We are thrilled that Denyse will be a part of our Passion Panel on Wednesday 15 February at 19h30. She will join experts Sister Noella Marcellino and Robert Camuto for this panel on three things we love and associate with France: perfume, cheese, and wine. Today, Denyse explains how she was introduced to perfume and how one of her memories was transformed into an essence. She writes:
“I want more Denyse!”
There was no comma between “more” and “Denyse”. The wonderful Jenny Heller, my editor at HarperCollins, didn’t just want more out of my manuscript. She wanted more about me and my “glamorous Parisian life”. This wasn’t just about perfume, she said: it was a woman’s story.
I was dismayed. Granted, The Perfume Lover: a Personal History of Scent was written in the first person. Wasn’t I living every perfume lover’s dream? I’d inspired a great perfumer to compose a fragrance based on a story I’d told him. I would be chronicling its development throughout our work sessions, and my journal would be the narrative thread stringing together my essays on the art of perfumery. Still, however partial and subjective my “personal history of scent” would be, I hadn’t expected Jenny to ask me to delve into my life and loves. But she had a point: how could I tease my life in Paris apart from my passion for fragrance?
Perfume is to smells what eroticism is to sex: an aesthetic, cultural elaboration of the raw materials provided by nature. And thus, perfumery, like love, requires technical skills and some knowledge of black magic; both can be arts, though neither is recognized as such. And I’ve been studying both in the capital of love and luxury, Paris, where I settled half a lifetime ago. It is in Paris that I learned about l’amour; in Paris that I stepped through the looking glass into the invisible realm of scent. I’ve had good teachers: discussing the delights of the flesh as passionately and learnedly as you would speak about art or literature is one of the favourite pastimes of my adopted countrymen. For the French, pleasure is intensified by delving into its nuances. By putting words to it. La volupté is taken very seriously indeed: a worthy subject for philosophizing in the boudoir. Is this why fine perfumery, with its delicate balance of artistic creativity, exquisite taste, sensuous pleasure and technical know-how, is such a quintessentially French achievement?
It was, in fact, because of the Philosophie dans le Boudoir that I left Montreal for Paris: I was doing my PhD on the Marquis de Sade. But it was only while writing The Perfume Lover – and adding “more Denyse” – that I realised my first lessons in philosophy had indeed been dispensed to me in a boudoir. Or rather, between the closet, dresser and Vogue collection of a glamorous French neighbour in the suburbs of Montreal. It was thanks to her that the first drops of French perfume ever touched my skin. Perhaps they acted as a magic potion. That day, at age eleven, I decided I’d be French. Not only French, but Parisian. And not only Parisian, but Left Bank Parisian: glamorous, intellectual and bohemian.
The perfume was Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche. Was it by chance that the very first perfumer I met, decades later, was one of its co-creators? My encounter with Jacques Polge, who had since gone on to become Chanel’s in-house perfumer, was my first step into an intensely secret world that would open itself up to me as I learned to translate its coded language into words. But I never thought that one day my words would be translated back into scent and poured inside a bottle. That Paris, the capital of perfumery, would offer me this gift. That perfume would, at last, make me a Parisian writer. My story in a bottle. My name on a book.
I can’t imagine anything more glamorous than that, but in the ancient sense of the Scottish word, which is derived from “grammar”: occult learning; magic charm; a haze in the air causing things to take on a different appearance. Those are the very words I would use to describe perfume.