Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Doorman's Repose: Wafts of Yatagan and Heure Exquise Perfume

The Doorman's Repose is a wonderful children's book written by award-winning illustrator Chris Raschka. Each chapter is a vignette of New York City apartment life as lived by its residents. The chapter titled "Anna and Pee Wee" contains an interesting passage involving olfactory impressions at a classical music concert that resonate with the aromas of Yatagan by Caron and Heure Exquise by Annick Goutal. There's one small hitch to this story—the protagonists aren't human.

Anna and Pee Wee are a pair of mice who've adopted the professions of the tenants whose walls they inhabit. Anna is a psychiatrist and Pee Wee is a jazz bass player. Each mouse has a different way of seeing and being in the world, but the differences in their personalities manage to bring them closer together. Each mouse is transformed when they agree to enter the world of the other, and step over the threshold of difference in order to solve a problem.

Pee Wee experiences a bad episode of stage fright and turns to Anna for psychiatric analysis. She prescribes two-page readings of Encyclopedia Britannica so Pee Wee can apply reason to fear when he's feeling afraid. The remedy is metaphorically described as a way to "shrink his heart" and "increase his brain" because Pee Wee is a sensitive mouse with a generous heart. The prescription cures Pee Wee who previously used the encyclopedia's pages as his bedding.

Anna has a professional crisis of conscience two days after helping Pee Wee overcome his fears. She lacks empathy for her patients and is afraid that her heart has grown small. This makes Anna anxious so Pee Wee recommends that they attend a classical music concert as the antidote for Anna's "shrinking heart". Anna has never been to an orchestral performance before, but accepts the invitation and is transformed.

Anna's experience of transformation is poignant. The two mice hide inside in a traveling bass case and arrive at New York City's Lincoln Center to experience Brahms Fourth Symphony. Anna and Pee Wee get settled inside the pocket of a "queenly looking" woman's fur coat, which contains silk gloves and a scented handkerchief. Anna is excited and nervous; she's hoping the live concert will allow her to have a bigger heart and solve her problem. A cure ensues as she's led by the nose:
Outside the pocket, the roarishness of the human voices was beginning to diminish. Anna and Pee Wee cautiously poked their noses out of the pocket. The lights of the hall had dimmed. By contrast, the lights directed onto the stage seemed incredibly dazzling, sending flashes of fiery light from each reflected French horn, piccolo, and cuff link. The wood of the stringed instruments glowed in warm browns and reds and near blacks. 
Then a fine-looking man in a tuxedo strode quickly across the stage, stopping briefly to shake the concertmaster's hand, and stepped onto the podium: the conductor. 
Waiting for what would come next, Anna breathed in the rich symphony of smells that washed through her, exploding almost like fireworks in her nose. The rosin, the oiled woods and brasses, the wood of the stage, the thick velvet of the seats, the scent of the fur coat, and the lady's elegant perfume, and even the rising smell of the musicians as they began to sweat in anticipation of the evening's work. 
The conductor raised his baton and the smell of sweat rose with it. 
Suddenly down came the baton, and the curling wave of sound that it unleashed knocked Anna tail over head back down into the luxurious pocket. 
"It's too much! It's too much!" said Anna. "I think my heart will break!" Pee Wee reached a paw down to Anna and pulled her back up. "Don't worry, it's just Brahms. You always feel that way with Brahms. 
—The Doorman's Repose by Chris Raschka1

Mice have a well-developed sense of smell so it's no surprise that smell, in addition to the sound of Brahms Fourth Symphony being played in a concert hall, transforms Anna. Yatagan by Caron and Heure Exquise by Annick Goutal perfectly embody distinct facets of Anna's olfactory experience by ingredient and effect. Smelling these perfumes adds dimension to the cited text if they are experienced together.

For a fragrant representation of the smell of instruments, musicians, the conductor and Brahms' Fourth Symphony reach for a whiff of Yatagan by Caron. Perfumer Vincent Marcello designed this flowerless bouquet around a chypre structure that is the hallmark of classic luxury perfumes. What Yatagan lacks in floralcy it more than makes up for in arboreal aromatics. It's positioned as a man's fragrance, but can easily be worn by women as the perfume stays close to the skin and complements everyone who wears it.

The lexicon of perfumery borrows concepts from music. Ingredients are described as notes and perfumes are called compositions. Yatagan's symphony of smells can be found in these notes: Petitgrain, Lavender Leaf, Geranium Leaf, Pine, Fennel, Basil, Artemisia, Oakmoss, Musk, Woods, Patchouli, Castoreum, Labdanum and Styrax.

The smell of elegance embodied by the perfumed queenly woman with the fur coat at the Brahms concert is Heure Exquise by Annick Goutal. Heure Exquise (the exquisite hour) is a luxury perfume inspired by the moment day turns into night. It's not the perfume of dusk, but rather an expression of the transformation that takes place when light fades into darkness. This sense of mystery and timelessness is experienced when the lights go out in a concert hall and all you can see is the illuminated stage.

Heure Exquise contains an expensive material derived from the rhizome of the Florentine Iris (Iris pallida). The rhizome is called Orris Root. The high cost of this material is associated with its cultivation, aging and processing. Orris Root needs to age for three to five years before it can be used in perfumery. It's powdery, violet, earthy and creamy facets add a sophisticated twist to perfume formulas. Notes in Heure Exquise include: Rose, Florentine Iris, Sandalwood and Vanilla. The perfume was created by perfumer Isabelle Doyenne and Annick Goutal.

The sense of smell is memory's sense, but the door to meaningful olfactory perception isn't opened by nostalgia alone. Nostalgia wouldn't exist without curiosity and a willingness to enter into mystery. Allowing life to take you places that you've never been is better than getting caught up in the revolving door of remembrance. One must take chances, try new things and face their fears. The chapter dedicated to Anna and Pee Wee in The Doorman's Repose by Chris Raschka makes this perfectly clear, and proves that reading children's books isn't just for kids.

This is the third in a series of posts about literary passages with an olfactory twist. A first and second post precedes this one. Each article includes a recommended perfume and/or raw material for smelling that resonates with the text. Glass Petal Smoke suggests experiencing the fragrance(s) while reading the associated text. Get your nose inside a book. The hashtag for these posts is #SmellLiterature.

Some say that Heure Exquise smells like fresh American currency neatly tucked away in a haute leather purse containing lipstick and cosmetic face powder. You'll have to smell the perfume to see if your nose concurs with this association. The smell of cosmetics is a reference to the addition of Rose oil in lipstick and face powder (Bulgarian Rose is still used to scent face powders by Caron). Orris Root has a history of being added to cosmetic face powder as well. Glass Petal Smoke thinks new money smells like ink, linen paper and alpha-isomethyl ionone, which is a bit like Orris Root.

A whiff of something from our past can open doors and catapult us back in time. The temptation to fixate on memories is tempting. This is especially true as we age and the reality of impermanence sets in. The antidote for getting stuck in the past is staying curious and cultivating a sense of wonder. Get outside and explore the smells around you. Use this perspective to inform ordinary things in your life and you will encounter extraordinary things. Reading children's books is also recommended. Anna did not prescribe this remedy but Glass Petal Smoke thinks she'd approve.

If you'd like to know more about the smell of ingredients referenced in this article you can use A Small Guide to Nature's Fragrances by scientist Bo Jensen.

Image of Rosin by Just Plain Bill.

Image of Two Mice by Natasha Fadeeva.

1Chris Raschka, "Anna and Pee Wee" in The Doorman's Repose (New York: The New York Review Children's Collection, 2017), 119-120.