Tuesday, 27 March 2012
The Magdalene Complex: Review Of "The Perfume Lover" By Denyse Beaulieu
Fragrance fans everywhere are predisposed to like a book about perfume, never mind one apparently named after us all. This is precisely because - as noted in recent blog discussions about perfume writing generally - there simply aren't very many books in print on this subject, period. And some of them are a bit dry and technical and over the head of anyone who doesn't have a background in chemistry. For example, I started to lose the will to live about a third of the way through "The Secret Of Scent" by Luca Turin, and skimmed over the more arcane parts of Chandler Burr's "The Emperor Of Scent".
Several other aspects drew me to "The Perfume Lover": firstly, I have myself had a very enjoyable solo holiday in Seville in the spring, if not at Easter exactly, and can testify to the off-the-scale sensuality of the place. There was a heatwave that year, and the evening temperature still hovered around an ultra-sultry 90F. I should perhaps mention that I was twice Denyse’s age at the time she met Román, and stayed in a budget hostel somewhat removed from Denyse's stylish mid-range hotel. Also, despite stopping out till 2am every night in a fairly receptive frame of mind to any possibilities the night might bring, the only “something-on-skin action” I ended up with was a bad grass allergy from afternoons spent sunbathing in the Maria Luisa park, prompting me to "hotleg it" (quite literally!) down to an out of hours pharmacy in search of "un remedio antihistamino muy rapido".
And then there was the added appeal of Denyse Beaulieu (owner of the highly respected blog Grain de Musc ) being the author. I have not met Denyse, though a number of other bloggers have (eg Katie Puckrik, Persolaise, and Ines & Asali of All I Am A Redhead). Moreover, such is the immediacy of the blogosphere that we fumeheads tend to feel we “know” one another even if we have never met in person. So this perceived familiarity - on however slight and virtual a premise - lent a further piquancy and interest to "The Perfume Lover" for me.
But there is a caveat to come… for though I got the book I wanted, I got a few other books besides, and I think that this attempt to be “all perfume books to all men” may end up alienating all but the hardcore perfumista, though luckily there are still a lot of us in that category. Well, discounting any fumeheads of delicate sensibilities who may be even more perturbed than me by the erotic content, so not so very “hardcore” in that sense! : - ) But I am running ahead of myself….
Yes, I clocked at least four genres in “The Pefume Lover”. The central plank of the book is a factual, “mod-by-mod” (as each version of the scent is known) account of the development of Séville à L'Aube – complete with fascinating and sparky dialogue between Bertrand and Denyse (thoughtfully captured on tape).
Another key strand to the book is Denyse’s autobiography, which evokes her early life in Canada and emigration to Paris as a teenager. The scents which punctuated different periods of her life are also tracked, from the Max Factor Green Apple of her childhood to the masculine Van Cleef & Arpels she associated with a student boyfriend, and beyond. It is a “coming of age” or “rite of passage” story in every sense of the term, including Denyse’s maturing interest in fragrance, and I found that theme of the book the next most interesting aspect. It might even count as two. : - )
Now, although it is technically part of the autobiographical genre above, the various references to Denyse’s sexual conquests in “The Perfume Lover” (Román was just the beginning...) put me in mind of an erotic novel, although the action is all based on Denyse’s own experiences. As early as Page 11 there is a clue that readers may be in for tales of more “lovers” than they bargained for...
Several casual hook ups are mentioned in the book as well as the "main male milestones" in Denyse’s “menfolk journey” (The Tomcat, her ex-husband, and Monsieur, a married lover), and the erotic charge of perfume is never far from her mind. Denyse does in fact concede that she may be suffering from “The Magdalene Complex”, a reference to Mary Magdalene, who was at once a “fallen woman” and a bearer of perfume. Certainly, the alacrity with which our heroine seems to “fall” into bed with comparative strangers conjures up scenes from that saucy series of films from the 70s starring Robin Asquith, “Confessions of a Window Cleaner” (though in the present case, substitute "postman".)
Now I consider myself to be a woman of the world, and have been around the block a bit and whatnot, so I asked myself why the raunchy material in the book troubles me. I thought it was because I feel I know Denyse, and by and large, women don’t tend to discuss the gory details of their sex lives even with their close friends - or such is my experience. Then The Candy Perfume Boy and I discussed this issue at the recent "Leather Event" (of all places!) and he pointed out that we might not want to read this sort of lurid content whether we knew Denyse or not. So I guess it all boils down - or hots up, rather! - to personal taste.
All this additional information was unexpected, and arguably extraneous to the matter in hand, though personally I found the content of these factual digressions mostly very interesting. My main issue with this ragbag of genres is the choppy and abrupt manner in which they are intertwined. One of many cases in point: one minute we are with Denyse and her childhood friend Sylvie, reminiscing about David Cassidy and the scents of the day such as Love’s Baby Soft, then suddenly we are catapulted back to 4th century Rome with Saint Jerome and his musk-wearing flock.
In summary, I think this is a book which will appeal hugely to the perfumista crowd, though readers should be prepared for it to flit between every possible style of perfume book they have ever known – in a way that may seem jumpy or even random at times. If you surrender to the elegant and lyrical prose, and follow the story through its meandering yet rewarding chicanes – and if you can step over the odd pair of dropped knickers along the way without flinching – then in my view this is as good a read as Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent (my favourite perfume book to date), and I was sorry to turn the last page and reach the (long and distinguished) list of Acknowledgments...
A short review of Séville à L'Aube follows in the next post!
All photos my own - the ones of Seville are from my holiday there in 1995 (can you tell? : - ) ).