Friday, February 7, 2014

Valentine's Day Special: The Scent of Unrequited or Impossible Love (Valentine's Countdown part 5)

"And the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen" [1]

"Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don't know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of wirtherings, of tarnishings."[2]

via etsy
So often we focus on Valentine's Day as the occasion when one MUST be coupled to participate in the holiday or when one should at the very least have a romantic interest at the ready if they're single. Obviously some are happily married (such as The Non Blonde) or happily single (such as Chemist in a Bottle) with whom I organized a small joint project; they have their own anecdotes to share.
Poor me I reverted this year to that pool of endless discoveries: literature and specifically two cases of unrequited or impossible love.

One of them revolves around the impossibility of the love of the nymphet, of a "Lolita", in Vladimir Nabovok's famous and stylistically memorable novel of the same name. Indeed one can hardly call it a love story, tragic or otherwise. Although possibly everything must have been written around this lyrical tome and its "poetics of betrayal" ~and the issue of pedophilia is arising again in public consciousness due to the recent allegations (re)thrown at Woody Allen's face decades later~ one of the aspects that hasn't been quite explored yet is the insistence of the emigre writer on the scented aspect of Humbert's unrequited, obsessive (and yes, ultimately sickly) love. It is a sort of love, no doubt, because he expresses all the symptoms of eros. His male gaze is held by the thread of fascination: on the one hand of the unknowing pull that the nymphet, Dolores Haze, has upon him,;on the other hand his sophisticated European professorial veneer recognizes that the stuff arousing the little one's admiration is uniformly "trash" ~she lacks the necessary critical distance to judge it. (This includes celebrity and film magazines,  shops with knick knack souvenirs, comics etc.)

via pinterest
Humbert's own inherited profession is a perfume company, to which he pays little business attention throughout the novel, but which seems to have an indirect yet potent pull in the machinations of his love patterns. There is a specific reference to the unidentified "musky and powdery" scent of his formative love interest, the child Annabel, when he was of comparable age at the French Riviera, which he traces to her borrowing it from the Spanish maid (a reference that might indicate Maja by Myrurgia or even Habanita by Molinard, promoted with a Latin-sounding name and popular in France). But Humbert also references another unidentified perfume in the memorable poem he dedicates to his lost love towards the close of the novel.

"My Dolly, my folly! Her eyes were vair,
And never closed when I kissed her.
Know an old perfume called Soleil Vert?
Are you from Paris, mister?"

Soleil Vert literally translates as "green sun" and isn't among the many historical fragrances which I am aware of. Supposedly this secret smell, this surreal sun which evokes the variations of light shone upon the two unlikely lovers constantly mentioned in the novel, is the one which has bonded the memory of her to him, a gift from him; one which he chose for her. Much like he chose one for her mother's sake, the landlady he had betrothed a little while before her tragic death in the hopes of keeping at the nymphet's side. But it is still interesting to contrast how mother Haze tricks Humbert into thinking he is going to be picking up perfume for a friend of hers, as an intended gift, when in fact the perfume is then held hostage to be used by the flirtatious woman herself in an equally sorrowful love tension tormenting the love-struck Charlotte in the hopes of catching her tenant's (unrequited) amorous interest.

via VioletHour/pinterest

Another memorable incident of scent marking the impossibility of love shared in literature comes from a part of the life-long diaries of Anais Nin, amassed in the tome titled Henry & June in which she recounts her rising desire for sexual and erotic exploration despite her genuine love for her banker husband, Hugo. Her adventuring desire positively detonates upon meeting the writer Henry Miller (famous for his own unabashed depictions of sexual exploration and erotic experiences in his work) and his beautiful, destitute, but "destructive"wife June Mansfield. The two women indulge in a bit of Sapphic intimacy marking the impossibility of a fully fledged relationship in the context of the mores of the times, or more importantly as the writer continually stresses her feelings of love and friendship for her husband whom she won't quit and June's detached state in life. But it is again perfume, this time in the form of Guerlain's Mitsouko, which creates the tension of memory for the star-crossed lovers.

