Another landmark this week with the death of the King of Thailand after an immensely long reign of seventy years – a stint just short of Louis XIV’s marathon. Once, long ago, I had the honour of helping his widow, the lovely Queen Sirikit, to purchase a number of novelty musical boxes, fashioned in the style of Bavarian chalets. The Queen had the exquisite relaxed courtesy of an ancient royalty – “there is No Hurry At All!”. It was wintertime and she was cocooned in layers of dark silky fur. A wonderful smooth warm fragrance surrounded her person, susurrating & shimmering in almost visible waves in the eternal wraparound heat of Harrods’ ground floor.
An essential new book¤ reviewed in The Times tells us, amongst other things, that celebrated writers have often been stimulated and inspired by their noses. Schiller habitually kept over-ripe apples by him (see also Louisa May Alcott). No doubt Balzac was addicted as much to the scent as to the taste and kick of his fatal coffee. Rudyard Kipling believed that every word should have its own redolence. I’m half way through an extraordinary novel¤¤ by one Ottessa Moshfegh: a Boston writer with a powerfully disturbing vision of life. Ms Moshfegh is blessed – I suppose – with an almost obsessive sense of smell. Spoiled food, body odour, the inevitable sordid consequences of anorexia, alcoholism and chronic constipation are all grist to her mill, pitilessly & pitifully recounted. Ottessa’s heroine distrusts perfume:
“…I often have to leave a room…when a person near to me smells bad. I don’t mean the smell of sweat and dirt, but a kind of artificial, caustic smell, usually from people who disguise themselves in creams and perfumes. These highly scented people are not to be trusted. They are predators. They are like… dogs….”
I’ll spare you the rest of that sentence, it contains too revolting and vivid an olfactory idea. You’ll need to go and look it up. I know what Kipling was getting at, I think. There is an aspect of synaesthesia that has the printed word not only conveying an image, but actually reeking of that idea or concept. There are many words I prefer not to use either in speech or in writing on account of I find them ugly or, as it were, evil-smelling. They are not in themselves intrinsically offensive but there’s something the very look and sound of them – not to mention the smell – that grates. “Stink”, pretty obviously, is one. “Rip” is, more obscurely, another: as in “don’t you rip that paper!” When I was very small, my grandmother pronounced both of these words as “common” and consequently verboten. Nowadays, I wonder whether she and I do not share this same syndrome. “Common” – with its late Victorian connotations of inappropriate expressions of uncontrolled emotion in all its forms – was perhaps the nearest my grandmother could come to defining her aversion. If being common is to do with bad taste, then it must inevitably have a connection with bad smells as surely as the palate is connected to the nose.
I went to a Conference recently. It was great. There were hundreds of us in the hall. After lunch, a Life Coach came on to lecture the assembled perfume-vendors. He asked each one of us to think, silently, of five words to describe fragrance and scent. Then he pounced at random and asked individuals to tell us their chosen words. Amazing, of course, because of the enormous variety of ideas – “swooning”, “spreadsheets”, “seduction”, “sales”, “sex”, “profits” and “exhaustion”. All human life was there.
When it comes to describing perfume, everyone has difficulties. What sort of scent is one looking for? A Lovely Perfume, of course; an Exciting Perfume; a Different or Delicate Perfume. After that, it gets tricky for nearly all of us. We have to hunt for metaphors, similes and approximate images. Sometimes our limited vocabulary and language fail us completely and like our cousins the great apes we have to use gestures, mimes, squeaks and grunts in desperate efforts to get our ideas across.
Mrs Thatcher used to talk a lot about “weasel words”. For me, the artful weasels are the apparently straightforward words that lead us by the nose. Words like “rose”, “jasmine”, “vanilla” and ” violet” seem safe and sufficiently unambiguous. Surely they can be used as solid building blocks when it comes to describing and choosing a scent? Not at all. “Rose”, for instance, is the vaguest of concepts for the aroma of that multi-moleculed flower is only what each person makes of it¤¤¤. Hence the classic and not unusual case of someone who has always lived by the credo that he loathes and abominates rose perfume – but who on a visit to Les Senteurs ends up intoxicated by it.
Providing, of course, that he forgets the preconceptions of the word and concentrates on his own sense of smell: thus discovering a rose interpretation that “clicks”. Again, consider lavender – another word that travels badly: to the Italians it speaks of fresh laundry; to the French a potent masculinity¤¤¤¤; to the British – faded & fragile old ladies. Its no good fixating on any one word in the complex arcane language of scent: we must get behind and beneath that, to the true fragrance hidden in the verbiage.
This week’s tip must therefore be, to ignore the smell of the perfumer’s words; pass over the ingredients – and concentrate on the aura, the mood, the atmosphere of the whole composition. Immerse yourself not in descriptors but in an olfactory, holistic and emotional experience.
¤ How To Write Like Tolstoy: a journey into the minds of our greatest writers by Richard Cohen. Random House 2016.
¤¤ Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. Jonathan Cape 2016.
¤¤¤ So that perhaps Les Senteurs’ fragrance with the wittiest and most acute title is ALTAIA’s soft and subtle By Any Other Name.
¤¤¤¤ witness Caron’s definitive Pour Un Homme: “the world’s first scent for men”. A triumph since 1934.