JOURNEY INTO LIGHT : VOL DE NUIT by GUERLAIN ( I933 )

 

 

 

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Vol De Nuit, a masterpiece from 1933 that is still in production, is perhaps the house of Guerlain’s most difficult, troubling, and mysterious perfume. Of the handful of still extant creations by Jacques Guerlain, it is this scent – Night Flight – based on a delicate and poetic novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, that is the most unreachable and impenetrable of his perfumes: strange, distant, opaque. Where the heart of Après L’Ondée, from 1906 – wistful, exquisite, a sigh of melancholic longing in its heliotrope and violet-touched rain-drop transparency, does wear its heart on its sleeves (and is all the more vulnerable and beautiful for it), and L’Heure Bleue (1912) a delectable confectioner’s joy suffused with more melancholic, crepuscular consciousness, is never really afraid to emote, Vol De Nuit is held back; shadowy, and wary. Where we are quite sure of Mitsouko’s mossed, woodland austerity, its almost grave and ceremonious beauty, or the unmistakeably voluptuous, volatile immediacy of Shalimar – released in the heady hedonism of the roaring twenties and destined for bare-shouldered odalisques, we will find no such sureties with Vol De Nuit. Her very essence, her intentions, are concealed. This is a perfume that that resists interpretation. It is pure enigma.

 

 

 

 

Yet mysteries are there to be solved; at the very least explored. And when we look deeper into the background of this perfume, at the circumstances that shaped its creation, the cultural and artistic influences that inspired Jacques Guerlain to try and capture these ideas in scent, we find that although the secrets of Vol De Nuit can never be completely prised apart (and we surely wouldn’t want them to be), a fuller understanding of the perfume’s story does further enhance the pleasure of wearing a scent that is, for myself and many other aficionados, quite simply one of the most beautiful ever made.

 

 

 

 

 

Vol De Nuit was released at a very dark time in world history. Storm clouds of fascism were rising, presaging the unimaginable horrors that were soon to besiege Europe and the rest of the world. It was the year that Hitler came to power; that the Reichstag was burned down; that the first concentration camps were opened in East Europe. It was also the Great Depression: the entire continent was in economic crisis, and Parisians were literally freezing to death in the streets in one of the coldest winters in memory. Although just three years earlier in 1929, Jean Patou had released the decadently floracious Joy, the ‘most expensive perfume ever’, the mood was now very different, darker, more ruminative. Vol De Nuit somehow embodies this smell of thoughtful, bitter, uncertainty; of compression; of something internalized and foreboding.

 

 

 

 

 

It is also, despite all this, a perfume of celebration, and herein lies the beauty of its contradictions. 1933 was the year that an aeroplane first flew over the peaks of Mount Everest, that flight truly captured the world’s imagination, and the perfume itself was named after the novel written by Jacques Guerlain’s close friend and confidant, Antoine de Saint Exupery : a dashing, brave, almost reckless romantic who was one of the first masters of aeronautics, flying multiple missions for Aeropostale France, as well as quite dangerous sorties for the resistance during World War II. He was also an aristocrat, a womanizer, bon viveur, and writer, author of the one of the most popular books ever written in France, Le Petit Prince, as well as several other novels, often centred on the thrills and dangers of aviation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I recently came across an old and battered English version of this book in a second hand bookshop, and was quite fascinated, as I was reading it, to discover some of the parallels between the novel, with its ambiguities, strange depths, and poetical insights – and its translation, by Jacques Guerlain, the following year, into perfume. This is a lonely story; pilots, wrenched from the comforts of their domestic lives, manning their aircraft through the dangers of the skies, at night, often without sufficient flight instruments to guarantee safety, something that was considered overly dangerous by many and that had only recently been attempted for the first time:

 

 

 

 

