“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.
The Pillow Book is a fascinating mélange of lists and opinions; Sei Shōnagon has a keen eye for detail and a sharp tongue, which is why even at the remove of 10 centuries, her book beguiles and entertains. She complains about dull tweezers, as indeed she does about mothers-in-law, and suggests that priests should be good looking because it would make listening to their sermons more pleasant. But what I love most of all about The Pillow Book is Sei Shōnagon’s sensory observations, her comments on colours and scents. Her world is one where the first snowfall can be cause for celebration and where lovers send each other incense-perfumed letters.
Selecting a perfume to accompany The Pillow Book has become one of my small joys. When I need a break from the routine, I open my favourite translation by Meredith McKinney and apply a drop of my chosen fragrance. So complex and vivid are Sei Shōnagon’s vignettes that by wearing the right perfume, I can create my own fantasies. For instance, in her list of “Splendid Things” she mentions Chinese brocade, ornamental swords and “long, richly coloured clusters of wisteria blossom hanging from a pine tree”. The same sumptuous image is provided by Diptyque’s Olène (£70 for 50ml EDT), an embrace of jasmine and wisteria garnished with green, balsamic notes. It has the right amount of opulence while conveying refinement and elegance.
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 ($190 for 100ml EDP). 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. I recently found another perfect fragrance companion to The Pillow Book: Aedes de Venustas’ Copal Azur ($245 for 100ml EDP), an incense accord set into amber. The contrast between the mellow smokiness of incense and the honeyed warmth of resin gives the composition its exciting character. As Sei Shōnagon so aptly observes: “The scent of incense is a most elegantly intriguing thing.”
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.