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On the Scent: Difficult Pleasures

By (September 1, 2010) 5 Comments

In literature, the old, ugly battle between the difficult and the accessible rears its head with tiresome regularity.

Jonathan Franzen has been a known enemy of the difficult since publishing an essay in the September 2002 New Yorker titled “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books.” In this essay, Franzen proposes two models of fiction, a Status model and a Contract model. In the Contract model, “a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.” The model puts forth that the purpose of reading and writing is connection, hence “a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.”

Proponents of the Status model, however, believe that “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” This model asserts that a novel’s value is not in any way dependent on the number of people who read and enjoy it. To Status people, difficulty signals intelligence, integrity, and hard work—whereas accessibility suggests pandering, eagerness to please, and a lacking education, if not outright stupidity. To Contract people, difficulty smacks of self-indulgence and contempt for the reader.

There’s contentious opposition between those at the far ends of the spectrum, representing snobbery and reverse snobbery, both camps given to knee-jerk assessments and political rhetoric. When the spectrum is invoked, there is always an implied, if not overt, argument about the rightful purpose of a novel—in other words, should novels, and art in all its forms, serve to entertain us, to make us happy? Or should art challenge and disturb us? Is there an indirect, but perhaps ultimately more satisfying, pleasure in navigating the difficult and conquering the complex? Franzen takes the former view: “Difficult fiction of the kind epitomized by Gaddis seems to me more closely associated with the lower end of the digestive tract. His detractors refer to his ‘logorrhea,’ but it’s more accurate to characterize him as retentive-constipated to the point of being unreadable, sometimes even unintelligible.”

Ben Marcus responded to Franzen in a piece that appeared in Harper’s in October 2005 (fitting, since Harper’s is a less populist version of The New Yorker’s magazine-for-the-intelligent-general-reader model), titled “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it.” The title is ironic, of course; Marcus defends “experimental” literature on the grounds that language and form have as much to offer as plot and character (“literary language can also make a more abstract but no less vital entertainment—subtle, unfamiliar, less wedded to preapproved modes, but exhilarating nonetheless”) and accuses Franzen of his own brand of elitism: “The true elitists in the literary world are the ones who have become annoyed by literary ambition in any form, […] who become angry when it is suggested to them that a book with low sales might actually deserve a prize.”

The assumption from the Contract side, of course, is that it isn’t difficult to write a difficult novel. It’s a common assumption (the idea that it’s harder to write a hit pop song than a strangely beautiful melody), but a problematic one—the problem arising from the fact that we can’t evaluate what we don’t understand. And this problem isn’t unique to art; it’s very difficult to verify mathematical proofs or review scientific papers that are both novel and advanced, simply because so few people are in a position to do so. Given the probability that some art seems complex when we approach it because its form or method or structure or materials are unfamiliar—not because its creator is a willful obfuscator—it seems wise to give complexity the benefit of the doubt, until inspection proves it meaningless.

In perfume as in literature, “authors” tend to utilize a different toolset when aiming to create a commercial product versus an artistic one; when targeting a mainstream market, familiarity and urgency are key. It’s not easy to compose a best-seller, to be sure, but variations on recent top sellers are generally a safe bet. New accords—or, worse, ones reminiscent of a dated scent—are dangerous. The current top sellers on the ladies’ side of the store tend to be dominated by sweet, fruity top notes, inoffensive floral mélanges based on peony, freesia, and the like, and squeaky-clean bases of musk or patchouli. The men’s side is almost too dull to analyze, but “fresh” notes are still popular, along with woody ambers. These notes, the equivalent of “likable characters” and a quick-moving, linear plot, are easy to enjoy—that is, until they start to bore the pants off you, which is likely if you smell more than five perfumes in a year.

If you do find yourself bored silly with Light Blue and Lola and the rest of the bottles hogging prime real estate on the counter at Macy’s, many smaller houses and niche lines offer scents that are less familiar and generally more compelling. Even when these niche perfumes fail to please, they usually fail in more interesting ways (ever notice how even bad films from the ‘70s are often worth watching, whereas most recent sequels and remakes are a waste of time from any angle?). The least interesting, and perhaps most disappointing, way for a niche perfume to fail is by approximating a mainstream best-seller.