“This man must enter the inmost heart of night, that clothed darkness”, we hear of the main protagonist, as he flies over the mountain ranges of Patagonia, Brazil, and Uruguay, carrying the post of an entire continent, and the hopes of an enterprise, on his shoulders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The narrative centres on two main characters, Rivière and Fabien. The former is the man responsible for coordinating his pilots and ensuring the prompt punctuality of his deliveries. He is a serious and duty-bound man, hard-working yet sensitive, quite keenly aware of his guilt in pushing his aviators into dangerous situations even when he knows the risks. The latter is the young and fearless pilot, just married, who leaves his wife behind in Buenos Aires, and, traversing the vast swathes of land beneath him, subsumed in the dark cradle of night, is tragically caught in a cyclone that leads him, eventually, to an almost mythical death among the stars, beautifully described by Saint Exupery in ways that bring to mind the sun-dazzled demise of Icarus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the beginning of the novel, however, Fabien is full of hope. We feel the interior of the plane, its shell, ‘the mystery of metal turned to living flesh’, as he ‘lets his neck sink back into the leather padding and feel into the deeply meditative mood of flight, mellow with inexplicable hopes’. Where Caron’s En Avion, a precursor to Vol De Nuit, deftly takes the cool leather smell of the cockpit’s interior and its wooden dashboard rather more literally in its arid, violet-flecked propriety, Vol De Nuit encapsulates this ‘mellow, inexplicable hopefulness’ more effectively, perhaps, with its soft, caressing basenotes of orris, tonka bean, ambergris, leather, benzoin and vanilla: a beautiful, enveloping, aura of pulverized starlight that lets us fully imagine the gloriously new sensation of drifting almost effortlessly, and timelessly, above the clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In early advertisements for Vol De Nuit, though, the scent is billed as a ‘perfume of mystery and adventure’. Saint Exupery manned flights over Africa, particularly Dakar and the Congo, and some of this exoticism is captured in the famous zebra print of the felt-lined inner box the perfume is packaged in, the bottle itself made in the form of a plane’s propeller. The intrepid masculinity of this golden new age of flight, the propulsion, the fearlessness, is also an essential part of Vol De Nuit’s androgyny and its sense of potential dangers, as this perfume, at least at the beginning, is anything but easy. In fact its ‘difficult’ nature, its jolie-laide, unbeautiful, almost acrid juxtapositions in the initial stages (which cede, eventually, to that hypnotic veil of milky light that enfathoms the scent once it is fully developed), nevertheless do make the composition quite unapproachable and formidable in some ways when you first apply it. She is geared up, this pilot: adrenalized, and certainly not to be trifled with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The olfactive key to this sense of unease, of diffident untouchability, comes from the sharp, almost anti-intuitive clash of bitter green galbanum resin; pungent jonquil absolute, and the piercing, almost musty, scent of petitgrain, pimento and sage, laid elegantly alongside the classic Guerlain citric artillery of bergamot, lemon and orange. Resolutely not beckoning and un-come-thither (in the Shalimar mould), at this stage the perfume is quite assertive and spiky, undercut by a smouldering, growling cinnamon note that suggests daredevils, autonomy, and self-reliance. This is very much the colder side of the perfume, though, both tonally and emotionally, because, as we will find out later, Vol De Nuit is very much a study in contrasts.

 

 

 

 

 

Where Jacques Guerlain’s other classic perfumes have a smooth, luxuriant, yet delicate pliancy, Vol De Nuit is fierce (on the surface): solitary. The pilots that we meet in the novel spend many hours, from dawn until dusk flying in hazardous conditions and varying visibility, the cold steel carapace of their planes the only barrier between themselves and the freezing elements, the sky, the winds, and the wintry Andes that loom up from below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A snow-bound stillness brooded on the ranges. The winter snow had brought its peace to all this vastness. Only sheer peaks that, flying at twenty thousand feet, you almost graze, straight falling cloaks of stone, an ominous tranquillity. As far as the eye could see, all was at peace. Peaceful, yes, but tense with some dark potency. Dusk began to mingle with the air, rising and hovering, a veil above the snow”.

 

 

 

 

In presuming that Jacques Guerlain did in fact read the novel that his creation is nominally based on, as a great lover of Vol De Nuit it was fascinating for me to read of these vast, lonely landscapes that make perfect sense in the context of the perfume; the elemental space that surrounds the aircraft also mirroring the inital distancing effect that the perfume effortlessly achieves in its cool, earlier stages. The taut, barbed greenness, the bitter taste of woods, and the unsweetened spice that keep any potential admirers at arm’s length.

