Monday, 20 April 2009
A quick one, this: I've come across three books of heart-cheering excellence lately.
The first is Alex Ross's history of 20th century classical music, The Rest Is Noise. It is SUPERB. Not only is the technical content top-notch, the writing is completely assured almost everywhere, managing the Clive Jamesian feat of being simultaneously both relaxed and poetic, evocative and precise. Read it. Ross has his own blog and you can also read part of the first chapter here. I'm tremendously excited by it: it's not that often that one comes across an entirely new and vastly rich area of cultural life that one simply knows nothing about. It's like discovering poetry for the first time. (Next stop: dance.) I was never brought up to play an instrument or sing, and my knowledge of classical music is very sketchy indeed: I've got more idea of, say, Japanese literature than I do of 20th century classical music.
The second is Osip Mandelstam's The Voronezh Notebooks, which I did not know. Written during Mandelstam's gruelling exile in Voronezh, during which he endured repeated interrogations and torture, they are simply stunning. I can't think of anything in English with which I can legitimately compare them, but 'snowbound Lorca' comes close. (I'm off to Heffers to buy a bilingual edition so that I can pick through them in Russian.)
The third is Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez' Perfumes: The Guide, which is the kind of book you never realised you needed and then, once read, wondered how on earth you ever lived without. Beautifully produced in black and textured cream paper, it makes a stirring case that perfumery should be considered a culturally-weighty artform like music or poetry. It is splendidly funny and fanatical: alternately hilariously bitchy and exquisitely poetic. Like Ross' The Rest Is Noise, Perfumes is quite brilliant at describing a complex non-verbal artform in words. I had never considered, for example, the idea that a fragrance might be 'representational' or 'abstract', the first aiming to capture the essence of some earthly experience--evoking, say, a summer afternoon in Paris, or a Moroccan desert--and the second an altogether more mysterious and formless phenomenon untied to concrete things. I'd never thought about terms like 'top-note', 'chord', 'third movement', 'radiance' or 'evanescent' in relation to fragrances, or considered likening one to a Baudelaire poem. I'd always considered myself a bit of an old hippie at heart when it comes to perfume, generally preferring simple, one-note essential oils to complex fragrances, though I do wear Guerlain Homme if I'm off out. (I have a particular dislike of heavy, Opium-like oriental fragrances and the screechy, fruity florals which blowsy, well-heeled women tend to trail after them down the street, and which are like a stranger ambushing you and trying to stuff your head repeatedly into their handbag.) I now realise this was like saying artlessly that one prefers birdsong to Mahler. There isn't a necessary contradiction between the two things and I was being a bit of a dolt.
One reads Turin and Sanchez' catalogue of perfumes as much for the ones they loathe as for the ones they love. A few get very short shrift: Paris Hilton's effort is panned ('barf bag'); Elizabeth Taylor's 'Passion' merits nothing more than 'fog horn'. Estée Lauder's hideous 'Spellbound' is described as 'medicated treacle', and gets the four-point drubbing: 'Powerfully cloying and nauseating. Trails for miles. Frightens horses. Gets worse.' The unlucky 'Very Sexy Hot' by Victoria's Secret gets the mordant label 'Mango Raincoat'. One of my favourites is their acid review of Benetton's 'Pure Sport for Men':
This fragrance is so close to non-existence that you wonder what the compounding of the oil looks like: guys in blue overalls transporting invisible drums on forklifts and pretending to pour them into empty vessels before giving the air a good stir and carefully partitioning it into empty drums labelled Benetton while quality control takes a sample and makes sure the gas chromatograph tracing is completely flat.
I also like the following review of 'Muscs Koublai Khan' by Serge Lutens, which gets 4/5:
No other perfume musk comes close to this potent animalic antidote to the laundered age, not even the obsolete and unavailable natural musk tincture. Back before I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, I reviewed Muscs Koublai Khan as “the armpit of a camel driver who has not been near running water in a week.” The scent is the same but my horror is gone. The fragrance turns out to be a lost-world fantasy of firelit palaces, with the soupy, sleepy warmth of two beneath a quilt. The cozy animal smells of civet and castoreum, smoky balsams, and powerful synthetic musks all conspire to make you think of your lover in barbaric furs. On the blotter it seems rather frightening but on skin reveals an intimate, archaic smell of burnt beeswax candles, which is to this English major a more convincing Khan than Coleridge’s—who “on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.”
Perfumes: The Guide is ravishing and entertaining. Go buy, go buy!