In these off-the-beaten-path perfumes (which occasionally come from mainstream houses, but aren’t given the same marketing dollars or counter space), you’ll find notes that could fairly be described as difficult, that the average person in the mall may not, at first sniff, want to smell like or smell at all: sharp notes like bergamot and lavender; the throwback, perfumey smell of aldehydes; animalic notes like civet and sweaty musks; smoky notes like birch tar; indolic white flowers with their dirty-underwear tinge.

There’s a distinct pleasure that comes from learning to appreciate a difficult perfume, one that is supplemental to the pure pleasure derived from the scent as scent. Though no less real, this pleasure has something devious about it, because it speaks from a position of superiority—if not to other people, then to one’s past selves. You taste this same pleasure the first time you appreciate a symphony, or the peatiness of a single-malt scotch. It’s a triumphant feeling—like acing a much-crammed-for test—that compounds the beauty of what you’re actually experiencing. But from the outside, and over time, this satisfaction can begin to look smug; an aesthete is always, to someone in the room, a snob.

In any case, what is considered difficult at any given time is a historical fluke. Properly camphoraceous patchouli smells to many people now like hippies and potheads, precisely due to its popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s. This is a problem of association, not some inherently difficult property the material must overcome. On the other hand, animalic materials like civet and castoreum were much more common in decades past, and simple familiarity made them more palatable.

Am I a member of the Status or the Contract school of perfumery? Neither, really—sometimes I reach for simple comfort scents, and I often like my difficult notes paired with friendlier ones (a touch of vanilla with my tobacco, say), much as I usually prefer my whiskey with a little ginger ale. But this month I’d like to focus on the difficult ones. The scents below, for one reason or another, are not poised to achieve massive sales numbers. But, I’d argue, their makers don’t ignore their “readers,” but hope to engage them on a more nuanced level than passive inhaling. And with a little effort, these scents may prove subtle and exhilarating nonetheless.

Chaos (Donna Karan)

The Donna Karan line is an interesting one to look at from this angle, because the mass-market offerings really are worse than the high-end ones. DKNY Be Delicious isn’t bad—it’s by Maurice Roucel, a sentimental favorite of mine, and is similar to his Envy for Gucci. Both are crisp, high-pitched green florals, but Be Delicious is sweeter and more overtly fruity, and accordingly feels younger and cheerier, whereas Envy has a business-meeting feel. The latest “Candy Apple” flankers are sweeter yet. Cashmere Mist, I think, smells like deodorant: “powder-fresh” musky blah. And the latest release, the “eco-conscious” Pure, is a cynical cliché: It hits all the synthetic notes that read “clean” and comes in a recyclable box (wasn’t cardboard always recyclable?). These are what you typically see at Sephora. The Donna Karan stores and some high-end department stores have a wider selection, including Gold, Black Cashmere, and several “Essences” (Labdanum, Jasmine). Even if they weren’t harder to find, the sleek black packaging would make it obvious that these are targeted to an older, more financially stable audience. Also notable is the fact that some of these have a cult following among perfume snobs, which is rare for a mainstream line.

It’s no wonder, because Chaos is intoxicating: saffron and winter-spicy top notes, reminiscent of mulled wine, over a sumptuous mixture of woods that combine to create an impression of tobacco. They’re not listed in the notes, but I also smell patchouli and labdanum. It’s similar to Sonoma Scent Studio’s Tabac Aurea, with its touch of clove, and a couple of Serge Lutens perfumes: Chergui, with its tobacco-like hay, and Fille en Aiguilles, whose pine note is oddly raisin-y. (It’s less potent than its niche cousins, however, a slight mark against it in my book.) What’s silly is that there shouldn’t be anything difficult about Chaos. It’s a sweater scent with just enough sexy edge, delicious without smelling literally like food, and would be gorgeous on either sex. At my local Barney’s, I’m told, Chergui is the best-selling scent hands down. The public really doesn’t need to be protected from stuff like this.

