The widening gap between the words and the smell is getting hard to take.
I write The Black Narcissus because I adore the potential of what is written on the screen to evoke the invisible olfactory sense – ungraspable and difficult to communicate linguistically- but a challenge I always enjoy, endlessly.
Yet I am also fully conscious of even my own tendency to be verbose or to reek of hyperbole at times, to want to drench myself and you in Baudelarian decadence and the dying breath of flowers (see I have already started doing it), to arouse the senses in this simultaneously overstimulated, but sensorially flat world that we find ourselves in.
I live for beauty, I understand it. But with the sheer diluvial number of new perfumes available, it seems the purveyors of these scents are not only competing for shelf space, now, but also for the sweet lies of breathiness, PR, and supposedly seductive bullshit.
Venenum Kiss, described as “opulent and poisonous” by this new fashionable niche brand who have set up shop in Paris, is a nice name for a perfume : I am all for Poison (especially if it is by Christian Dior). But if you are going to give a scent that name, you had better deliver the goods.
“Les sillages sont tonitruants..the sillages are thunderous” intones the card inserted neatly in the white, satin bag that the promotional edition of the perfume comes in.
Er, actually they are not, mon petit amour, they are subdued, boring as hell, and thoroughly, thoroughly, typical of practically any oudhish (though that note is never mentioned) modern woody oriental out there on the generally mediocre, and very deeply oversaturated, market.
“Wherever you go at night, you succumb to this same hypnotic smell. The obsessive caress of amber and suede, the velvet breath of rose and saffron…. the strong and intense feel of an electric night in the Orient”….
The lover, here, is all eyes and come to bed with me glances, but I find myself yawning and demurring and thinking about tomorrow’s breakfast.
How will I get out of this…….
In truth, Venenum Kiss isn’t at all a bad perfume per se. It is a well-blended scent with its own internal harmony; the apricottish top notes blending neatly into a rose/saffron/wood/ambered structure you have smelled a million times before, but they are well done. Some people, especially those that have never come into contact with a real perfume before, might be beguiled. In terms of texture, it is quite close to the skin and touchable, suave – and modish, certainly – if not directly kissable, but you certainly wouldn’t be poisoned by it, for god’s sake, writhing in paroxysms of agony and ecstasy as she or he derides you dismissively and slams shut the door (and there I go again).
No, you, or at least I in any case, would remain unmoved. Totally. And this has suddenly reminded me of a kiss at dawn, in Rome, I once had and that had almost forgotten.
I was at the age we are at our most (conventionally) attractive. I was twenty one, blonde (‘il biondo inglese’) and living in Testaccio, just down the road from Keats’s final resting place in the beautiful Protestant Cemetery (see my piece on Caron’s Violette Precieuse for more on that), and would be out clubbing on an almost nightly basis. Testaccio is a fascinating part of Rome – such a beautiful city; writing this is making me deeply miss it – but although the well known landmarks are equally astounding – wandering in the Foro Romano at dusk; the exquisite pleasures of the Villa Pamphili, where we would lounge about all day on the grass, drink prosecco and just talk about life, love and death; the beautiful and flower-strewn, winding streets of the ancient Trastevere area (just down the road from my apartment where I was living with three university friends), Testaccio had an appealing, grittier quality, combining ancient Roman graveness – the pyramid that St Paul saw before he was martyred part of the cemetery wall, old villas and churches, fused with the more dangerously erotic realism of night time Roman seediness: married men courting Brazilian transexual prostitutes from their cars, eh bambina, as they trotted about in their high heels and tossed back their synthetic hair, loud and feisty like something from a film by Pedro Almodovar; gay boys lounging about like lizards on the crumbling walls as night turned to day; it was all heady, and exciting, and very, very beautiful.
But I could’t get a break. Not even a kiss. I had been there for six months, and although these people are possibly the most beautiful in the world, or so they say, it just wasn’t happening. This is partly because of my extreme selectiveness: it takes a LOT for me to fall for someone, almost impossible, actually (and smell is a huge contributing factor in all of this: I am so easily turned off!) but it was also a terrible clash of tastes. My friends would try to convince me that this person or that person was gorgeous at some club or restaurant or bar, when I all I would see personally was unoriginal, well-groomed horror (fashion, and neatness is another ultimate turn off for me). Particularly when it was always just so. In that typical, commodified Italian manner: slick; narcissistic; designer. People I did like were unavailable or so shocking to my friends (what, him? Rachel would spit at me, you’ve got to be joking), and so nothing ever actually happened.
But then one night I decided just to go with the flow. Okay, I’ll go out with you, Armani model. Cheek bones, tall (another no-no for me), typically handsome in that bland and beautiful fashion model way, but absolutely what other people like, what is considered attractive (as in all likelihood Venenum Kiss probably will be).
Not me, though. I can’t remember how the evening progressed, but it probably included dancing at the Castello dell’Angelo or just hanging out in the Campo Dei Fiori drinking wine, but I do remember that the inevitable moment came as the sun came up and it was time for this chaste little English boy to go home. There was a tennis court somewhere I think, down near the river, and we were standing against the fence; and then this typical, well-defined, perfectly proportioned face came closer to mine, much to my great indifference (though half the population of the world would probably have been swooning). And, as usual, my instincts were quite right. I felt absolutely nothing.
His kiss just tasted of ashes.