BOOK REVIEW: “FRAGRANT” + CONVERSATIONS WITH MANDY AFTEL VOL.I.

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Neil : Hi, Mandy. What time is it there and what kind of temperature? Are you at home in Berkeley? It sounds like an incredibly appealing place from what I read about it in ‘Fragrance’.

Mandy Aftel: Looks like 7:02 pm and 70 degrees – gorgeous – will have a sunset soon out the window, over a distant view of the Golden Gate bridge. Yes, it’s really paradise here…

N: I love San Francisco.

MA:I see it out the window every day, well, except for the foggy ones.




 Sure beats Detroit, which is where I spent the first twenty years of my life…

N: Does it ever make you think of ‘Vertigo’? I adore that film. When we were there we were going through the streets thinking about it, imagining the film…. I did the same thing in LA with Mulholland Drive.

MA: Yes, I love Vertigo, and all the San Francisco sites.

N: Detroit must have given you a good start in what I imagine were your rock chick beginnings, though. Maybe you needed all that first before the peace, the perfume, and the oils…

M: Yes, I loved going to the Motown review in the Fox theater in Detroit, and then I was a real hippy in the 60’s. I never make perfume without music at a deafening volume.

N: Really? That is unexpected and intriguing. You mention Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones in your book, but I, and I think many people reading this, will imagine you working with nothing more than the sound of birdsong, in serene silence.

MA: Nope, not me. You’d be surprised who else is in that group, like Eminem.

N: I don’t want to……but I find his voice ridiculously sexy. I get it.

MA: Yes, he’s a passionate man.

N: Not someone I can imagine liking in ‘real life’ though, somehow. Isn’t he also from Detroit?

MA: Yes, from after my time there. And no, I don’t think I’d like him in real life either.

N: All of this, though, these apparent contradictions, make sense in the light of your book ‘Fragrant’, which I find intense, passionate, and full of a kind of tension between Apollonian calmness and clarity and a fully bodied, Dionysian voluptuousness.

I ravished this book. I read it in one go, or over two days actually, finishing it on a long train journey up to a wild Halloween celebration in Tokyo. It really revved me up and energized me. Where Essence and Alchemy was more cool, removed almost in comparison (and which I have used more as a reference book), this was a real pulsating page turner.

MA: Wow, thank you, I really very moved that you picked up on that! It was very passionate and personal on my end too. I agree with your description. I felt and feel like Fragrant is me -I’m in there.

N: Well I wouldn’t say that you were ‘hiding’ in Essence (which I was given by a friend about fifteen years ago and can’t find now…maybe someone has made off with it from my house, something that always seems to happen). I loved the psychological aspects of the oils in that book; the deep-seated unguents, the detailed descriptions of how to use different essences…. it really stimulated my imagination, but somehow in the new book you are much more at the forefront of it all, guiding us through this world of not only perfume and scent but philosophy and reasons for existing itself. A hell of a lot of it really chimes with me. I have much to say about it, actually, and don’t know if time will allow me to get it all out here, but you must have done an incredible amount of research for this book. All kinds of quotations from art, literature, architecture; Japanese wabisabi aesthetics come up, along with recipes, asides on history, philosophy, and you weave it all into this blood-pumping tapestry. How would you say your state of approaching the book was different from Essence and Alchemy?

MA: Well, I love doing research, and the two books have in common that I read over a hundred other books before writing them. I was in a different place in my life and in my understanding of perfume & essences when I wrote Essence & Alchemy, and for a long time afterwards I really didn’t think I had anything more to say, which is why it was fourteen years between them. I look back now and feel I was more of a novice when I wrote Essence & Alchemy. In the many years since, the deep and passionate involvement I’ve had with the essences changed me and changed my relationship to them as a whole, and to each individual essence. I’ve moved on and have different things to say now. The connection of those five essences to the five specific deeply human appetites was a rich territory for my mind to go wandering in.

