The subtitle for this book, by the author of one of the most long-running and influential/well-read perfume blogs, Grain de Musc, is “A Personal History of Scent,” and that’s a succinct description of what you’ll find inside its pages. We get all kinds of scented anecdotes, from perfume being banned from young Denyse’s home due to her father’s dislike of it, to her first exhilarating visit to a Paris perfume shop, to the shared bottle of “men’s” fragrance used by her university social group of young, intellectual punk-rockers as a sort of identity badge, right through descriptions of what she wore as a young freelance writer in Europe, what she wore at her wedding, and what scent became the symbol of a torrid love affair.
Perhaps more compelling to perfume fans than these stories is the story of how Seville a l’Aube came about, which is woven into the book. First there’s a chance meeting with Bertrand Duchaufour, then an invitation for her to come by his lab and learn more, followed by the story of how “the most beautiful night of [her] life” smelled and Duchaufour’s comment that it would make a terrific perfume. The seed – Ms. Beaulieu’s description of a Holy Week night spent in a Seville orange grove not far from the cathedral, standing with a Spanish boy and watching the religious festivities – fell on fertile ground, and much of the book is a step-by-step telling of how, exactly, a perfume is created.
This fragrance, which started out under the working name of Seville Semaine Sainte (Seville Holy Week), soon picked up the name Duende, implying “the tragic awareness of death in life,” and only received its marketing name close to its release. For more than a year, it was Duende for both Beaulieu and Duchaufour, through more than a hundred modifications, through many discussions and tweakings and course corrections. The basic idea for the fragrance was orange blossom and incense, decorated with the other fragrant elements of that night in Seville: the lilies surrounding the Madonna statue, the Habanita on the young woman’s skin, the tobacco on the young man’s fingers, the wine they’d been sharing, the beeswax candles, the golden light of those candles and the pale light of dawn following the night of wonder.
Interspersed with the recounting of meetings to smell and discuss the scent the two were calling Duende, we get snippets of Ms Beaulieu’s life and loves and career, her determination to get out of the suburbs of Canada and live in glamorous Paris, the place where she feels she belongs. There’s a brief description of her marriage, and some glimpses of the married man with whom she carried on an affair for several years, both seen through the lens of fragrance. I’m not sure I needed to know quite so many details about those love affairs, but the point of their inclusion is how bound up they were with scent and perfume, how the qualities of each fragrance seemed to symbolize the emotional relationship of the affair.
There is some name-dropping, with retellings of conversations with not only Duchaufour but with Serge Lutens, the famously-reticent Annick Menardo, Mathilde Laurent, Jacques Polge, Isabelle Doyen, Michel Roudnitska, and Sandrine Videault, among other figures well-known in the fragrance industry. More personal, and more exciting perhaps, is the name-dropping of fragrances Ms Beaulieu has loved and worn through her career as a perfume lover: the first fragrance she chose for herself, Karl Lagerfeld’s bosomy-flirty Chloe (which was my first grown-up fragrance, too), Van Cleef pour homme, Rive Gauche, Habanita, Narcisse Noir, Farnesiana, Poivre, Bois de Violette, Tubereuse Criminelle, Carnal Flower (like Denyse, I love nearly everything tuberose), Le Parfum de Therese, Une Fleur de Cassie.
Also included are some of Ms Beaulieu’s thoughts on the history of perfume, the perfume industry in general, and the community of perfume lovers, as well as brief explanations of how the industry works, much of which will be familiar to anyone conversant with her blog. There’s also a chapter on the term “skank,” much of which describes the conversations that blog readers have had on the subject, particularly on Perfume Posse. Ms. Beaulieu chooses to highlight a review and conversation regarding Les Nez Manoumalia, which is a divisive fragrance if there ever existed one. (My review of it is here.) Imagine my gasp of laughter upon recognizing some of my own words quoted in this chapter! How exciting! (I believe I’ve come upon the reason, or one of the reasons, I was offered a publisher copy of the book to review. Not that it matters, really.) Here’s a paragraph from this chapter of the book:
Manoumalia is a sophisticated composition yet it is also so primal that it elicits amazingly violent reactions. Rubber, drain cleaner, faecal matter, rancid butter, cheese, mothballs, formaldehyde, urinal cakes, ashtray, rotting animals, and even the “sweetish, faintly bloody and meaty” smell of afterbirth… There isn’t an evil stench Manoumalia hasn’t been compared to. But as an online commenter points out, these amazingly negative reactions are actually a testimony to its stunning realism: “I am always struck by the rotting, faecal, vegetal,death/birth/death/birth smell of the tropics. I think it’s because they are touted in the media as being sweet and charming/flowery when in fact they are savage and terrifying in their desire to regenerate.”
The book skips around a lot, and I do mean, a lot. One chapter can plunge you right into the Paris of the late 1970s, and the next you’re reading about, say, the use of incense in early Christian ritual, and then you’re back to reading about one of the modulations of Duende, and then suddenly you’re (eep!) practically in bed with Denyse and her lover, whom she calls “Monsieur.” It is a bit distracting, to say the least. I find the history of how Seville a l’Aube came about to be the most compelling part of the book, and yet the history needs its context of a life spent loving perfume to have meaning. This is a very good read indeed, despite its sometimes-frenetic changes, and despite my stated plan to donate any publicity copies of books offered to me for review to my local library, I really want to keep and reread this one. The Perfume Lover is now available via Amazon.uk, and will be published in the US sometime in 2013.