 

 

 

 

 

Both the novel and the perfume begin with this vital sense of audacity; a yearning for something unexplored; the embracing of adversity. The deeper thrill of this perfume, for me however, definitely derives from the eventual softening, in the later stages of the scent’s progression, when the heart of the perfume is revealed: the soft, dream-like, velveted and sensual embrace of the nocturnal. Vol De Nuit, as its name would suggest, is very much a night perfume. As the notes develop gradually on the skin, a kind of unclasping occurs. The tension relents, and a vanillic veil is slowly drawn over the tableau, tinged with ambergris, the Guerlinade base, and costus, the warm and heart-rending human smell of a lover’s hair and skin. At this point there are few perfumes I can think of that are more elusive, drifting, and compellingly, mysteriously erotic. Leaving allusions to the novel aside for a moment, the perfume itself seems to be taking to the air, hovering almost spectrally about its wearer: a woman shivering in fur, crossing the street, on an icy, winter evening. Externally, the moonlight and stars weave webs of diamond clarity as her breath steams the black night air, but as she clutches her perfume-tinged coat close to her and the plush, furred base notes of Vol De Nuit surround her illicitly like a pale-lit halo, it invites the person smelling these perturbing sensations to come closer, in a push-pull, warning/invitation that is invisibly exhilarating. We sense the purring determination in the perfume’s outer reaches, but also the emotion; a powdery, embered sexuality like the soft, glowing light coming from beneath a bedroom door at night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is for this reason that Vol De Nuit is definitely a perfume that one could become obsessed by, with its impenetrability, its provocation of the desire to know more, especially if it were linked indelibly in one’s mind to a lover. No matter how many times you smell it, this quality remains, this ineffable obscurity, and is the one of the reasons, I think, why it is so beloved (vintage Vol De Nuit parfum is something of a holy grail for many perfume lovers). It was also the subject of a short story by writer Takashi Akoda, Night Flight, a tragic tale of a grief-stricken man who was possessed by, and literally haunted by the perfume of his deceased lover, a woman whose fragrance came to his room mournfully, yet rapturously every night like a ghost, both soothing and tormenting, that “got its name not from flight, but because a fragrance can become stronger in the darkness. It almost seemed to float on the air….”

 

 

 

 

 

Which is surely a feat of perfumery technique not to be taken lightly. Vol De Nuit is a brooding and simmering olfactory presence, a homage to men and women who lived on the steel of their nerves and their sense of adventure, a perfume of its time but also one that is timeless. Presciently, Saint Exupery himself was to have a fate that was eerily similar to Fabien, the pilot whose plane falls into the sea at the end of the novel, as he tries in vain to steer his way out of this ‘shoreless night, leading to no anchorage’ and eventual oblivion. We sense what is going to happen, as the novel progresses. Yet the author keeps us in exquisite suspense right up until the end. We know that the odds are terrifically stacked up against Fabien, as he battles the elements and tries to keep the plane surging back up into the sky; that the fuel in the engine will soon run out, and that he is surrounded, on all sides and as far as the eye can see, by destructive storms. Yet there is still a great beauty in it all. Despite the imminent peril, we feel the vastness of existence; of human solitude; of love, as he remembers his wife who is waiting anxiously for him in their bedroom at home, the great and overwhelming beauty of the night sky. The young pilot, who could have been Saint Exupery, Amelia Earheart, or any of the pioneers of that uncertain time when a night flight could easily mean death, has, despite these tragic vagaries of fate, nevertheless lived. He has risen above: is on top of the world, literally, and, like the gracious denouement of the perfume and its spellbinding, mystical introspection, has reached some kind of bliss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“He climbed, and it grew easier to correct the plunges, for the stars gave him his bearings. Their pale magnet drew him up. After that long and bitter quest for light, for nothing in the world would he forgo the frailest gleam.

