sei shonagon: 2 posts

Perfumes for Reading The Pillow Book

“Things that make your heart beat fast: to wash your hair, apply your make-up 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.” The woman who wrote these lines was a 10th-century Japanese lady-in-waiting in the Heian court. We only know her title, Sei Shōnagon, not her real name, but The Pillow Book ensured her fame. In my recent FT magazine article, Three Perfumes for Sei Shonagon, I select three fragrance to accompany the Japanese literary masterpiece.

“For a fragrance that evokes Sei Shōnagon’s description of the royal palace – the carved screens, incense smoke and rustle of silks – I turn to Arquiste’s Nanban. It’s dark and plush, with velvety layers of myrrh, sandalwood and leather, but the infusion of osmanthus, a blossom that smells of apricots and tea, gives a candlelit glow to the composition.”

Have you read The Pillow Book? Do you ever select scents that match the mood of your favorite books?

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 mothers-in-law) 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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