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The Scent of Empires PLUS 5 Great Books with perfume at their heart
24th May 2021
The Scent of Empires by Karl Schlögel, translated by Jessica Spengler – plus 5 great books with perfume at their heart.
This is a treatise on the olfactory world and an in depth look at the common provenance of Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow, otherwise known as Krasnaya Moskva.
It was all thanks to Ernest Beaux who, in Tsarist Russia, created the basis for the two perfumes. After the Russian Revolution he returned to France, to Grasse, the centre of the French perfume industry and it was in France that he was introduced to (Gabrielle) Coco Chanel by Russian Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov. It was sample no. 5 that he lined up for Mme Chanel that appealed to her and the moniker stuck.
I was fascinated to know how a Frenchman had come to be in Russia at the time. Beaux was born in Moscow, socialised in Russia, trained at the French perfume company Rallet and returned to his ‘first home’ only after the revolution. In France, Beaux was getting on with developing No 5 whilst back in Russia, Frenchman Auguste Michel took up the reigns of perfume production there. His mission was to create a “perfume worthy of the latest superlative the Soviet Union has to offer, a perfume named Palace of the Soviets, with an aroma that adequately expresses this masterpiece of engineering‘ (a bit of a tall order, I imagine) – essentially the authorities wanted a fragrance to encapsulate the era of Stalin. French and Russian cultures and fashions were diverging at the time:, simplicity was the byword in French fashion, whereas the ‘orgy of chiffon” in Russia still reigned supreme. Sadly Michel disappeared off the face of the earth in 1937 and there is no record of his fate.
Back in the day, travel between Paris and St Petersburg via the Nord Express was much easier (eventually the route went down as far as Lisbon so that people could catch liners to cross the Atlantic from the port). It is hard, in these Covid times, when horizons are curtailed, to understand that the epidemic and politics are so instrumental in robbing present day travellers of the opportunity to enjoy such a valuable and scenic rail route, passing through so many cities. Just imagine what it must have been like, how easy it would have been to travel. It is incredibly sobering how present circumstances can really reduce horizons and limit travel potential.
Philosophers are referenced and Kant was sniffy (pun intended) about the human sense of smell, which he called the most dispensable of the senses, whereas Nietzsche thought his sense of smell was a real asset. Schopenhauer understood how experience can be linked with smell and don’t get George Orwell started on the smells of the underclasses.
The author goes on to ponder the wider picture of smell across the 20th Century and veers off into the horrors of WW2, the gas chambers and smells associated with Kolyma (where the Soviet camps were housed). In fact he opens the book with the change in smell he encountered whenever as he crossed from West to East Berlin, how you could close your eyes and know which sector you were in. (I for one would always be able to tell which tube system in which city, simply by the smell – the Berlin U and S Bahn smells so different to the London tube).
This book is very much like reading someone’s PhD thesis on perfume and politics. It is erudite, it is informative and often engaging, at times it has levity but it so needs a good editorial hand, as the author can ramble off in a variety of directions; the enthusiasm for the subject is there on every page but I feel he gets so engrossed that he allows himself to disappear down too many rabbit holes in the telling.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
Here we suggest 5 Great books with scent at their heart:
The Scent of Triumph by Jan Moran
Paris-born Danielle Bretancourt von Hoffman is a modern young woman with a natural gift. In the language of perfumery, she is a Nose, with the rare ability to recognize thousands of essences by memory.
The year is 1939, and on the day that England declares war on Germany, Danielle and her family are caught in the midst of a raging disaster sweeping across Europe.
Her life takes a tragic turn when her husband and their only son are stranded behind enemy lines. Summoning her courage, she spies for the French resistance, but is forced to flee Europe with fragments of her family. Destitute, she mines her talents to create a magnificent perfume that captures the hearts of Hollywood stars, then gambles to win wealth and success as a couturier. Her intelligence and flair attracts the adoration of Jonathan Newell-Grey, head of England’s top shipping conglomerate, and Cameron Murphy, Hollywood’s most charismatic star.