And now a wonder seized him: dazzled by that brightness, he had to keep his eyes closed for some seconds. He had never dreamt that the night clouds could dazzle thus. But the full moon, and all the constellations, were changing them, now, to waves of light”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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47 Comments

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47 responses to “JOURNEY INTO LIGHT : VOL DE NUIT by GUERLAIN ( I933 )

  1. This piece, which originally appeared in ODOU magazine, was shortlisted for this year’s Jasmine Literary Award.

  2. ann

    This is a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you so much. I love the book and now must try the perfume.

  3. It’s a stunning article, Neil. You managed to put into words the many reasons why I love and identify so much with vintage VdN parfum. Much of which was shadowy before you brought it out into the (star)light.

    It gave me chills.

    • Thank you. The challenge was : I have never been able to articulate why I love this perfume, and I wanted to try, one day, at some point in the future.

      And then when I found the novel I wanted to try and get inside it. Initially I had said to Liam that I was going to write about vanilla in Java, which I still haven’t entirely tackled, but Vol De Nuit was tugging at the back of my brain and I changed quite near to the deadline and wrote it. I know you love this perfume as much as I do so am delighted you like this review, Tara .x

  4. Your words as always So evocative. I almost felt the machine purring And then climbing for the stars …and passing, going away, the poetic and polite form for dying . But living on in the memory of the Senses, so true to their word.
    I will read Vol de Nuit now, have never quite come to it and also that beautifully haunting japanese story
    You almost made me cry and then smile, dear Mr G! Merci

  5. What an absolutely beautiful review!

    • Thank you. I put a lot of heart and soul into this one, reading the novel, smelling, taking notes, thinking, and then on the very last day of the deadline, writing it in a trance.

  6. And If this did nog get the Jasmine Award, I’ll eat all my hats, quite a few. Seriously, it MUST have. Follow your nose, as we say here!

    • No, I think the winner this year was quite daring and interesting, written from the perfumer’s point of view. It is good that they award it to different kinds of writers. Personally though, I prefer this one to the one I won with last year. This one is more me.

  7. Rafael

    What an intimate review. Very naked and beautiful. Vol de Nuit is my “selfish” perfume. I usually wear it to stay home alone. When I do wear it out it’s because I can’t bear the loneliness. I wear it out though with the clear understanding that you can pay attention to me, i really need you to long for me way over there but don’t speak to me or come anywhere near me. Having written that I’m thinking that this is really a rather hostile fragrance isn’t it?

  8. Rafael

    Maybe not hostile. Polarizing.

    • But as I wrote in the review, the beginning is VERY discordant in my view, verging on unpleasant. Polarizing indeed; I am magnetized by that contrast between the oriental base and the strange, spiced green jonquil galbanum. It took me years to not only get, but truly get INTO this perfume (Shalimar is so much more instantaneous love), but I think that is why I love it so much. It has really got under my skin.

  9. Louise Ruggiero

    This is beautiful and evocative- you have taken me somewhere special. I love the way you articulate the layers of a scent…..the context of this scent equally beautiful and haunting xx

    • Thanks Louise. If you don’t know Vol De Nuit, on first exposure it might just seem fusty and old fashioned, but when you get to know the perfume it is real poetry in a bottle.

  10. Vol de Nuit is only the second vintage perfume I have bought – and my first vintage Guerlain. I just have a small 15 ml decant, which was purchased from another blog author, and what’s really peculiar to me about it is that for as much as I love it, I’ve only felt right wearing it when I am on my own. In fact, I first tried it on after opening the package I received in the post when I was wearing a vintage kimono that I typically lounge about in, and the fragrance remained on the sleeves, which just left me with the most stunning Vol de Nuit hangover that I am topping up here and there, but it only feels appropriate to enjoy in solitude. Thanks so much for sharing this piece. It’s really given me new perspective into a fragrance I love.

    • I LOVE the idea of you in a kimono Vol De Nuit hangover – such a beautiful idea. I know exactly what you mean about the solitude. As I have written here, this was a perfume I just couldn’t get to the bottom of for years ( I still haven’t), but I was trying with this piece to at least get deeper. There is something very untouchable about it.

