People assume that I'm only kidding when I advocate the publication of a scratch-and-sniff version of Melville's Moby Dick, Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, Proust's Combray, or Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil. Au contraire! I am ready and willing to develop olfactory editions of great literary works. Notice I say olfactory editions. Use of the low-brow scratch and sniff — or worse — scratch 'n' sniff — could not possibly advance my cause with academic publishers. And odorama will be forever linked to the glorious king of kitsch, John Waters, who has riffed on the idea of his own celebrity perfume, cleverly named Eau de Waters, "the smell of an obsessed film fanatic."1 Another earnestly eccentric social observer, Honoré de Balzac, came very close to coining odorama in his novel Père Goriot (1835). There characters fling "-orama" wordplay across the table (corn-orama, soup-orama, health-orama, death-orama), while dining in one of French fiction's smelliest boarding houses. Its sticky, rancid, musty, scullery-and-hospital reek, "charged by the catarrhal exhalations of every individual lodger living there," certainly merits the term, along with a place of honor on an odorama sniff card.
There are loads of scratch-and-sniff books for children, and even for the dog who has everything (See Spot Smell). But the selection of fragrance-enhanced reading for grown-up humans remains slim. And buyer, beware. A search for adult olfactory literature will turn up some seedy stuff. Not campy, self-aware seedy; just boorish, irony-deficient seedy. Think bodies and bodily functions. Think used copies.
Novelty books such as the borderline sadistic Zero Calorie Desserts: The Seven Day Scratch and Sniff Diet (how cruel is that?) haven't caught on. With a goofy cover and forced pun of a name, Nosetalgia: The Smells that Take you Back promises a visual and olfactory revival of childhood smells such as Vick's Vaporub, Coppertone, and Red Hots. These sound interesting, but redundant. It is not as if the smells are lost and gone forever. However, I see the original Herbal Essence (not Herbal Essences) shampoo and Bonnie Bell Ten-O-Six on the sniff list, and my heart skips a beat. Click. I've ordered. New, not used.
On the other hand, wouldn't it be great to read about perfume materials, classic fragrances, and the history of perfumery, while sampling scents from the pages of a book? Just when I thought all hope was lost for anything but gimmicks in multi-sensory volumes, I discovered Annick Le Guérer's Once Upon a Time...Perfume. Originally published in French as Si le parfum m'était conté.., this elegant, hard-cover book opens with a preface by Osmothèque President Patricia de Nicolaï-Michau (perfumer and co-founder of the stunning Parfums de Nicolaï line). Each of three parts ("The Versailles Osmothèque, "Leading Fragrance Companies," and "Perfume's Eminent Maisons") offers rich, full-page illustrations, with scratch-and-sniff samples of perfumes, including Schiaparelli Shocking, Coty L'Origan, and Caron Tabac Blond.
True, the fragrances smell a bit soapy in this format. True, once you've scratched and sniffed a few of the 12 featured perfumes,2 the book smells like a vintage department store. But none of this dampens the pleasure of reading about perfume ingredients and the Roman Empire while sampling the first-century A.D. concoction, Parfum Royal.
Now don't let the coffee-table-friendly appeal lead you astray. From these colorful pages radiates a sillage of well-mannered but tenacious manifesto. Every whiff of Chanel No. 5 and Bal à Versailles accompanies a narrative celebration of olfactory culture, an articulation of the Osmothèque's mission to support the art of perfumery, to resist mass marketing, to educate, and to preserve great (and endangered) perfumes.
Fragrant readers, this would be the perfect gift for perfumistas, if it were not so difficult to find. I bought my copy after Luca Turin's presentation, The Art of Fragrance, at the French Embassy in in Washington D.C. The book is available in French at the e.vous website, with an enigmatic and existential allusion to its English translation ("Existe en anglais"), sans directions for how to order that edition. My efforts to obtain details have so far gone unanswered. For now, I take a leap of faith: it exists, therefore it can be ordered. Let's persevere, because Once Upon a Time...Perfume is the next best thing to the ultimate osmorama: attending an interactive, in-person workshop at the Osmothèque.
Once Upon a Time...Perfume
Annick Le Guérer
France, Éditions du Garde-Temps 2009
Hardcover, 128 pages
1. From John Waters' 2010 book Role Models, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
2. The twelve perfumes are:
Houbigant Quelques Fleurs
Chevalier d’Orsay Bal à Versailles
Guy Laroche J'ai Osé
Caron Tabac Blond
Jean Patou Joy
Chanel No. 5
Christian Dior Miss Dior