Three modern perfumes for a 19th-century novelist

Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature abounds in scent inspiration, says our perfume expert

The 19th-century author and art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans
The 19th-century author and art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans | Image: Getty Images

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, yet he remains relatively little known. This could be about to change, however. Publisher Gallimard has added Huysmans’s works to its prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade collection of classic books; and Paris’s Musée d’Orsay is showing an exhibition devoted to Huysmans’ contributions to 20th-century aesthetics until March 1.

Clockwise from left: Rien by État Libre d'Orange (€135 for 100ml); Lumiere Noire pour femme by Maison Francis Kurkdjian (€150 for 70ml EDP); London by Gallivant (£65 for 30ml EDP)
Clockwise from left: Rien by État Libre d'Orange (€135 for 100ml); Lumiere Noire pour femme by Maison Francis Kurkdjian (€150 for 70ml EDP); London by Gallivant (£65 for 30ml EDP)

Huysmans’s novel À Rebours, or Against Nature, is controversial and sensual in equal parts. It retains its power more than a century after it was published in 1884 – an era, much like today, filled with unprecedented changes and anxieties. One might well understand why the novel’s hero, Jean des Esseintes, decides to escape the world by retiring to a country home and creating his own universe.

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The book abounds in sensory references as des Esseintes composes perfumes, tastes liqueurs or falls into daydreams. In one scene des Esseintes, inspired by reading Dickens, decides to visit London. Yet, having travelled as far as an English restaurant in grey and rainy Paris, he feels that he has experienced London’s atmosphere enough in his imagination and abandons the whole idea. The passage makes me think of perfumers who attempt to satisfy the wanderlust of armchair travellers. One such is Gallivant (all £65 for 30ml EDP), an indie fragrance house whose scents all promise a journey, to Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Istanbul or London. The latter is an evocative blend of smoky leather, cucumber, violet, patchouli and pale roses.

The Huysmans exhibition at the Musée D’Orsay
The Huysmans exhibition at the Musée D’Orsay | Image: Musée d’Orsay/Sophie Crépy

With each chapter, Huysmans leads the reader into des Esseintes’s library, lets us examine his admired paintings and hear his musings on literature, religion or colours. He recalls a dinner devoted to the colour black, where guests feasted on caviar, rye bread, mulberries and walnut cordial – a scene that summons up the sombre and lush Lumière Noire pour femme by Maison Francis Kurkdjian (€150 for 70ml EDP), floating in the air.

The Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition is devoted to Huysmans’ contributions to 20th-century aesthetics, and runs until March 1
The Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition is devoted to Huysmans’ contributions to 20th-century aesthetics, and runs until March 1 | Image: Musée d’Orsay/Sophie Crépy

Another fragrance I am sure des Esseintes would have admired is Rien by État Libre d’Orange (€135 for 100ml). The name means “nothing”, but under the initial soft layer lies an intricate composition of incense, patchouli, oakmoss and amber. It reveals its secrets slowly and makes the imagination soar. And, as des Esseintes would affirm, in this world full of illusions and mirages, imagination is the real force.

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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 Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving professional perfumery training, has been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.

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