perfume in the library: 6 posts

À rebours (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans : Scents in Books

“From black-rimmed plates they ate turtle soup and eaten Russian rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, salted mullet-roe, smoked Frankfurt black puddings, game in gravies the colour of liquorice and boot-blacking truffled sauces, chocolate caramel creams, plum puddings, nectarines, preserved fruits, mulberries and heart-cherries; from dark coloured glasses they drank the wines of Limagne and Rousillon, of Tenedoes, Val de Peñas and Oporto, and, after the coffee and the walnut cordial they enjoyed kvass, porters and stouts.”

― Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature

His writing inspired Oscar Wilde—and corrupted Dorian Gray. As an art critic, he discovered Degas and Odilon Redon. Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) was one of the most prominent stars of the European art scene at the end of the 19th century, and yet he remains little known to the general public. However, two events this year are putting Huysmans into the spotlight. First, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, published by Gallimard, has added his works to their prestigious collection of classics. Second, Musée d’Orsay will hold an exhibition from 26th November 2019 to 1st March 2020 devoted to Huysmans’s contributions to 20th century aesthetics.

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Marcel Proust on Reading and Recapturing Time

If you were to give me the word ‘reading’ and ask me to describe the first thing that it evokes, I’d describe a secluded corner in my grandmother’s garden where an old apricot tree cleaved in two by a bolt of lightning grew a wild canopy and made for a perfect hideaway. I would spend hours reading under the apricot tree’s branches, occasionally reaching for a fuzzy, under-ripe fruit. In my memory it’s not the individual books themselves that stand out, but rather the pleasure of reading and the emotions it inspired. And the sour almond taste of green apricots.

Marcel Proust conceived Journées de Lecture, Days of Reading (public library), as an introduction to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies. Proust had not yet written his novel, but his discovery of the famous Victorian art critic’s work was a major milestone, and in the introductory essay one can already detect the makings of the writer of Remembrance of Things Past. For all of Proust’s admiration of Ruskin, he disagrees with the critic’s statement that books are a conversation with the sages. Instead, Proust finds the pleasure of reading in the way books prompt us to look for answers to life’s riddles on our own. Art is not didactic. It is stimulating. It doesn’t instruct. It inspires.

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How Books Smell : My New Christmas Themed Article in Oh Comely Magazine

This month I have an article titled How Books Smell in the mid-winter issue of Oh Comely. Oh Comely is a magazine covering food, recipes, film, fashion, music, art and culture. It’s based in the UK and you can subscribe or buy any of its six yearly issues online at the Oh Comely store, or in shops all over the UK and internationally (here is the stocklists). It’s an independent magazine with a creative and refreshing approach to art, culture and lifestyle topics, and I think that many of those who read Bois de Jasmin will enjoy it too. Its latest issues included stories on poignant prose, Victorian women, dressing like your favorite literary heroine, and the art of keeping secrets.

My article is on the topic that’s close to my heart–books and scents. I explore the sensory pleasures of reading and explain how I enhance it by visualizing scents in my favorite books. The two authors who guide me are Marcel Proust and Nikolai Gogol. The article also features incense inflected hawthorns, moon-stealing devils, Christmas revelry, and saffron brandy. I hope that you will like it.

The cover of Oh Comely 2017 winter issue.

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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On Italo Calvino’s Classics and Serge Lutens Feminite du Bois

What makes a classic? “In his marvellous essay Why Read the Classics? Italo Calvino offers 14 definitions of what makes a classic piece of literature. Reflecting on his list, I thought how easily its ideas could also be applied to perfumery. The same notions of the inexhaustible sense of discovery, timelessness and “imprints on our imagination” also define a classic scent, be it Guerlain Shalimar or Chanel No 5. It was Calvino’s 13th point, however, that struck a chord. “A classic is a work that relegates the noise of the present to a background hum,” he says, noting that nevertheless the classics cannot exist without this hum. They’re rooted in the present even as they transcend it.”

This topic is the subject of my latest FT column on modern classics. The article, How Serge Lutens reinvented the idea of feminine perfume, is the first of a series that will cover fragrances I consider outstanding and important. Modern classics, in other words. My first essay is on Serge Lutens’s Féminité du Bois, a composition that challenged conventions and remade wood accords as we know them in perfumery. To read the article, please click here.

Italo Calvino’s essay is worth reading, whether your interest is perfumery or literature, because it’s witty and through-provoking. “Classic” is the most overused word, but unpacking its layers of meaning makes one appreciate the richness of allusions and references that each great work contains. The essay is part of the compilation “Why Read the Classics?” (public library) that includes Calvino’s observations on his favorite writers and novels. I can’t recommend it enough for your summer reading lists.

Of course, I would love to hear what a classical perfume means to you and which fragrances you count among the modern classics.

To read all articles in my column, please click on my name in the byline.

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