Fragrant Fiction: Perfume as Literature

This post is more than two years old, and I suspect that pretty much no one read it in the first place, so I am republishing it! This is a good post for perfume newbies or for well-meaning friends/relatives who just don’t “get” perfume quite yet.

At the present time, I have exactly one reader who is not my mother. I love this girl deeply, but it has also come to my attention that she does not wear perfume, and therefore she has trouble relating to many of the perfume related posts. I love perfume. I love the clever tricks that perfumers employ to create new and pleasing combinations of notes; I love the nuances. However, I fully understand that for many people, perfume has no nuances. A perfume either smells good or it doesn’t. It is for my beloved solitary reader that I will try to explain the world of perfume in terms of a field with which most people are much more familiar: literature.

For example, a perfume like Aquolina Pink Sugar is the olfactory equivalent of the Twilight series- insanely popular for absolutely no good reason.

Actually, I just thought of one VERY good reason.

Chanel Coco Mademoiselle and Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue (both of which have been bestsellers for over five years) have more in common with the Harry Potter series- just as popular, but more deserving of their success.

Oliver Wood, the Gryffindor quidditch coach. The actor who plays him is named Sean Biggerstaff. The joke here should write itself.

Along this vein, there are perfumes such as Robert Piguet Fracas, which has been worn by everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna to Martha Stewart. I can appreciate that Fracas is a great classic, but whenever I try to wear it I get the distinct feeling that I am being mugged by a gardenia. I got a very similar feeling when I had to read Jane Eyre in 10th grade, except instead of a gardenia my mugger was the stupidest book of all time.

Jane, that Mr. Rochester is nothing but trouble! Why don’t you marry that nice cousin of yours? You know, the priest. No? Okay then. Also, what is UP with those BROWS, lady???

Perfumes such as Chanel No. 5 and Guerlain Shalimar can be likened to “The Great Gatsby,” a book that is both widely beloved and a masterpiece (and one of my personal favorites, if you hadn’t figured it out yet). Those “Warm Vanilla Sugar” body splashes you can get at Bath and Body Works correspond to guilty pleasure reading, like trashy romance novels or (in my case) JHU Confessions, the Gossip Girl of Johns Hopkins. It is incredibly sad how addicted I am to this website, but how else would I know whether Hopkins students prefer “an Ugly who’s awesome in bed or a Cutie who’s totally lacking”? (General consensus is the Cutie, if there was ever any doubt in your mind.)

There are books, such as pretty much anything that Allen Ginsberg (author of the incredible but frankly depressing poems “Howl”, “Kaddish”, and many others) ever wrote, which I find fascinating but too disturbing to read all that often. Creed Love in Black is a good perfume match for these kinds of books. It evokes a patch of violets growing in a forest where dark things lurk.

Finally, we have the books that we read over and over again, our favorites, the ones that changed the way we see the world. A few of mine are: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisnernos, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, and my absolute favorite of all time, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. These books correspond to the perfumes that we wear every day, with which we and others identify ourselves. Mine are Guerlain L’Heure Bleue and Frederic Malle Lipstick Rose. My hope is that even if perfume plays no role in your life now, reading this blog will help you to see it as a form of art just like a painting or a symphony.

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35 thoughts on “Fragrant Fiction: Perfume as Literature

      1. … about Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff characters… I think these who don’t understand what Charlotte and Emily were writing about… that’s because they have never met a real alpha male!! Lol!

        Lots of fun, but…. true facts

        1. PS: who needs them, after all? 😉 but for sure… Charlotte and Emily knew the truth! (not so dumb at all haha!)

  1. wow clearly I missed this post! Very good! I’m laughing with the Chanel Coco Mademoiselle and Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue analogy the most!!! I’m leaving in minutes, I’ll be back to comment properly! One of my favorites that I read over and over again is the one from the younger and weirder sister of Charlotte haha! (so easy to find analogies… 😉 from ‘Après l’Ondée’ up to ‘De Profundis’!)
    another is Ignatius C. Reilly Epopey, of course… (mmmmh! I’m LOST! Help!)

    1. … He was the very first … God of every fuckin Weird on Earth!!! but I’m unable to find perfume analogies for ‘A confederacy of Dunces’, please try to find it for me. Lol! I’m in a hurry Byeeeeee…

        1. ooh, so you have to! The infamous Igantius Reilly is unforgettable, you’re clearly missing one of the greatest characters of American literature’s modern fiction -and one of the greatest films you’ll never see (sadly it seems to be an “unfilmable” novel)…- and one of the youngest most prodigious & talented writer ever to exist! Only the very talented die young… 😦
          “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” … what an unconscious appropriacy of the Swiftian origin in his masterpiece… – as he (J.K.Toole) really was the true genius -.

          If this picaresque, prodigiously imaginative, richly comic, terrifyingly grim were a perfume …. it has to be an uncommon scent for sure!
          or a perfume that smells dirty and makes everyone except the perfume wearer… or something daring, retro and strong, reminder of the smell of overly ripe fruit or “stinky” cheeses like camembert.
          Like Drakkar Noir, Kouros… the old Moustache by Rochas…

      1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!!!!!

        ok, I want you so badly Ari, but sorry…you’re so far away from Heathcliff…! Nothing compares with him! XD

        Okay, let’s face this lame soap opera called The Great Gatsby is way overrated, too… and The Beatles are far too overrated as a band. And Elvis… and…and…and… all the people who hate them can go to hell­! haha!

    1. I’m with Susan.

      Well, I love *Jane*. Rochester is an overbearing control freak, but she can run him with her li’l finger.

