Perfumes and books: a scented story

From Colette to Diana Athill, and Flaubert…

Fragrances are intangible and evanescent – hence the assumption that they are beyond the linguistic capacity of humans. Such difficulties need not be the norm. Open Virgil, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Proust, Zola or Persian poets like Hafez and Nizami, and discover how aromas can be given form and language. Invisible though scents are, they become more powerful when captured in words.

The French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was known for her ability to describe not only emotions, but also tastes, colours and aromas. She loved perfumes, gave fragrance advice and even authored a pamphlet for Lanvin Parfums. (There are several modern fragrances inspired by her, namely Tocca’s Colette, $68 for 50ml EDP, and Histoires de Parfums’ 1873 Colette, $185 for 120ml EDP.) In The Vagabond, the story of Renée Néré, who after a divorce becomes a café-concert dancer, the narrative is dappled with sensory impressions. Renée has Colette’s biography, looks and her acute sense of smell. The odours that Colette’s heroine observes add texture and vibrancy to the story: the plaster and ammonia in the music hall, the sweat and rice powder in the dressing rooms, “the warm scent like half-ripe peaches and pepper” that makes butterflies languorous in the countryside. The novel is a testament to Colette’s mastery of painting the ineffable, be it love or redolence.

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An olfactory aura is also a distinctive part of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Consider this passage: “Often when Charles was out she took from the cupboard, between the folds of the linen where she had left it, the green silk cigar case. She looked at it, opened it, and even smelt the odour of the lining – a mixture of verbena and tobacco. Whose was it? The Viscount’s? Perhaps it was a present from his mistress.” The lush scents throw into relief Emma Bovary’s tragedy, her boredom and unfulfilled longing for a more exciting life. Flaubert’s lucid writing and vivid observations jolt the reader time and again.

Smells can draw out a character and give a sense of place, but they also evoke the past. They seize hold of a memory and reflect it back to the writer and, in turn, the reader. In her memoir Alive, Alive Oh!, editor and novelist Diana Athill does just that. The book, written as Athill turned 97, is a collection of reflections – happy, tragic or prosaic, but nevertheless significant. The details that Athill conjures up in her crisp, vigorous prose are among the most beautiful parts of the story: the perfume of bluebells at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, the crunch of grass under the feet of a tortoise, the play of light on the green water of Venice’s canals. “Looking at things is never time wasted,” writes Athill. “When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later.” As her memoir demonstrates, the same could be said of smelling.  

The visual stimulation to which we are subjected daily makes it difficult to imagine a different world, one in which other senses are equally touched. Such a place is presented in Holly Dugan’s comprehensive work The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England. An English-literature scholar, Dugan has conducted thorough archival research, and her book not only refutes the notion that aromas are too fleeting to be recorded, it also sheds light on the unexplored aspects of everyday life during the Renaissance.

Dugan takes us into churches, pleasure gardens, markets or luxury households with all of their sweetness and effluvia, and in the process uncovers a rich olfactory vocabulary  – “ambered, civited, expired, fetored, halited, resented, and smeeked" or “breathful, embathed, incensial, odorant, pulvil, and suffite”. There was more than one way to smell good – or to reek – and, as these words demonstrate, our ancestors were able to talk about scents with much skill. There is no reason to believe that it is a lost ability.

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