June asks for Anais to gift her with her perfume as a memento. The perfume is again mentioned as being the thing she notices and keeps as a memory from Anais' house. It's referenced by monetary value too (it's expensive for poor Miller and his wife). It's implied as a mysterious veil that captures the essence of Anais too. In a way, the Guerlain perfume loses some of the respectability and bourgeois factor it enjoys as the scent of choice of a banker's wife and earns through this impossible love, this fated affair, the reputation of a scent that signals a capitulation to some erotic journey of the mind and of the soul.

Anais and another Guerlain perfume, L'Heure Bleue, are wonderfully, poignantly tied in a love poem which I had read a while ago and I hereby quote for you.

"The blue hour perfume hesitates
like a turquoise tear, before falling
cerulean through her hourglass night;
a mauve nocturne of
low saxophone notes
and amaretto sorrows,
echoing footfalls of younger years
departing her dark almond-forest hair;
so as not to awaken from a dream
about to come true, blossoming
within herself; an indigo rose,
unfolding lavender lovers
pressed violet against her lips."

found on Underground voices, Don Pesavento

[1] Vladimir Nabokov
[2] Anais Nin

Don't forget to check out the links for the posts of my friends:

Gaia on The Non Blonde
and Lucas on Chemist in a Bottle.


  1. Elena!
    That's a great post for our early Valentine's Day event.

    Literature talks about love in so many different way yet you chose those that speak about if from a different approach.

    Yours "happily single" Lucas

  2. Thank you Lucas!

    Aiming to be different is a mission; as Chanel used to say, it's essential in order to be appreciated. ;-)

    Thanks for playing with me and off to comment on your post!

  3. Anonymous16:58

    Correspondences/Charles Baudelaire

    As distant verberating echoes can resound
    Together, mingling deep and shadowed harmony
    As vast as midnight and as vast as clarity,
    So can each scent and hue and sound to each respond.

    Some perfumes are as fragrant as an infant’s flesh,
    Sweet as an oboe’s cry, and greener than the spring;
    -- While others are triumphant, decadent or rich,

    Having the expansion of infinite things,
    Like ambergris and musk, benzoin and frankincense,
    Which sing the transports of the mind and every sense

    Greetings from a happy single from Vienna:)

  4. Miss Heliotrope05:41

    While I do love the way perfume is used by literature to represent and symbolise so much, I have a (a previously discussed) problem with this post (I assume it was expected).

    Lolita is, by my reading, not something I care to associate with love. Yes, Nabokov's use of scent does seem to be clever (I assume he made up the scent mentioned) - indeed, the entire novel is a literary masterwork.

    Yet it is about the constant rape and abuse of a child. Nabokov himself is on record as being puzzled by interpretations of the book that looked at it as a relationship novel, or in anyway as anything other than a portrait of a monster, and I cannot think that it is an appropriate reference for such a day - however commercialised - as Valentines.

  5. Dearest Elena, I love the different approach you took here. I know I can always count on you for a thoughtful post. I'm highly curious about the idea of Soleil Vert. I want a perfume with that name.

  6. Anonymous16:03

    Like Gaia, I too would be very interested in Soleil Vert!

    The poem is beautiful and describes L'Heure Bleue so perfectly. Thank you for this.


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  9. Anonymous21:15

    Good link

  10. Gina,

    I always loved that poem! Thanks for bringing it here and in its English translation too.

  11. MH,

    yes, I assumed you'd chime in and post your very understandable dissent.

    It IS about someone who abuses a child (horribly) and yet the mastery of the writer is that we're engrossed by the story and (more importantly) the delivery of it and feel for the characters (without at any point feeling sympathetic, mind you!). I don't consider it "a love story, tragic or otherwise" as I mentioned in the post itself. But it presents some symptomtology of eros that merits pondering on and Nabokov's use of scent throughout is very clever indeed.
    I'll give you that it is a bit much for VDay though, true!!! :-O

  12. Gaia darling,

    thanks for saying so, coming from you it's high compliment indeed. :-)

    Isn't the idea of Soleil Vert very attractive? Even the name is carefully masterminded. And although my first instinct would be to think that it might had been influenced by Vent Vert (which uses a similar schema of metaphor) the reality we know is very different and quite the reverse, due to the chronological order of publishing and perfume launching. Ah, the trappings of a perfume-obsessed mind! ;-)


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