Danielle charts her course through devastating wartime losses and revenge: lustful lovers and loveless marriages: and valiant struggles to reunite her family. Set between privileged lifestyles and gritty realities, here is one woman’s story of courage, spirit, and resilience.
Meet Me in Monaco by Heather Webb and Hazel Gaynor
Set in the 1950s against the backdrop of Grace Kelly’s whirlwind romance and glamourous wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco, New York Times bestselling author Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb take the reader on an evocative sun-drenched journey along the Côte d’Azur in this page-turning novel of passion, fate, and second-chances.
Movie stars and paparazzi flock to Cannes for the glamorous film festival, but Grace Kelly, the biggest star of all, wants only to escape from the flash-bulbs. When struggling perfumer Sophie Duval shelters Miss Kelly in her boutique, fending off a persistent British press photographer, James Henderson, a bond is forged between the two women and sets in motion a chain of events that stretches across thirty years of friendship, love, and tragedy.
James Henderson cannot forget his brief encounter with Sophie Duval. Despite his guilt at being away from his daughter, he takes an assignment to cover the wedding of the century, sailing with Grace Kelly’s wedding party on the SS Constitution from New York. In Monaco, as wedding fever soars and passions and tempers escalate, James and Sophie—like Princess Grace—must ultimately decide what they are prepared to give up for love.
Scent by Isabel Costello
When Clementine and Edouard’s last child leaves home, the cracks in their marriage become impossible to ignore. Her work as a perfumer is no longer providing solace and her sense of self is withering. Then, her former lover resurfaces, decades after the end of their bisexual affair, and her world tilts irreversibly. Set in Paris and Provence, this is an intimate portrait of a woman navigating conflicting desires and a troubled past whilst dreaming of a fulfilling future.
The Little Perfume Shop off the Champs Elysées by Rebecca Raisin
When Del leaves small town America to compete in a perfume competition in Paris, she thinks it is just the next step on her five-year-plan. It’s an exciting opportunity. What started out as just a dream for Del and her twin sister is nearly in her grasp. If she wins this competition, they are on their way to opening their very own perfume boutique!
Arriving in Paris, watching the sun glinting off the Seine and wandering the Champs-Elysees, Del discovers the most perfect perfumery she’s ever seen. Yet, as the competition dawns Del realises that whilst she might have had the best nose in her small village, her competitors seem to know more than she could ever have dreamed. This competition isn’t going to be easy…
Del has the romance of Paris to sweep her away from her worries, but as the competition heats up, so does her desire for that which she cannot have! If only the dashing owner Sébastien didn’t smell so seductive, look so handsome and make her heart flutter like it never has before. They say love smells as sweet as a red rose in bloom, but Del would tell anyone that true love can’t be bottled – it’s beautiful and unique to everyone…even herself. With everything on the line for her future, can Del really let a little attraction get in the way of securing her dreams?
Perfume by Peter Suskind
The go to novel with scent themed subject matter
Survivor, genius, perfumer, killer: this is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He is abandoned on the filthy streets of Paris as a child, but grows up to discover he has an extraordinary gift: a sense of smell more powerful than any other human’s. Soon, he is creating the most sublime fragrances in all the city. Yet there is one odour he cannot capture. It is exquisite, magical: the scent of a young virgin. And to get it he must kill. And kill. And kill…
The Scent Keeper by Erica Bauermeister
Emmeline lives on a remote island with her father, who teaches her about the natural world through her senses. What he won’t explain are the mysterious scents stored in glass bottles that line the walls of their cabin, or the origin of the machine that creates them. As Emmeline grows, however, so too does her curiosity, until one day the unforeseen happens, and Emmeline is vaulted out into the real world–a place of love, betrayal, ambition, and revenge. To understand her past, Emmeline must unlock the clues to her identity, a quest that challenges the limits of her heart and imagination.