      Now, Heathcliff has some Serious Emotional Issues, and the simple fact that Cathy puts up with his BS makes me want to Run Away Very Fast. (Have you read Alice Hoffman’s lovely rewrite of WH, Here on EArth? That, I loved. The Cathy character wises up in it.)

  2. Surely you must love Jane Eyre – what’s not to love about a mad wife in the attic? I loved the UK TV series with Michael Jayston as Rochester best of all. I think I could have forgiven him all kinds of eyebrow issue, not that that was a particular problem with him.

    And I am thinking that Lady Vengeance might be as superior form of chick – you know, Bridget Jones quality.

    1. Nooo, but it ends so badly for poor Bertha! She never gets to defend herself against Rochester’s accusations (which basically amount to “she was a ho fo sho”), and when she dies in the end, she doesn’t even get to take Rochester with her! That is why I’m so fond of “Wide Sargasso Sea”, which is told from the wife’s perspective.

  3. Oh man, how did I miss that Jane Eyre comic? I thought I had read all of Kate Beaton’s comics. I love, love, love her.

    I’ll be honest, I love Jane Eyre. I love it because it is melodramatic, moody, and somewhat preposterous. I have read it numerous times and never really learned anything from it, but have been thoroughly amused every time. The 2011 film is fantastic though. You might not like it because it’s very pro-Rochester, but watch it for the amazing cinematography! (and Michael Fassbender mmm…)

    Also, perfume and literature? Yes! I enjoyed this post the first time I read it and still do.

    1. I love Kate Beaton too! I just got her new book, “Hark! A Vagrant” for my history buff boyfriend. I will give this 2011 version a grudging try, but just for you! 🙂

  4. No. 5 as The Great Gatsby? LIKE.

    I couldn’t agree more re: Jane Eyre. Tried to watch the new movie recently and just abandon it halfway through.

    Sniffed Fracas for the first time yesterday and was so, so, so disappointed yet simultaneously overwhelmed. I think when a fragrance’s reputation proceeds it so strongly it is bound to disappoint.

    1. I’m sorry about your disappointment with Fracas! I don’t really go in for those buttery tuberoses. I’m terribly excited to try Carnal Flower, because of its promised greenness. And you’re so right about a perfume’s reputation!

      1. To me is like to compare continental vs tropical air… a completely different thing!

        Probably Carnal Flower is much more likeable to contemporary tastes. 😉

        Nonetheless… I’m a kind of weird and I love (and respect) the classic Femme Fatale Fracas more than the exotic Slutty Carnal Flower. The only problem is exactly what you said: it seems the perfume is wearing you, instead of the opposite. But it all depends on your ‘hand’: I have a friend who wears Fracas in a extremely light hand (almost unnoticeable unless you put your nose on her skin!), and I have to admit that it suits her wonderfully. All I get from her from normal distance is a vaguely vibrant JUICY smell with a faintly old fashioned soapy vibe.

        1. Funny, Carnal Flower is anything BUT slutty, to my nose – incredibly fresh and luscious, completely luxurious but not in a bedroom sort of way.

          Though I like Fracas too.

        2. oh well I didn’t mean exactly in a ‘bedroom’ sort of way, and I use the word ‘slutty’ in an affectionate tone of voice :)… if Carnal Flower were a character, I don’t see it were precisely Sabrina/Audrey Hepburn going to the Larrabee party, and instead, I can perfectly see Sabrina wearing Fracas in that ‘she’s-a-Truly Beauty and Classy-Lady-glamorous-scene’ of her glorious appearance in the ball.

          Then, that image of Vivian’s/Julia Roberts transformation when Richard Gere takes her to the Opera (and that iconic laugh with the collar scene) is way closer to what I get from the more vivacious and spontaneous Carnal Flower, which I also do love!

          but it’s funny some people would probably associate the scenes just in the opposite way! Vivian=Fracas (because of red dress) / Sabrina=Carnal Flower (because of white dress). I know, I know. 😀

  5. Ooh, The Great Gatsby… I’m interested in how the new movie will differ from the Robert Redford classic. I always want to wear Shalimar, but I only have the light version right now.

    1. If anyone was going to remake the Great Gatsby, I’m glad it’s Baz. But I’m really not crazy about his casting choices so far… Carey Mulligan? Leo DiCaprio? TOBEY MACGUIRE, FOR GOD’S SAKE???

      1. WTF did you say? you mean Baz Luhrmann?… oh pleaseeeeeee… noooo,,,so baaaaaad! I didn’t know he was remaking Gatsby… terrible news… God…I pray he does better job just for once….! (well, okay… to be fair, Romeo+Juliet was nice! it’s the only one)

        and well… In fact, the Leo DiCaprio is by far the only good of these names to me…!

        1. I am sure that Leo will do a good job, but he’s quite old for the part, don’t you think??? I think that Baz’s style could actually work okay for Gatsby (all of those crazy parties do remind me a bit of Moulin Rouge) but the casting choices are very puzzling.

        2. To be honest Leo’s age is the least of my worries.. but well, let’s see… we can give to the whole thing a chance… but in my opinion Baz is the real cancer of the project. He’s nuts! Frankly I can’t imagine such a crazy visuals in Gatsby. I hope they get this right and don’t fluff it up.

          poor Scott Fitzgerald, everyone seems to forget how much of a let down Benjamin Button’s film adaptation was. Is anybody out there to release a decent Fitzgerald film adaptation? otherwise let’s leave his work in peace…

    1. I haven’t smelled or read either of those! 😦 It will probably be much easier for me to read The Magus than to hunt down Velvet Gardenia.

    1. He’s adorable! I wish they hadn’t cut him out of the last few movies, although Neville Longbottom was certainly eye candy enough in the very last one.

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