perfume and books: 3 posts

Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow : Love and Essence

When I sat down to write about Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, I struggled to find the best way to describe it. A love story seemed too banal. An exploration of the fathers and sons dilemma too simple. An answer came to me as I was reading another book, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Spring Snow is an attempt to recapture a memory, a moment long gone, set into the frame of a tragic love story. And just as in Proust’s masterpiece, fragrance is a leitmotif for Mishima’s story.

Kiyoaki is the son of a nouveau riche family who has been raised in the aristocratic Ayakura household. His father, Marquise Matsugae, conscious of their provincial origins, desired for Kiyoaki to imbibe the manners and elegance of the nobility. But by the time Kiyoaki turns eighteen, he feels confused and torn between the two worlds, the old and the new. He has all of the hallmarks of an aristocrat with his refined aesthetic sensibilities and sophisticated manners, but he feels no respect for the emperor or the tradition. He is floating, unable to understand others and unable to make himself understood.

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Perfume in the Library: Hafez’s Rose and A Wine Cup

Oh, come let’s scatter rose petals and fill the cup with wine;
let’s tear the ceiling of the universe and create a new one.
If the army of woes is intent on shedding the lovers’ blood,
Cup-bearer and I will ride together and uproot the army’s foundation!
We’ll pour rose water in the bowl of purple wine;
we’ll in censer pour the sweetness of the scented wind. (ghazal 129)**

I’m reading Hafez in Shiraz. The marble steps are cool, and the autumnal sunlight thick as honey clings to the blue tiled dome of Hafeziye, a poet’s tomb. Hafez was born in this city known for its culture, sensuality and pleasure-loving ways, and even today Shirazi are proud to reinforce their reputation as sybarites with a sly sense of humor. It’s a regular weekday, but at Hafeziye there is the aura of an endless fest. A group of students reads poetry. A turbaned man in the flowing dress of a mullah pays his respects at the tomb. Two heavily made up young women with prominent post-surgery bandages on their noses pose for a selfie.  Couples exchange glances, verses and phone numbers. Somehow, I think that Hafez wouldn’t mind.
hafez-divan

“Color your prayer rug with wine,” writes Hafez, one of the most remarkable poets and mystical thinkers. Remarkable for his imaginative allusions, for his unveiling of hypocrisy and for his limitless passion which pours out in his verses through metaphors of love, perfume and wine.

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Perfume in the Library : The Pillow Book

When the Japanese courtier Sei Shōnagon started writing what is now known as The Pillow Book at the end of the 10th century, it was mostly done to alleviate the desperate boredom women experienced at the court. Their movements were circumscribed, and they mostly spent their days behind screens, observing while not being observed. Sei Shōnagon has a keen eye for detail and a sharp tongue, which is why even at the remove of many centuries, her book beguiles and entertains. How can one keep a straight face when she complains about dull tweezers (or mother-in-laws) and suggests that priests should be good looking because it would make listening to their sermons more agreeable.

pillow-book

Some of my favorite passages are of Sei Shōnagon in her lyrical mood. She describes scenery, sounds, textures and scents with such precision that I too feel the crinkly silk under my fingers and smell the spicy sweetness of incense.

To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well-scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside. [26] Things that make your heart beat fast (translated by Meredith McKinney)

Recently, I found a fragrance that reminds me of Japanese incense. It’s Eau de Rochas, a citrus cologne with a chypre layer. The choice may be unexpected, but once the fragrance softens from its initial sizzle of zest and rind, it becomes softly shaded and warm. The experience made me discover two things. First, Japanese incense is chypre, an accord of moss and woods, turned into smoke. Second, finding a scent to capture the facets of a favorite book enhances the experience greatly.

But of course, many of you know that, and in our previous discussions on the subject of perfume and books, you have shared some of your favorite combinations. I’d love to hear more.

Extra: The Smell of Books :: Perfume and Books: A Scented Story :: The Story of the Porter and The Ladies of Baghdad :: Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway :: Things that Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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