Monday, August 18, 2008

end-of-summer scent

With the start of term speeding toward me, I'm trying to gobble as much fun reading as I can -- right now, I'm devouring the bonbon that is Catherine Sanderson's Petite Anglaise. More on that later. For now, I have a few last quotations from Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent, about which I must stress the superlative quality of the prose. It is the best kind of non-fiction writing, informative and interesting, enough background material laid out so that the layperson can follow but not so much as to overwhelm or bore. I'm particularly keen on the metaphors Burr uses throughout, ones that depend, admittedly, on the sociocultural literacy of his audience, relying on a shared awareness, if not experience, that would make sense of the following description of Jean Patou's 1000, for example: "light-gold-evening gown paradigm of Jean Patou's 1000, that wonderful, rich, hard-as-diamonds elegance that is like a spotlight at a Cannes movie premiere." I've never been up close and personal with a light gold evening gown, never seen one of those spotlights, but I've thumbed through enough Vogue magazines to begin to imagine the scent. And what about this description of the "olfactory thumbprint" on each Escada scent, " a sort of neon-and-disco-ball party-crazed Barcelona-Eurotrash-girls-gone-wild aesthetic"?

He's also scathingly funny about most men's fragrances, saying for example, that the YSL M7 "smells like a Fiat engine engulfed in flame on a shoulder of the A6, an alarming chemical storm of burned rubber, charred metal, torched leather, and toxic melting polycarbon. This is not necessarily a criticism: It was a well constructed, thoughtfully built scorched car in flames." As an afterthought, in parentheses, Burr adds drily that YSL "has now, in the best Argentine manner, quietly disappeared both [M7 and its flanker, M7Fresh]."

And Burr is also stunningly, precisely, honestly, and close to shockingly (altho' not at all gratuitously so -- as he says, "There's simply no other way to describe it") descriptive. I so much admire this account of Tonquin musk, the "raw material that was extracted from a gland under the lower stomach and before the hind legs of the male . . .Tibetan musk dear" which is, Burr says "one of the most astounding smells you will ever experience. It is, to put it most precisely, the rich, thick scent of the anus of a clean man combined with the smells of his warm skin, his armpits sometime around midday, the head of his ripely scented uncircumcised penis (a trace of ammonia), and the sweetish, nutty, acrid visceral smell of his breath."

Perhaps to remind the reader that such a description fits well within attempts through the decades to articulate perfumes, Burr cites Jacques Gerlain who "famously said that all his perfumes contained, somewhere inside them, the smell of the underside of his mistress. He was referring to all three holes."

Meanwhile, having already been wearing Ellena's (the perfumer Burr profiles, Jean-Claude Ellena) Terre d'Hermès for a year, I recently picked up a bottle of his Kelly Calèche, also for Hermès, and I'm enjoying thinking about it through Burr's guidance. He says that its genius "is that it opens on the skin as a transparent modern, built on a sunlit green that approaches but, with a delicate exactitude does not actually touch floral. The fragrance is structured by a glass angularity whose beauty is as much in the precision of its calibration as in its scent, a highly architectural piece. But it is only after a certain time that one realizes where it is going. The perfume becomes that rarest of things, a completely wearable contemporary leather."

Karina commented on my first post about Burr that Reading about perfume is wonderful because, like food reviews, it's all about the encounter with language. and I agree completely. The above description of Calèche more powerfully elucidates the struggle I feel to articulate my experience of this perfume. I find it at first a bit irritatingly green, rather peppery, unfortunately reminiscent of something in Raid, but only momentarily so as it's on the way to the leather I'm impatient for, and when it gets there, I have to be careful not to be throwing my wrist up to my nostrils too often, just snorting it in. Seeing this development in structural and/or architectural terms heightens the experience of the perfume for me and forces me to focus on and enjoy the early stages rather than tapping my toes impatiently for the leather to show up.

My husband, on the other hand, finds the descriptions I've read him entertaining in spots, well-written at others, but often just a bit too laboured and close-to-precious, so much so that he made a connection between them and the making-fun-of-whisky-tasting analogies in the Pasha Malla article in The Walrus I posted about. We argued about this a bit, but my contention is that a fair assessment would demand a complete reading of the Burr book. Any opinions?

I hope that over the past few posts I've given you enough peeks at this book's pleasures that you might consider picking up a copy. I'm putting Burr's The Emperor of Scent on my reading list, altho' it will likely have to wait 'til next summer, and I'm even thinking of trying out the Sarah Jessica Parker scents. New books and new perfumes to look forward to -- life is good.

1 comment:

  1. A much-belated response--

    I read this quote and had a moment of recognition; it's so true!

    "Reading about perfume is wonderful because, like food reviews, it's all about the encounter with language."

    Thank you!