N: It is definitely an interesting approach, and I thought that actually including  samples of the essences mentioned, in those lovely boxes, along with the books, themselves, was a very original touch. As a person who has been using oils for a long time myself I must say that I was very familiar with them all – with the notable exception of ambergris, which I was FASCINATED to smell for the first time – but I also have to say that even though I know spearmint, frankincense, jasmine, and cinnamon like the back of my hand (and to be honest, am not a great fan of mint or cinnamon for some reason), the quality of the oils really did stand out.

You might be horrified to know, though, that I used them all, immediately.

The spearmint went into a toothpaste, the jasmine into a perfumed oil, and the cinnamon and ambergris, once I had tried the latter on my skin (I hated it on its own) got instinctively poured into some Diptyque L’Eau de l’Eau. I realize this is a kind of sacrilege, but what is originally a very appealing clovey lemony cologne was transformed into this DIVINE, much deeper spice perfume. That cinnamon you selected really is lovely and I came to appreciate that essence more as a result, but the ambergris did something magic to the scent as well, almost on a subliminal level. Just more velvety and mood enhancing.



I was like a kid in a toy shop, to be honest, which I always am, and why I could never be a perfumer. I just get too excited.

MA: I am so thrilled over what you did with the kit – I could not be happier! I really wanted to give the reader their own experience with the oils. I definitely spend enormous time and money searching for what I think are the most interesting and gorgeous version of the oils that I have, and for me, everything I make is rooted in the extraordinary materials that I work with, so to be able to share them with you and have you experience them that way is just perfect.  I’m not surprised to hear that my ambergris utterly transformed your l’Eau de ‘l’eau, actually. It functions like salt in cooking: it is exalting to all the other essences. Ambergris really is magic — I made that version out of several different varieties that I own. I often create my own versions of essences from several sources, like with labdanum or benzoin or oud. Making perfume is the perfect wabisabi experience for me.

N: Well, it definitely worked as a structure for the book. Mint, for example, was the doorway into the discussion of the domestic; the homely; the nest. I love the idea of the ‘oneiric home’ especially, as I do feel similarly to you about the vital importance of our surroundings. I think you and I both share a revulsion of the shameless materialistic, the mindless brainwashing of much of contemporary society, where things are done by copying ‘lifestyle’ magazines and the like and not from some inward compulsion. Duncan and I live in a strange seventies house in Kamakura that is quite idiosyncratic, but I love being here. I can be myself. Again, the book is not just about perfume. Mint is an opening into deeper discussions. I think I do a similar thing in my writing. I adore scent but it doesn’t end there.

MA: The mint chapter turned out to be my favorite, but it almost didn’t exist. I did figure out to include something green, and that mint could fit the bill…but my inner thoughts were that it would be really boring. Then I stumbled into the Books of Secrets, and Bachelard’s oneric home, and everything started to add up for me. I see each of the five essences as kind of a magic door, down the rabbit-hole of deep and dreamy thoughts, and ways to live a life filled with beauty.

N: The idea of an ‘oneiric home’, where dreams somehow meld into the walls, a cocoon, almost, is certainly very soothing in these angry, aggressive times…

Other chapters in the book are more sensorially charged and coloured. On the subject of wabisabi, I must admit (as a person who has lived in the country for twenty years) I found the discussion on Japanese aesthetics very interesting: the fleetingness of life and its imperfections; the sheer beauty of much of Japanese culture – we have several very important zen temples within fifteen minutes of our house – but I did find the essence used to express this – jasmine – quite an unusual choice. I am a total jasmine lover : I adore it, wear it all the time, can’t get enough of it – but to me it is a very un-Japanese essence. They hate it when I wear it on the bus; it is simply too erotic, sweet, overpowering for the average Japanese nose. In this chapter you are melding interesting observances on refined, ascetic Japanese culture, but then you are also almost ravaging what you have just written by infusing your pages with the smell of jasmine. almost undoing the wabisabi delicacy you have created.

On the other hand, Japan itself is ridiculously contradictory, so it kind of makes sense. Have you ever been here?

