a “historic book odor wheel” to link the scents with the aromatics present in decaying paper. It’s amazing to see how many aroma-molecules books and perfumes have in common, from limonene (zesty, lemon-line odor) to hexanal (freshly cut grass) and vanillin (sweet, vanilla).

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Winter Lists : 5 Books and 2 Perfumes

There is nothing especially winter-like about my list of books (and perfumes). It’s mainly about enjoyment, with a dose of something high-spirited. Some may call it escapism, but I see it as a way to recharge and tune out the world long enough for me to find my balance and plunge back into the routine. Moreover, high-spirited, entertaining and fun, whether in literature, art or perfume, can assume many different forms. Here is my take.

winter-list

Jeffrey Steingarten The Man Who Ate Everything

“Whenever I have nothing better to do, I roast a chicken,” writes Jeffrey Steingarten. The food critic at Vogue magazine since 1989, Steingarten is also the author of two of my favorite books about cooking and eating, The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate. Steingarten is witty, irreverent and passionate, an irresistible combination. His essays are full of interesting tidbits and recipes, but the main reason I enjoy them is because of Steingarten’s dry sense of humor. I don’t know how many times I’ve read “Kyoto Cuisine,” but the scene in which he tries to pry off the lid from a bowl of soup leaves me laughing out loud every single time. In the same essay, he also describes the exquisite flavors of Japanese cuisine, reminding his reader that as a bumbling tourist he may have missed many nuances. With Steingarten you can visit the Nishikidori market in Kyoto, run a scientific test of ketchups, grill sardines with Marcella Hazan in Venice, perfect fries, or try cooking from the back of the box.

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Perfume in the Library : Danilo Kis and De Profundis

There are two reasons for me to bring Danilo Kiš’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead into my scented library. First of all, his short stories were recommended by a Bois de Jasmin reader, Maja. Second, Kiš (pronounced as Kish) is a master at describing the intangible and the evanescent. Born in Subotica, Danube Banovina, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Kiš (1935–1989) came from a family that he described as “an ethnographic rarity,” an artifact of the disappearing world–his father was of Hungarian Jewish origin, while his mother came from Montenegro. The lack of precision and neatly defined categories that mark the countries on the crossroads, the borderlands, are sometimes seen as problematic. But Kiš’s work, with its complex panoply of inspirations and traditions, shows that nebulous boundaries can produce many riches.

danilo-kis-lutens

The Encyclopedia of the Dead, written in 1983, contains 9 stories. Kiš insisted that he was writing neither science fiction nor fantasy, placing himself in the magical realism tradition of Jorge Luis Borges. There are references to many different writers such as James Joyce, Bruno Schulz, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivo Andrić and Miroslav Krleža, but inspiration from Borges is the main leitmotif. Some stories answer Borges’s puzzles, others take up Borges’s challenges–“let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it…” (Borges, “Averroës’ Search”).

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