Cuir (Lancome)

I know Cuir is difficult because I didn’t like it at first myself. Cuir is French for leather, and I love the smell of a luggage department or the interior of a Bentley as much as the next guy, but it took some adjustment to appreciate the leather note in perfume. Initially, the top notes of bergamot and saffron, on top of the leather (birch tar) in the base, seemed sharp, almost medicinal—it reminded me of scotch, which in turn reminds me of Band-Aids. (These days, Band-Aids smell like nothing, but they used to smell strongly plasticky and antiseptic.) I thought I was crazy, but a Google search tells me I’m not the first person to think leather, both in the real world and in perfume, smells like Band-Aids—they must be treated with a similar chemical. In any case, after wearing Cuir on my skin a few times, the association disappeared. Now I think it smells utterly luxurious, like vanilla and suede, the color of caramel. It’s still slightly bitter, but softened with a marvelous, barely floral sweetness that just gets better and better the longer you wear it. I bought this from an online discounter on the strength of its reputation alone, and I’m so glad I did—despite the initial resistance, it’s now easily in my top five.

Lonestar Memories (Tauer Perfumes)

Andy Tauer, along with Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studio, is quickly becoming one of my favorite independent perfumers. Both use a high percentage of high-quality naturals, bolstered by synthetics, for optimum complexity and lasting power; both make bold, unapologetic scents with a clear vision—the goal seems always to be striking beauty, never prettiness or wearability. Lonestar Memories is a woody leather scent with very green, almost minty top notes (geranium leaf and clary sage), not sweet, but slightly camphoraceous. This mentholated aspect persists into the heart: a vividly realistic leather, like smelling a new belt or, naturally, cowboy boots. Lonestar Memories acts like an olfactory equivalent of an optical illusion—squint and it smells more like petrol or rubber, look away and it’s back to minty leather. I perceive this as a more masculine alternative to Lancome’s Cuir (not that a man couldn’t wear Cuir), drier and more rugged. However, like Cuir, it does get sweeter as the hours pass. Of course, the name and unisex marketing orientation might contribute to this manlier perception. I find the name quite amusing. I hail from West Texas, and my Lonestar state memories are indeed being triggered. Andy Tauer might be the man for the job if I’m ever rich enough to commission my dream bespoke scent: the smell of creosote and mesquite in the air at the onset of desert rain.

Hunter (MCMC Fragrances)

MCMC, based in Brooklyn, offers a small line of unisex fragrances with a bent toward natural, organic, and eco-friendly ingredients. Each scent is available in two formats, an oil-based roll-on and an alcohol-based eau de parfum spray. Hunter, which I tested in the oil, is purportedly made up of tobacco absolute, Bourbon vanilla, and fir balsam. Usually, the listed notes have little to do with the actual number or variety of materials, but it’s easy to believe that Hunter consists of just these three, because that’s exactly what it smells like. The notes make a felicitous trio thanks to their natural complexity, and to what they have in common. In a Venn diagram of scent, all three are joined by a dense sweetness; the tobacco and fir balsam share an almost chewy green smell, like forest matter made into fruit leather; vanilla and tobacco share the smoky association of a lit pipe. Charmingly, the blend is a little rough at first, almost as though you were experimenting with essential oils and happened upon this combination. But as it sits on skin, the notes marry into a smooth whole. It’s a lovely, minimalist alternative to gourmand treatments of vanilla. According to MCMC’s website, this is “best if worn with a flannel shirt”—it does conjure (false) memories of the crude but beautiful boy you met at summer camp and kissed in the woods. Hunter might be almost too precious on a man, but perfect for a guy (or a nostalgic girl).

Le Troisième Homme (Caron)

Tania Sanchez’s review of Le Troisièmme Homme in Perfumes: The Guide may go down in my memory as the most misleading of the thousands (though I haven’t smelled all the reviewed yet): “the type of beauty described poorly as androgynous, when what we mean is that it is beautiful before it is anything else […] I’ve never smelled it on a man and I wonder if I ever will: Accidents of nature are forgivable, but how many men can pull off deliberate prettiness?” Needless to say, I was expecting something feminine—or at least feminine for a masculine. In reality, it is almost laughably manly; it practically has chest hair. It opens with a big blast of anisic, almost mentholated lavender that will scare most people under 30 out of the room. At its heart, it’s an old-fashioned fougère, an accord built around lavender, oakmoss, and the warm, sweet note of coumarin that says “masculine” to almost everyone and “shaving cream” to many of them. At this stage, Le Troisièmme Homme smells like spicy soap—the spice arising from carnation, which is mostly eugenol (cloves), the soapy character accentuated with jasmine. I share this with the homme in my life, but it suits his chest much more than mine. It doesn’t have much to do with pretty, but it’s wonderful if you’ve got the balls.