  11. Nancysg

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece of writing. After learning of the nomination, I hoped that you would be able to post it here at some point. It is a personal night dream scent story. I can feel the stars in the cold night sky and have seen night clouds. They do peek out just like light under a door. I don’t know the scent, having only smelled the current version briefly in the store. Now I need to really work with it. Thank you again.

    • Thank you writing this. It’s funny, the new version – a good rendition, but very angular, more macho, way more old fashioned. The original is much softer and more vanillic, way more dreamy. I could never even entertain the idea of the current incarnation. But then again the vintage parfum is very much an acquired taste. It took me years to truly get into it. My friend Helen says she will just never understand it, and that was the impetus for the piece. I at least wanted to try.

      What Guerlains do you like?

  12. This is an absolutely ravishing piece, amazing actually. You captured my spirit and had me hanging on every word. You have perfectly expressed the character of VdN in exquisite detail and helped to give voice to what she is truly trying to say.
    I have to share with you my initial encounter with VdN, simply because it is so similar to the way you described a woman wearing it.
    When I was a teenager I used to purchase my Guerlain scents at a small boutique in Cambridge, near Boston, or if I were in Paris at the boutiques on the Champs Élysées. I had wanted to own all Guerlain scents at that time, I was quite the Guerlain lover (still am), but there were a few that the sales women at the Paris boutiques thought were too “mature” for me. Vol de Nuit was one of those scents, but I adored how the extrait smelled; I was allowed to indulge in Samsara instead, lovely but not VdN. Back then I could still be swayed by the chic women in Paris, but I rebelled eventually.
    One day, while in my little boutique in Cambridge, I decided to just purchase Vol de Nuit, along with Parure, and what an experience it was.
    I recall dabbing it on before I left the boutique and walking out into the cold of a December New England evening; everything was snowy and icy, the sky had already darkened, I could see my breath in front of my face. I started walking towards the train station and nuzzled my face into my coat collar; the coat was my mother’s possum, I loved when she let me wear that. I still can immediately remember how Vol de Nuit came wafting up from my décolleté and ravaged my senses. It was everything I ever expected it to be, yet at the same time so different. It was warm and exotic, yet it was aloof and slightly cool, it was as if it were trying to figure out how it would work with my chemistry. I have grown to adore VdN over the years and maybe even take it for granted at times, yet I am always reminded of how amazing it was on a freezing, icy winter eve all those years ago. Sadly, at the time I did not have a passionate lover to share this scent with, only a shallow boyfriend who exclaimed to me once “You smell like my grandma.” Needless to say, he lasted but a short while in my life, yet all these years later I am still enamored of Vol de Nuit.
    I do not know why, but I still tend to wear it only in the winter.
    Somehow it just seems to be the perfect time of year to wear it.
    Thank you sweet Neil for helping me to remember that long ago evening and all the passion for scent I had; before I had a “collection of fragrances”, when I still could be dazzled and bowled over by a perfume.

  13. My goodness, you are a wonderful writer!

    • Only just seen this – thank you for saying so. In fact this is the piece, along with my Black Swan rant, that I am most pleased with, so it is great to have it validated. It took quite a lot of not writing first, to somehow let the feelings and images percolate within me in some way and then when the moment was right I let it out.

  14. Ad

    I wonder if you might reply with the name of the translator of the passage from Vol de Nuit you have quoted? I have a version that is different, and would be delighted to read this alternative. I am very taken by it.

  15. Although I read your review of this when it was first written, I enjoyed reading it once again. What a fantastic piece of prose!. Coincidentally, I wore Vol De Nuit last evening. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful fragrance.

  16. I was just reminded of your Black Swan piece as I was reading this, just before I read the comments. Yes, outstanding, one of my favourites of yours. (I confess to also loving anything you write about your years growing up.) Vol de Nuit isn’t an easy one to write about, and you’ve really captured it. I will be up there in that “elemental space” when I wear it next. Yes, context is crucial.