MA: No, I’ve never been to Japan… I agree with you completely, though, that jasmine and wabasabi from a certain perspective are very contradictory, but the overarching theme of that chapter was beauty, and Jasmine fits that to a T, with its reconciliation of fecal-floral opposites. The idea of the fleetingness of both beauty and perfume fit with the several ideas I wanted to cover. I see perfume, particularly natural perfume, as an embodiment of wabisabi ideas, both making them and wearing them.

N: Definitely. Especially in the sections where you talk about the ‘structural’ aspects of synthetic perfumery, how they are built to last all day, no matter how harsh, and contrast that with the more evanescent aspects of natural perfumes, which inevitably fade away more quickly. That there is a beauty in that itself, that the scent just disappears into your skin is definitely an example of ‘mono no aware’, or the fleetingness of things.

MA: For me, the depth of ideas like mono no aware and wabisabi inform my daily experience of being a maker of perfumes, and they anchor my life down in time and space. Perfume-making is dead-serious play. I feel lucky to brush up against this rich vein of thinking in what I do every day. I need that rich texture in my life’s work to make it past my short attention span.

N: ‘Dead-serious play’. A gorgeous way of putting it.

For me, this book is both dense, intense, but also pared down and lean. In that sense, it is like a Japanese art form, actually, where the idea is to hone things down until there is nothing extraneous left. It kind of folds in on itself like an origami box, feels contained and complete. You finish it and could almost begin it again straight away.

MA: That’s because I had a kick-ass editor – the same one as for Essence & Alchemy. It’s because of her genius that it is pared down and lean. That is something I do strive for and think about and focus on in my teaching about creating perfume: nothing should be in a perfume that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. I am ruthless in my editing of my perfumes. I like the process of paring things away to find the core essence of something, in both my perfume and my writing.

N: But both are still very full and rich. The animalic section, for example, founded on ambergris, is a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ in itself: the smell of butterflies, civet tincture, beaver musk sacs…….all detailed and very frank descriptions of the dirty, ruder notes in perfumery. This chapter could make many a fair maiden blush.

MA: It came to me in the writing process to do the animal ingredients in a kind of freewheeling cabinet of curiosities, so the reader could open a “drawer” and find a fascinating animalic smell there. I find myself to be endlessly entranced with the worlds contained inside the animalic materials of perfumery. They have a kind of inherent mystery. When I bought out a retired perfumer’s stash of essences, among his things was a kind of arcane article from the Smithsonian on the scents of butterflies. I pictured the author out with his two sons smelling exotic butterflies to describe the aromas…

To me, this image totally epitomized the mysterious wonder of natural aromatic materials.

N: Well, what I particularly like about that chapter, and your style in general, is although it is sensitive, it is not overly politically correct or wussy. A lot of ‘aromatherapy’ is very lavender and rose pot-pourri-lacey-doily, a bit……cottage roses, if you know what I mean. Too twee or something. I wonder if your background as a psychotherapist comes into play here. The first thing that struck me when reading your book was the ‘Also by Mandy Aftel’ list in the inner jacket: “Death Of A Rolling Stone, The Brian Jones Story’ comes up first, followed by your two books on therapy. I feel that that side of your life has made for a much more far reaching, profound, and almost unapologetic aspect than a lot of other things I have read on essential oils, which I devour nonetheless, but which can still be far more surface and ‘nice’. I myself have also always been the kind of person who has to delve into things and is never satisfied with the standard, superficial take – there is a pungency of life to the entire book that really makes sense to me.

MA: Thank you for really seeing who I am — I too find the PC and wussy aspect just isn’t me. My attitude predates my working as a therapist — I think I actually became a shrink because of who I am, deeply interested in the good, the bad, and the ugly – the richness of life — drawn to what’s authentic and repulsed by sentimentality (and marketing). I feel so fortunate to be able to pursue what I am passionate about, and I did not compromise anything in the book. Everything speaks to my deep interests and beliefs, and for that I am truly lucky.