Flower (Kenzo)

Difficulty is relative. Launched in 2000, Flower, like Angel, is a Sephora staple that continues to sell very well (they’re both top 10 best-sellers in France), but it seems to have as many detractors as fans. The haters say it smells like baby powder, and who wants to smell like baby powder? It’s a difficult question—I can’t say I want people to smell me and think of baby powder, but I very much enjoy smelling like Flower. How to convince people it’s so much more than that? The opening is undeniably powdery, but it’s also quite complex. There’s a clean, green, cool but bright quality like a florist’s shop, the product of hedione, a jasmine-like material which Chandler Burr has compared to “olfactory halogen light,” and cyclosal, aka cyclamen aldehyde, which smells like flower stems, cucumber, and melon. There’s also a youthful sweetness from the interplay of rose, violet, and vanilla. The effect is completely abstract, and in the absence of its name, I doubt anyone would smell this and think of flowers. (Baby powder, maybe—more for me, as lovers of difficult perfumes often say.) I first wore this on a cold day in January, and it still conjures for me the feeling of stepping from snow-scented, breath-imprinted air into a warm car. Flower ranks up there with White Linen on days when I don’t care how old (or young) I smell.

L’Ame Soeur (Divine)

Aldehydic florals, such as Chanel No. 5 and White Linen, tend to smell both old-fashioned and grown-up. They are not in their heyday; “fresh” and “young” are the keywords now—though 16 is the reference age, not six months (see above). Even people who like these scents often say they don’t want to wear them because their mother did; a friend of mine in her mid-thirties recently sniffed No. 5 Eau Premiere, a lighter, updated version of the original, and said it was “too sophisticated” for her. That’s the market we’re dealing with—sophistication isn’t a selling point. I don’t suffer from this association problem; my mother has never worn perfume. But aldehydes are nevertheless a difficult note for me. Being slightly hyperosmic to them, I often find them overwhelming—they tend to render perfumes too heavy and too sweet. L’Ame Soeur (French for “soul mate”) is sweet, but not teeth-achingly so. What’s surprising is that it comes off as quite youthful: the creamy, peachy floral accord (jasmine, rose, and ylang-ylang, a classic combo) makes me think of little girls in Renoir paintings, with their white skin and plump rosy cheeks. This is about as far over as you can get on the feminine end of the scale, but it’s all pretty innocence, devoid of sex appeal, until you get to the base—it must have some amber in it, because the drydown reminds me of the gorgeous Alahine. I can see a lot of women liking this.

Trèfle Pur (Atelier Cologne)

“Green” scents are apparently not big sellers—not sweet enough, I suppose. I’m drawn to green notes because they say “fresh” in a natural way, in a time when “fresh” often equates to sterile chemicals. Trèfle Pur (pure clover) opens with the same green snap as Diptyque’s L’Ombre dans l’Eau—cut grass, leaves and stems—but with a citrusy half (lemony cardamom and bitter orange) in place of the Diptyque’s fuchsia currant–rose, and a clean patchouli background related to Etat Libre d’Orange’s Rossy de Palma. As it dries down, a sweet, Voyage d’Hermes–like musk surfaces. I prefer the hint of darkness in L’Ombre dans l’Eau (the shadow in the water), or the beaming, gleaming geranium-rose of Rossy de Palma, but Trèfle Pur is a simple, good smell that would be great in a soap. It’s not quite complex (or original) enough to merit regular all-day wear, but would be nicely refreshing on sticky hot days.