    Such a pity about the current formulation, isn’t it? I have a bottle of the ’83 extrait, and use it sparingly as I lavish on my current EdT, a cold, shallow imposter but better than nothing. I kick myself for being a younger me, in the early nineties, when a department store in Vancouver was going to stop carrying VdN in its Guerlain lineup, and the saleswoman offered to sell me the two-third’s full tester of the EdT, the only stock left, if I bought another Guerlain. I smelled it and was of two minds. It was captivating but “dated” in the way other Guerlains weren’t, to my naïve nose. I loved that aspect of it, knew it was extraordinary but felt I couldn’t pull it off. Back then, too, we had no idea that formulations were going to be destroyed by accountant moths. Now, of course, that sense of it as a perfect, exquisite time capsule is what I love about it, and ironically it smells almost up-to-the-minute as many of us have evolved in our ability to appreciate these vintage glories and niche houses have tried to recapture the experience. Now, too, I don’t give a damn about whether or not I can “pull it off.”

    Recently, I was lucky enough to find a sealed, pristine, round bottle of the vintage EdC with the blue label, ground glass topper and all. Night and day compared with the new stuff. Or should I say, day and night, if you know what i mean!

    • I don’t think there is really anything about my childhood or life at any point in all honesty, just the usual hypersensitive Proustian crap, but sometimes, obviously, my earlier experiences creep into my writing.

      As for Vol De Nuit, I totally understand your feelings about it being too old: I have felt that as well and it took me years to understand and love it properly (which is why I took so long mulling over the piece). I think in my case I am drawn to what I can’t understand, the mysterious: I lived in Italy which is gorgeous and exciting but fell far more deeply for Japan; my own lover of twenty three years is still an enigma to me….

      Shalimar is like Italy to me, Vol De Nuit Japan. Shalimar is instantaneous and easy to love, Vol De Nuit is difficult and diffident every time I try it, but because of that inscrutability it is ultimately far more fascinating.

      • Yes, oh, exactly! Those tastes that are acquired can become the most compelling. And, being more difficult, or even impossible, to understand completely, they’re eternally fascinating. I can imagine your feelings about Japan, and I have read enough of your thoughts to know that a kind of ambivalence, some love-hate push-pull, is part of the draw. And the not-quite-completely-knowable about our partners: Ric is the same to me and I love that twenty-three years later, Duncan is to you (and you to Duncan, I wonder, or is your ability to share yourself so unreservedly and be completely, adorably knowable the draw for him?).

        One of the things I love about you is that I can relate so much to your experience of fragrance. The whole Vol de Nuit experience for you is something I completely get. The world of perfume feels like a friendlier place (especially because there is nobody I know here on the B.C. Coast who shares my interest and I can feel a bit isolated in that one way).

        You articulate what I can’t, bring things into focus that are a bit fuzzy for me, and/or enlighten me. It enhances my appreciation of perfume and of other things you explore in your writing.

        I am quite addicted to the rush of sensations that come with wearing Vol de Nuit. Again, such a difficult fragrance to write about and you’ve nailed it. Typical, dear Neil. Thank you very very much!!!!

  17. Tara C

    Gorgeous piece of writing, thanks for reposting this. I have a bottle of 2005 VdN extrait but always found it difficult, especially the opening, but I had to buy it because I love the writing of Saint-Exupéry so much. My favourite book of his is Terre des Hommes. Be sure to read the Lewis Galantière translation, it’s the best one (Wind, Sand and Stars in English).

    • I’ll look out for it, thank you.
      And yes, this perfume is difficult; I find the more modern versions to be like mosaics whose seams are cracked and visible, or unfinished jigsaws. The vintage parfum is spiky and sharp initially but the progression is seamless and more dreamy. Ironically it smells more modern than the reformulations.

  18. Zubeyde Erdem

    Amazing article. Your nostrils become an eye, a heart ,a way to “breath “in pure way. Thank you very much for showing a piece of your soul in one breath.

  19. Love that you reposted this wonderful piece! I became obsessed with the Art Deco bottle a while ago and was able to buy the lovely 2011 holiday special edition, a blue-green glass version of the classic propeller bottle, with a black bulb atomizer, filled with shimmer powder scented with VdN. It makes me very happy!

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