N: If you ever come to Japan, by the way, I’d love to show you round. Maybe we can even go to karaoke. And I could take to you the incense ceremony in Kamakura. You would be fascinated.

MA: That sound like that would be right up my street.

Where did you grow up, and how did you get to Japan, incidentally?

N: I grew up in England but kind of escaped to Japan for no reason in my twenties, based purely on instinct. I wasn’t even particularly interested in the place before I came – I had studied Italian and lived there – but somehow deep in my subconscious, when the opportunity arose, I just took it, came here and settled. Japan infuriates me and delights me in equal measure ( the essential sadomasochism of the society/ the exquisite nature of much of the culture) but it is the closest I think we can both come to living in a dream. And that is the way we like it.

MA: I agree with you – the only way to live.

I am deeply grateful for all your kind and thoughtful attention you gave to my book by the way, I can’t tell you how much that means to me.

Goodnight from one paradise to another.

18 Comments

Filed under Black Narcissus Conversation Series.

18 responses to “BOOK REVIEW: “FRAGRANT” + CONVERSATIONS WITH MANDY AFTEL VOL.I.

  1. ninakane1

    Great discussion.

    • It was fun, actually, and happened quickly and spontaneously with no pre-prepared questions. I really enjoyed the book last year and wanted to do a review, but then thought that talking with the author would make it more interesting. Our passing the computer to each other in the kitchen has started me off, I think….

      • ninakane1

        Glad it did. I like these conversations between you and others. I loved our kitchen morning writing about Guerlain x

  2. Only one possibiliity or strictly speaking two remain: veto the mainstream digital highway traffic and go Reading two or at least one book in the flesh. I am becoming too addicted to my Ipad.

  3. Holly

    I loved this, Neil. Well, who wouldn’t, really? Thinking of natural perfumes in terms of wabi sabi and mono no aware really resonates with me. I’ll admit that I have often been resentful of the low sillage and longevity of natural perfumes in relation to the expense, but seen from this perspective, it makes sense. Or non-sense.

    • I know exactly what you mean, but I do think there is something very special about them, and that feeling was heightened by reading the book. It is a real odyssey.

      • Holly

        Oh, absolutely. The book is a marvel, as is Mandy and her work. Natural essences remain a true love for me, as they feel alive. I think it’s important for me to remember their nature, which is fleeting, and their effect, which is often subliminal. That is exactly what natural perfume IS, and for me to expect anything else makes no sense whatsoever.

  4. Very gratified and grateful to have such an engaging conversation with you Neil! I appreciate your thorough understanding of all the deeper threads and facets that I put into Fragrant. It was a real pleasure to turn over so many stones with such an intelligent and knowledgeable reviewer – thank you so much.
    Mandy

  5. Fabulous interview. It was very interesting learning about how she composed the book around scented “themes”. I also adore how the idea of wabisabi directs her creativity.
    I think it is so important to have a creator of scents such as Mandy. We need that balance in the fragrance world, where natural fragrances are not disappearing. There is too much of a drive by the big companies to create completely synthetic scents, ones made to last 24 hours without fading or morphing.
    Very enlightening and entertaining Neil, love it. Keep the interviews coming.

  6. One spritz campari too much, maybe two And wine during a lovely diner with friends.
    Reading your interview with Mandy Aftel after I came home I got carrièd away by it all: like a ride in a balloon, something I have never done, by the way. Sailing past in the evening sky they look beautiful from from the ground. Your conversation lifted me literally up from Terra Firma, and there I went a-hoovering as a friend of mine calls my verbal wanderings. A case of matter over mind, intoxication prevailed over lucidity.
    What book by Mandy Aftel shall I read first? There is such a lot wriitten about scent, perfume and the art of The Nose, that for a beginner iT is a mer a boire. And iT is true that I read less books. I used to be a bookeater, but nowadays …
    I wish you a happy holiday after term, and hope you can indulge your , is iT the 5th sense?

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