Thursday, 27 March 2014

La Note Verte, by Jean-Claude Ellena. Book Review.

La Note Verte marks perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena’s entry into the world of fiction and comes on the heels of his 2011 publication Journal d’un Parfumeur (also Sabine Wespieser). Earlier contributions to his literary oeuvre include Le Parfum (Presses Universitaires de France, 2009) and Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent (Arcade Publishing, 2007).

The perfumer-cum-writer is not an entirely unknown figure: Edmond Roudnitska, Guy Robert, Alec Lawless, to name but a few, have each at some point in their careers swapped pipette for pen (or ketones for keyboards). Understandably however, they contented themselves with expounding the technical or aesthetic aspects of perfumery and in this regard, Ellena’s novella - which spans a mere 129 pages (c.15,000 words), is, well, novel.

Ellena though, is keen to emphasise what he considers the essential similarities between the acts of literary and fragrant composition. Previously, he described himself as a 'writer of smells' (‘écrivain d’odeurs’, Journal, p.12) and here he sets out explicitly through the voice of one of his characters the notion that perfume, like verbal language, is governed by its own rules of syntax and grammar, is capable of synonymic expression and even polyvalence (p.80). As if to underscore his thesis that ever the twain shall meet (or perhaps simply following Mark Twain's apocryphal advice to ‘write what you know’) Ellena decided to set his début narrative in the world of fine fragrance.

The story itself revolves around Claude Nael who for some twenty years has been the resident perfumer at Robert Gallot - a French fashion house that found fame with its post-war classic fragrance L’Air de Paris. Claude in many respects embodies the Old School and rubs uncomfortably against iPhone culture. Yet, in contrast to his decidedly outmoded dress sense, his fragrant creations exist beyond the vicissitudes of fashion, expressing a simple, uncluttered aesthetic.

Claude's shock comes one fine afternoon when the president of Robert Gallot perfumes, the ruthless Monsieur Mazuret, cooly announces his services in respect to the house's soon-to-be-launched feminine fragrance are no longer required. Instead, the project's reigns are to be passed to a young, ambitious perfumer Nicholas Daglance, whom, it is assumed, is more au courant with the market's taste.

In the twenty, brief chapters that follow, the focus shifts more or less alternately between the outgoing and newly-appointed nez: as Nicholas attempts with ever increasing desperation to deconstruct the ultimate essai produced by his predecessor, in particular its mysterious 'green note' (the titular note verte), Claude is left to focus on more artisanal projects and reflect on the current State of the Perfumed Nation. As a reader, we are thus afforded a behind-the-scenes glimpse into an industry where fragrances are released to the whirring of competitors' GC-MS machines and facsimiles are freely produced in the absence of copyright protection.

The book's blurb assures us that 'any resemblance to persons past or present is purely co-incidental', but with such an intimate connection between author and subject, it is inevitable that real-world correspondences will be sought. Certainly, to the extent that one is familiar with the career and work of M.Ellena, one can identify parallels with his quasi-anagrammatically named character Claude Nael. La Note Verte however, makes no pretense of the fact it represent a fictitious twist on the narrator's truth; if anything, there's a measured mischievousness in its reflexive awareness.

Written in elegantly clear prose that’s tight without ever feeling pinched, Ellena’s literary work manifests the same perspicacity as has become his signature in fragrance and makes for an untaxing read. So, spritz on some Osmanthe Yunnan, brew a pot of jasmine tea (Claude would) and as the quest for la note verte unfolds, take note of which perfumer’s head you imagine on the fictional shoulders of Nicholas Daglance.

Publisher: Éditions Sabine Wespieser. 
Release date: May, 2013.
Pages: 136 + 8. 
Size: 14 x 18 cms. 
Price: 16 €.

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