Books: 51 posts

Books and libraries

The City of Jasmine

Writer Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) described his native city of Damascus as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity, and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine.” Although the most fragrant of roses bears the name rosa damascena, Damascus rose, the Syrian capital is known as Madinat Al Yasmine, the City of ­Jasmine. Each fall it holds a festival in homage of this national flower, with people giving each other stems of jasmine and decorating their home with fragrant blossoms. It was even held in recent years, despite the conflict that left thousands dead and millions displaced, with flowers given to those who lost loved ones.

“A Damascene moon travels through my blood
Nightingales . . . and grain . . . and domes
From Damascus, jasmine begins its whiteness
And fragrances perfume themselves with her scent
From Damascus, water begins . . . for wherever
You lean your head, a stream flows
And poetry is a sparrow spreading its wings
Over Sham . . . and a poet is a voyager,”

writes Qabbani in one of his most renowned poems, A Damascene Moon. He was born in Damascus in 1923 in the old neighborhood of Mi’thnah Al-Shahm, which you encounter time and again in his poems. Qabbani’s poems are romantic and political, erotic and lyrical, breaking conventions and offering a glimpse into his lively, rich imagination. Since 1966 and until his death in 1998, Qabbani has been living abroad, but in his exile he has produced some of his finest poems. The longing for the City of Jasmine gives his words a strong charge, and as I read them, I think of all the places that I miss, all of the colors, scents and voices that make up my memories. As someone who created a fantasy jasmine forest, to replace the real one far away, I feel a poignant kinship with the Syrian poet.

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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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Reading Nikolai Gogol in 2017

I celebrated Nikolai Gogol’s birthday on March 31st by picking up a volume of Dead Souls. The last time I read it in its entirety was during my school days, and many scenes were so vivid in my memory that picking up the novel again felt less like re-discovering than wandering through a familiar landscape. Gogol, the Russian and Ukrainian dramatist, playwright and novelist, is unrivaled for his sharp satire and colorful language, but what struck me this time is how relevant his observations were to our present day affairs. Today everyone is re-reading Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’d like to make a case for adding Dead Souls to the list.

Let’s start with one of my favorite quotes in the book. “Absolute nonsense happens in the world. Sometimes there is no plausibility at all.” Yes, a similar thought in different formulations has been coursing through my head a lot lately. Or, “You can’t imagine how stupid the whole world has grown nowadays. The things these scribblers write!” What would be Gogol’s take on our world of “post truth,” “alternative facts,” and “fake news”?

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“I’m Dying of Love for You” : The Letters of Isabella von Parma

I returned from my recent trip to Vienna bring back not only an obsession with Johann Georg Pinsel, but also with Isabella von Parma (1741-1763), who lived at the same time as the mysterious 18th century sculptor. Isabella was one of the most remarkable personalities of the 18th century, admired for her achievements in art, music, and philosophy. The reason I became fascinated with her, however, was an excerpt from a letter she wrote to her sister-in-law, Marie Christine of Austria. “I am told that the day begins with God. I, however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her incessantly.”

I am once again struck by the narrow lenses through which we see women in history. In many books Isabella is repeatedly described as “mad,” “tragic,” or “odd.” People search for the roots of her melancholy moods in the family tree and discuss at length the mental problems of her father and her mother’s cold attitude. What about the fact that princesses in the 18th century were little more than breeding mares, and Isabella had half a dozen miscarriages during her short marriage to Joseph II of Austria? The couple was under enormous pressure to produce a male offspring to the Hapsburgs.

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Latest Comments

  • Hera in Perfume Decants and Samples Giveaway: Thank you for the giveaway. I would like to receive samples and decants for sure. My favorite roses are FM Une Rose and Guerlain Nahema. May 29, 2017 at 12:28pm

  • Aurora in Perfume Decants and Samples Giveaway: Don’t enter me into the draw, I can get hold of samples if I am tempted to discover the Malle perfumes. May 29, 2017 at 10:18am

  • Maria in Perfume Decants and Samples Giveaway: Thank you for sharing with us, Monica! Have you tried Montale Red Flowers, it’s a beautiful spicy rose. Even if I am not in roses I wear it sometimes and… May 29, 2017 at 4:38am

  • Neva in Perfume Decants and Samples Giveaway: Please do not enter me, but I would like to suggest Amouage Epic Woman, which is a deep rose, definitely spicy and has plenty of frankincense. Good luck to everyone… May 29, 2017 at 3:06am

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