Vanille-Tonka (Parfums de Nicolaї)

After a top note of lime, this mysteriously named perfume smells primarily not of vanilla or tonka bean (the natural source of coumarin) but of carnation. Carnation, in perfumery, translates to cinnamon and cloves—basically, pumpkin pie spice. Other critics have written that this is not a “foody” vanilla. While it’s true that, in the absence of custard and pumpkin, it’s not very dessert-like, for the first couple of hours, it’s spicy enough that I get occasional hints of mustard, pickling spices, and pepper-encrusted beef. At other moments I think of cinnamon gum; you kind of smell it in the back of your mouth. Clove has a tendency to dominate compositions as far as my nose is concerned; the problem with heavy winter spices is that I can’t help thinking of Christmas candles. But eventually, the balance tips in favor of vanilla, and it begins to smell more like cola or root beer—sweet, spicy, and abstractly brown—except warm, like a peppery mulled cider without the fruit. Interestingly, in the far dry-down the lime note seems to resurface. I prefer the smoother spice of Chaos, but true spice lovers may prefer Vanille-Tonka’s burn. It doesn’t make much sense in the summer, but I look forward to wearing it under a sweater.

L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain)

In the interest of showing there are limits to what I can wear and even appreciate, I’ve decided to include one difficult classic that I still don’t get. L’Heure Bleue is a beautiful idea—Jacques Guerlain composed it in 1912, after an evening walk in Paris, to evoke the melancholy of twilight: “the blue hour.” Its fans say it is indeed a scent for the blues; they also compare it to almond pastry. Almond pastry sounds pretty great to me, but I don’t get anything close to that for at least four hours. The top notes, which include anise seed, strike me as medicinal in a similar way to those of Cuir—sharp and sort of rubbery—but L’Heure Bleue differs from Cuir in its powderiness, an almost cough-inducing powderiness that doesn’t smell a day younger than a century. The base is lovely if I make it that far: smoky-sweet vanilla, tonka bean, and benzoin. But some days, the powder and the plastic black licorice note force me to scrub right away. To date, the only occasion to which I’ve seen fit to wear this in public was a funeral. I’ve been holding out hope that I’ll learn to love it, but I’m coming to grips with the possibility that it’s just not and never will be for me. Surprisingly, one of my best friends, who takes only a passing interesting in perfume, bought a bottle of this after taking a little tour of my collection. It seems perfect for her. She has luminous white skin and full cheeks like a baby, and nothing approaching a wrinkle, but a few silvery gray strands in her gorgeous black hair. Sometimes, when that hair is all piled on top of her head, or when I’m hugging her—she’s so thin she feels fragile—I get a glimpse of what she’ll look like as an old woman. (There’s probably some Japanese word for that, age embodied in youth.) She’s very tough and determined, so those moments of vulnerability are touching. Rare poignancy—I imagine that’s the feeling the lucky ones get when wearing L’Heure Bleue.

Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.


  • Abigail says:


    I, too, don’t get L’Heure Bleue. I’m older than you and even after all these years I still think it smells musty and incredibly dated. Your one time wearing at a funeral makes complete sense to me. I’d be sad at the funeral anyway and wearing L’Heure Bleue would surely make me more sad and want to get home to scrub the stuff off. I only appreciate Apres L’Ondee marginally more, so there’s yet another infamous classic I would never wear. And, since we’re talking ’bout big deals we don’t get you can add Chanel No. 5 as well, I dislike it, totally do not understand the big deal.

    Ah, well, I’m happy being my little contrarian self. I’m wearing Divine L’Ame Soeur this evening, which is ironic since you wrote of it in this post 🙂

  • Open Letters Monthly says:

    Hi Abigail,

    Elisa here. You can sit by me anytime — I don’t like Chanel No. 5 either! Never have. L’Ame Soeur feels like what Chanel No. 5 is supposed to smell like, maybe. But a younger, prettier version, all glowy-skinned, whereas No. 5 is kind of a mean old aunt. 🙂 Maybe someday I’ll get it, who knows …

  • Lucy says:

    Yes, there are special pleasures in the ones that develop slowly or make you work a bit and then there are times you just want to relax into olfactory beauty. Looking forward to your next article on perfume.

  • Elisa says:

    Thanks so much, Lucy! I’ll be adding your blog to my reading list.

  • Lucy says:

    O great! I am pointing out your articles to perfumista friends on FB

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