So what about the fragrance itself? Seville a l’Aube would probably not have garnered my attention without my having read the book. Why not? Well, three reasons: orange blossom, incense, and Bertrand Duchaufour. I have rarely found an orange blossom that doesn’t manage to go soapy on me; true, it’s usually a nice floral-soap effect, but I’m not fond of it in general. Incense is not a favorite note either, and I notice that the Japanese version of it smells quite unpleasantly sour to me. Also, I grew up Baptist in the 1970s, where the smells of church included old hymnals, cough drops, and a vague perfumey waft of aldehydes and hair spray. Incense simply doesn’t mean “church” to me, and while I like it sometimes, it really does depend on the particular material and its setting. To be blunt, I have not had good luck with the bulk of Duchaufour’s work, either. I don’t really… do… austere scents, much less earthy scents, whereas many of Duchaufour’s early fragrances are both austere and earthy, and frequently contain Japanese incense, so there’s the three-strikes-you’re-out rule right there. I do like Amaranthine very much, and Nuit de Tubereuse is quite interesting, but I would call them a new direction for Duchaufour, moving away from “difficult” and toward “lush.” And the rest? Not for me.
In fact, if I had merely smelled Seville a l’Aube without having read the book, I’d have said, “Hm. This smells like Nuit de Tubereuse, except exchange the tuberose for orange blossom, cut-‘n’-paste, there you go, been-there-smelled-that.” And I’d have been dead wrong, too. For one thing, the orange blossom accord is startlingly beautiful, and not simply floral. It’s the whole tree: blossoms, leaves, fruit, and even the earth under the tree. There is a very faint hint of soapiness, but it is nearly buried under the juicy, sappy, flowery bits, and because that hint of soap plays into the story, with the clean cologne-and-lavender-soap smell of the faithful entering the cathedral.
This orange blossom accord is also strikingly persistent – I smell it far into the drydown. The little sample bottle from L’Artisan was a dabber one, and for convenience’ sake I decanted it into a small spray atomizer. Of course I spilled a bit of it, all over my bathroom counter. I swiped up all I could onto my forearms, but the rest perfumed the bathroom with exotic beauty for a solid week.
For another thing, Seville a l’Aube doesn’t share that jungly, mildewy part of Nuit de Tubereuse. No mango. No hacked vegetation. No cedar chips. The incense is slightly warmer but very proper, somehow – it is the restraint to the abandon of the orange grove. The other notes, as well, contribute to the feeling of the scent as many candles in the darkness. There is that stunning orange tree, the beeswax and honey, the hint of lilies, all shining in the resinous darkness of incense and tobacco and wine.
Seville a l’Aube has good projection and longevity, even on my scent-eating skin. It lasts several hours at least, even with just one spray. I adore this orange blossom, so juicy that I might almost attempt to eat it. My husband, a huge fan of florals, finds it perfectly lovely. My older children, however, were less pleased. Sniffing my arm separately, they each looked at me with narrowed eyes and said something like, “Is there dirt in there with the flowers? It smells like… hmm…” Bookworm finished her sentence with “the inside of a cave,” and Gaze with “a musty basement.” They pick up on the earthiness of the incense, and I don’t think they’re fans.
I will attempt to show here a variation of a diagram of Duchaufour’s, sketched on a napkin as he and Beaulieu were determining how to get the effects they wanted in the planning stage. Studying it, it occurred to me, finally, how intellectual this fragrance is, not simply an olfactory representation of one lovely night, as beautiful a fantasy as that might be. Everything ties together in some way.
Orange blossom absolute —> Seville, mineral
Incense ———————-> Mineral, Christianity
Christianity ——————> Sacrifice
Sacrifice ———————> Incense, blood, bullfight
Blood ————————> Bullfight, blood of Christ
Bullfight, blood of Christ —> Duende, death of Christ
Death of Christ ————–> Ashes
Ashes ———————-> Tobacco
Tobacco ——————-> Habanita
Habanita —————–> Carmen
I found this interconnection of ideas absolutely fascinating. This isn’t “just a smell,” or even “just a perfume,” it’s the smell of, well, Holy Week in Seville, religion and sex and life and blood and death. Besides which, it is both lovely and challenging.
Will I be purchasing it when it formally launches in July? Probably not. I had just managed to snap up a travel bottle of a different orange blossom scent, just before this sample showed up, one which has a similar focus of orange blossom and myrrh, but which is very different in character. By Kilian’s Sweet Redemption grabbed me in my emotional center with its name, its teary-eyed sweetness, its spicy depths. And as usual I find the frankincense M. Duchaufour likes to use a little sour on my skin, though I love its inclusion for the sake of the story and the way it stands paired with the orange blossom to symbolize the dual nature of our existence – life and death, sin and forgiveness, body and spirit.
There is magic in that moment of dawn.
Other reviews of The Perfume Lover: Thomas Dunckley at Basenotes, Elena Knezhevich at Fragrantica, Victoria at Bois de Jasmin, Vanessa at Bonkers about Perfume, The Non-Blonde, Nathan Branch. Angela at Now Smell This hosted a question-and-answer interview with Ms. Beaulieu regarding the book. There’s also a discussion of the book and perfume at Grain de Musc, of course. I also notice that several reviewers offer pictures of the beautiful presentation of book and fragrance, which I forgot to mention so I’m mentioning it now: it was lovely, a truly sensual delight. Check out Vanessa’s and Nathan’s pictures especially for a better look at the Harper Collins package.
(As always, please forgive the lack of diacritical marks. They do not exist on my keyboard, and since I am A) an American who studied Spanish, not French, and am therefore baffled by them, and B) too annoyed by the process of inserting symbols every time I type a new French word to keep up with it, I have created the executive policy of not using them. Look, I do know Habanita has a tilde over its N: I told you I took Spanish. But if I put diacritical marks in one word I should do them all, and I’m still in the middle of painting my dining room in Olympic Smoky Emerald, eggshell finish, so I just don’t have time. Or patience, apparently. Again: sorry.)