Captivating and emotional, The Scent Keeper explores the provocative beauty of scent, the way it can reveal hidden truths, lead us to the person we seek, and even help us find our way back home.
The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro
A secret history of scent, memory and desire from the Sunday Times bestselling author of ELEGANCE and THE DEBUTANTE.
One letter will turn newly-married Grace Munroe’s life upside down:
‘Our firm is handling the estate of the deceased Mrs Eva D’Orsey and it is our duty to inform you that you are named as the chief beneficiary in her will. We request your presence at our offices at your earliest convenience, so that we may go through the details of your inheritance.’
There is only one problem. Grace has never heard of Eva D’Orsey.
So begins a journey which leads Grace through the streets of Paris and into the seductive world of perfumers and their muses. An abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank will lead her to unravel the heartbreaking story of her mysterious benefactor, an extraordinary woman who bewitched high society in 1920s New York and Paris.
The Book of Lost Fragrances by M J Rose
A Secret Worth Dying For…
Jac L’Etoile has always been haunted by visions of the past, her earliest memories infused with the exotic scents that she grew up with as the heir to a storied French perfume company. These worsened after her mother’s suicide until she finally found a doctor who helped her, teaching her to explore the mythological symbolism in her visions and thus lessen their painful impact. This ability led Jac to a wildly successful career as a mythologist, television personality, and author.
When her brother, Robbie—who’s taken over the House of L’Etoile from their father—contacts Jac about a remarkable discovery in the family archives, she’s skeptical. But when Robbie goes missing before he can share the secret—leaving a dead body in his wake—Jac is plunged into a world she thought she’d left behind.
Traveling back to Paris to investigate Robbie’s disappearance, Jac discovers that the secret is a mysterious scent developed in Cleopatra’s time. Could the rumors swirling be true? Can this ancient perfume hold the power to unlock the ability to remember past lives and conclusively prove reincarnation? If this possession has the power to change the world, then it’s not only worth living for…it’s worth killing for, too.
The Book of Lost Fragrances fuses history, passion, and suspense in an intoxicating web that moves from Cleopatra’s Egypt and the terrors of revolutionary France to Tibet’s battle with China and the glamour of modern-day Paris. This marvelous, spellbinding novel mixes the sensory allure of Perfume with the heartbreaking beauty of The Time Traveler’s Wife, coming to life as richly as our most wildly imagined dreams.
The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert
Clementine is a seventy-two year-old reformed con artist with a penchant for impeccably tailored suits. Her life of crime has led her from the uber-wealthy perfume junkies of belle epoque Manhattan, to the scented butterflies of Costa Rica, to the spice markets of Marrakech, and finally the bordellos of Paris, where she settles down in 1930 and opens a shop bottling her favorite extracts for the ladies of the cabarets.
Now it’s 1941 and Clem’s favorite haunt, Madame Boulette’s, is crawling with Nazis, while Clem’s people–the outsiders, the artists, and the hustlers who used to call it home–are disappearing. Clem’s first instinct is to go to ground–it’s a frigid Paris winter and she’s too old to put up a fight. But when the cabaret’s prize songbird, Zoe St. Angel, recruits Clem to steal the recipe book of a now-missing famous Parisian perfumer, she can’t say no. Her mark is Oskar Voss, a Francophile Nazi bureaucrat, who wants the book and Clem’s expertise to himself. Hoping to buy the time and trust she needs to pull off her scheme, Clem settles on a novel strategy: Telling Voss the truth about the life and loves she came to Paris to escape.
Complete with romance, espionage, champagne towers, and haute couture, this full-tilt sensory experience is a dazzling portrait of the underground resistance of twentieth-century Paris and a passionate love letter to the power of beauty and community in the face of insidious hate.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE NOVEL THAT HAS SCENT AT THE HEART? PLEASE SHARE IT IN THE COMMENTS BELOW!
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